What I love about the bush is the unexpected surprises…. You can spend 5 hours driving through the veld seeing very little, and then something amazing can happen just when you thought the day was lost. A couple of weeks ago, the Leopard ID Project was due to spend a few nights in the Greater Kruger National Park and instead of using the national roads, we decided to travel up through the Kruger Park. Despite that fact that the drive from Phabeni gate to Orpen is beautiful, we saw very few animals and by the time we arrived at Orpen gate, 5 hours had passed without great incident. As we approached the gate, we stopped to view a herd of buffalo deep in the undergrowth. 5 minutes later we continued our trip, resigned to the fact that no cats would be seen this time. 200 meters up the road however, lay a huge male leopard. Completely relaxed with our presence, this feline masterpiece seemed to have been in a recent fight as he supported a serious limp, a broken canine and a puncture mark through his tongue. What had transpired we will never know but his injuries did not seem too severe and we are optimistic he will recover in due course.
The leopard watched us casually, indifferent to the fact that he was in our path. After a few minutes of posing, he limped off to the side of the road, enjoyed a yawn which showcased his oral injuries and started off down the road, scent marking as he went. After perhaps 100 meters he melted into the thatching grass and out of view. Disappointing but a great reward and a reminder that the bush follows not set rules or patterns!
The few days spent in the reserve were some of my best spent in the bush to date. After years of working in the more commercial private reserves, where leopard sightings are expected as opposed to hoped for, it was a real treat to be immersed in such a wild and untouched area. It is strange to think that the Kruger National Park is bordering our reserve, yet the land has lost none of its remote charm. It really is a jewel in the greater Kruger’s crown and to be honest I don’t want to sing its praises further in case this article inspires too many tourists to visit!
Our first night’s dinner was interrupted by a commotion form behind the kitchen. One of the chefs had walked into a male leopard by the back door! We abandoned the remainder of food and leapt into the game viewer to try to catch a glimpse of our uninvited dinner guest. After about 15mins of bush detective work, the calls of the agitated vervet monkeys led us to the leopard known as Rhulani. He is one of 2 resident males within this area and his habituation levels afforded us a great, if brief, view of him as he marched through a drainage line. Unfortunately none of us were armed with cameras but it was a different experience to just sit quietly and enjoy the experience instead of frantically trying to get a usable ID photo!
Rhulani has been having a territorial spat with his competitor, known as the Beacon / Russel male (Different from the other male we saw earlier that day) for a few months now so we were hoping to capture this interaction. Unfortunately they seemed to be giving each other a wide berth for now but one afternoon a call came in that a dead impala ram had been spotted. All of the evidence pointed to demise by leopard, but no offender could be found. Leopards are creatures of the night however and later that evening, we were lucky enough to find the Beacon male enjoying his spoils. He did not seem too happy to share his intimate meal for one however and after voicing his disapproval of being viewed we left him be. We did check in on him the following day but he was lying up in very long grass in an inaccessible area…
On our last night, we were going to be camping out in tents in a drainage line to get the full bush experience. There is nothing more magical that falling asleep listening to the distant whoop of a hyena or the bassy rumblings of a roaring lion! We pitched tents prior to our afternoon drive and returned after dark to start the fire and enjoy a traditional braai. However, as people started to get the fire going, we were alerted to a strange whining noise coming from the dense undergrowth a mere 2 meters from the tents. As we listened, the source of the noise become increasingly obvious and our heart beats rose in tandem. The noise was unmistakable…. A tiny leopard cub must have been left by its mother in the tangled vegetation and was giving out multiple distress calls due to our presence!! Upon realization of this, we quickly boarded the game viewer and abandoned the evening. We were incredibly lucky that the mother must have been away hunting at that point otherwise we would have been dealt a swift (and probably fatal!) lesson in maternal protective instinct!!!!
It was a shame to not be able to sleep out but the dangers of doing so would have been far too great, not to mention the ethical considerations of the proximity to what sounded like a leopard cub of mere weeks old! It was a stark reminder that anything can happen at any moment and we are all grateful that the bush gods caused the mother to be elsewhere during our set up! Another fantastic experience none the less and we all agreed that the reasons behind us not being able to sleep out were far more spectacular than the sleep out itself promised to be!
Text by Ben Coley
Photos byt Ben Coley and Guy Ellis