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Seeing a Leopard for the first time.

My Quest to find a Leopard.

Ingwelala leopard

My family and I have been extremely fortunate to be annual guests at one of South Africa’s private game reserves for the past 20 years or so.

Ingwelala ("The place where the leopard sleeps") is a privately owned nature reserve situated approximately 65 km from Hoedspruit in the heart of the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve, and borders the unfenced Kruger National Park and Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.

Most of our trips happen in the December months due to school holidays and as most visitors to the bush will tell you this is not the ideal time to head off into the bush in Africa.

The daytime temperatures are very often in the 40s at midday and this is not always great for game viewing as every rightminded creature in Africa soon heads off to the deep shade to sleep and cool down. And that’s pretty much what we tend to do as well, either go wallow in the pool, catch long afternoon snoozes or sit on the patio in the shade drinking long ice cold beverages, oh and taking outdoor showers ,fully clothed .

Because of the heat you tend to head off early in the morning at sunrise or just before and/or you go in the late afternoon for sunset drinks and a bit of an evening game viewing drive before coming back to the bungalow for a braai for dinner.

Early to rise, perhaps we will enjoy a surprise.

On this particular trip I had made up my mind that we would make a concerted effort to spot a leopard, and not only just a fleeting glimpse as we had experienced the year before, where a few people had stopped and said there was a leopard in a tree, over there, behind that bush and if you use your binoculars and squint in a particular way ,you can just see its tail, no I wanted to spot one and maybe get a chance to just sit and watch one interacting in its environment for as long as possible.

Although this sighting of the leopards tail did turn out pretty cool when slowly and silently we were surrounded by a herd of about 30-40 elephants, a breeding herd which had a few babies within it, that ghosted up to us and calmly kept us enthralled for about an hour before moving off, just as silently. Absolutely amazing how silently these gentle Giants of Africa can move.

Back to L-Day, I had convinced everyone to wake up at 3am the following morning. We would head out, spend a few hours seeking leopard, stop at sunrise at a waterhole or viewing point, cook a big breakfast of Bacon and Eggs on the portable gas cooker, do a bit more viewing and then head back to bed to snooze away the heat of the day.

So at 3:30 am after some coffee and rusks we set off in Sally the Landrover, a really grand old lady that did great service to us in her time. Swaddled in blankets and beanies, it gets really chilly in the early hours, we drove off through the camp turned left to cross the dry river bed which divides the camp, put the landy into 4x4 and drove slowly up the road out of the river bed, we then stopped to change out of 4x4.

And as we sat chatting quietly the most amazing thing happened, all talking suddenly stopped, heads slowly turned and there to our right and slightly behind us, the most beautiful female Leopard slowly walked behind us. Amazing, we were still in camp, (there are no fences to keep game out so you have to always be aware of your surrounds,) and here padding slowly across the bush road was the Leopard I had dreamed of seeing. She walked in that graceful yet powerful and alert style that the cat family has, confident of whom she was-at that moment- the Queen of her territory

Reaching a tree next to the road, about 5m-8m away, she slowly started rubbing her back, face and sides against it, enjoying a good old bush massage. Then she lay down and watched us all for a while.

You must realise that when you are sitting in an open Landy with no doors or roof, you tend to feel a little bit vulnerable while observing one of the Apex predators of the Africa no more than 5-8m away from you. You can hear her breath, her soft grunting and the licking as she groom’s that perfect pelt.

After about 10mins, although time seemed to stand still, she slowly sat up, stretched up the trunk of the tree, clawed it as cats do with a bit of a low throaty growl and then her ears pricked up and suddenly she seemed to become more alert and “switched on”, and then with a last look at us she slowly padded away and melted into the surrounding bush.

After watching her disappear out of sight, there was a moment of silence as we all reflected on the amazing sighting we had just experienced together and then the chatter started, “ Oh wow, bleep, how muckingafazing was that” “What a great reward for getting up so early” “Geez, she was beautiful” and on and on, everyone expressing their joy at seeing one of the Big Five.

Having accomplished our main mission we set off on the next part, a slow bush drive to find a nice watering hole where we could watch the sun rise, have a cup of coffee and cook up a sumptuous breakfast. After meandering slowly through the bush for a while, we stopped at one of the many water holes and silently watched the sun rise, everyone quiet, just enjoying the moment and that feeling of being alive in the African Bush

"It's only flat on the bottom."

Actually the silence was perhaps a Godsend because if everyone had been chatting, we probably would not have heard the hissing sound at the back right of Sally the Landy. Looking over the side I could see that the back tyre was looking a tad flatter on the bottom than the top and mentioned this to the driver, my brother. So all the men climbed out and stood looking at it for a while and then with confidence we all announced that “We have a puncture” and at the same time realised that the spare tyre that goes on the bonnet of Sally the Landy actually wasn’t on the bonnet, but back at camp.

Now back then there were no radios with which one could call for assistance, so, forgoing breakfast ,we decided to take a slow drive back to camp which was not too far, thank goodness.

Along the way the weather suddenly changed, the wind came up, storm clouds started gathering and before we knew it the rain started lashing down. Sally the Landy has a wooden deck on top of it, which, being great for relaxing on and doing a bit of game viewing, is no substitute for a roof in the rain and with no doors or sides we were all soon soaking wet. Now at midday that would have been a great cool down, but at sunrise it was flippin’ freezing and soon the only sound to be heard was teeth chattering as we froze in the rain and wind as we pushed on through to get to camp and a hot shower and that breakfast we were all keen on.

Then all of a sudden smoke started billowing out of the dashboard of Sally the Landy, thick, acrid smoke that made driving impossible, so sliding to a stop in the mud and rain, 8 adults- (here you must try and evoke a mental image) - were diving out of the vehicle, the fear of being cooked in fire overriding the fact that we were still in the bush, home to the Big Five and a few other creatures that wouldn’t mind sampling some easy prey.

We soon worked out that it was only the wiring for the hand held spotlights that had been lying in a pool of water on the dashboard that were shorting and being no big issue we all climbed aboard and slowly limped back into camp.

Back at the bungalow there was nearly a small riot as everyone tried to get to the hot shower first, only to see smiles fade when we realised that the gas to heat the water was, yup you guessed it,…finished.

There was nothing else to do but towel down, change into some warm dry clothes and slide into our beds.

But hey, trials and tribulations apart, we had spotted a Leopard and had had the privilege of sitting and observing this beautiful creature in the natural beauty of the African Bush.

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