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Saturday, 23 June 2007

Spotting a Leopard on Safari?

Written by Paul Lalonde
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south africaFor the first three days of our safari tour, she has eluded us. Our host, Corbis, offers a simple explanation: as one of Africa's stealthiest animals, the leopard can choose whether she'll be seen. He cautions us not to get discouraged, insisting she's always around you, sitting in the tall grass along the road, or high in a tree, lazing on a branch. He urges us to keep looking, saying that at any moment, without warning, you could find yourself facing her.

 

With Corbis's assurances, my wife Christa and I are entering our final day on game safari. We are optimistic that we'll round out our sightings of the "Big Five,” those animals the big-game hunters regard as the most deadly: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard. We learned to list them the moment we arrived in the Greater Kruger Park Area three days ago.

 

Returning from our initial game drive that day, we adopted our mantra: "We've seen four." We've repeated that mantra for nearly 72 hours now, setting out each day, confident we'd return with our chests puffed out, proclaiming, "We've seen all five!"

 

Not yet, however. We're stuck at four. Hearing Corbis talk about the Big Five, we begin to understand why. "Lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalos – they rely on size and strength," he explains. "But the leopard," he says, his eyes twinkling with admiration, "She's a stalker, and a real efficient killer."

 

Our final day begins with an early morning walk. Our guide is Abel, a Shangaani man from a nearby village. "This area is fenced-in," says Abel. "But no problem for da leopahd. She climb over or dig under." Christa's head swivels toward me. Uh-oh, I'd seen that face before. Like the moment we arrived at our guesthouse in Johannesburg, one of Africa’s largest and most crime-ridden cities. I spent that evening begging her to understand that the guesthouse's website photos were taken from inside the compound. How could I have known the place was actually a mini-fortress with an imposing system of barricades? "And it's not that bad," I insisted. "Look at how the barbed wire forms a garden trellis. That's a nice touch." I was desperate.

 

Luckily, we only booked one night, so she started breathing the next day when the safari van took us more than six hours away to the lodge. I thought a reminder might calm this morning's anxieties. "Hey, we're survivors! We survived Jo'burg, didn't we?" She didn't seem convinced.

 


 

Abel ran to my rescue. "No fear, my friends. I promise you this – da leopahd come out only at dusk!" Ah, good news. It seems doubtful we'll encounter any hungry predators on our walk, and tonight's game drive seems the perfect opportunity to spot the leopard, from the safety of a large Land Cruiser, of course. Things were looking up.

 

lodgeThe mid-day heat forced me to seek relief in the lodge's pool. Lounging in the water, I reflected on my conversation with Corbis. Why does he call the leopard 'she'? And how is she "efficient?" If he said "effective," perhaps I'd imagine the leopard beating its prey about the head, or grabbing the poor thing by the throat and throttling it. But "efficient?" To me, efficient implies patience, planning, and above all, brains. Despite our earlier trepidation, I feel I've got to see this.

 

But time is running out because tomorrow we're leaving. Our game driver Gerritt knows the score. That's why he and his tracker Lawrence have promised to take us out with singular purpose tonight.

 

It's time to go. At mid-afternoon we change out of our swimsuits, ready our cameras and binoculars, and settle into the Land Cruiser.

 

"Let's find the leopard," Gerritt says, starting the engine. Lawrence lays his rifle on the dashboard and the truck sprays red dust in our wake as we leave the lodge behind.

 

A couple hours later we've covered a lot of ground, encountering giraffes, zebras, elephants, wildebeests, buffalo and ostriches, but no leopard. Daylight is waning, and I can tell Gerritt wants to pull out all the stops. Without warning, he swerves off the road, ripping back brush as he pushes forward. He leans back to talk above the thud of branches snapping against the hood. "We'll have our drinks later. We'll use the remaining light to keep looking."

 


 

By drinks he means the "sundowner," the safari version of happy hour. This nightly tradition brings a little bit of civilization to the wild savannah. Our hosts set up a table with a white tablecloth, and guests enjoy cocktails as the sun sets over the mountains. For me, those moments capture the true mystery of Africa.

 

But tonight's sundowner must wait, because right now we're chasing a different African mystery. Gerritt drives us further into the bush, pushing deeper into the leopard's domain. When he accelerates over a small tree, it cracks loudly under our three tons of steel. It feels like we've kicked in the leopard's door.

 

Lawrence believes we're close. "She was spotted here this morning," he says. "We didn't see her tracks on the roads, so she's probably still here."

 

After announcing our presence with a wallop, it's time to crouch low and wait. Gerritt turns off the engine and we roll to a stop. Like Lawrence, I move my head up and down, my eyes probing low in the grass and high in the trees. In the silence, I imagine I'll be the one who spots her first, proving myself more than just another tourist. In my mind, our African tracker slaps me on the back, exclaiming that, like the leopard, I am a living example of the skill, patience, and brains it takes to survive in the wild.

 

sunsetBut it never happens. Not for me, nor for any of us. Dusk is turning to night, and we can search no longer. Gerritt starts the engine and steers onto the road. Moving quickly now, hurrying to catch the final moments of sunset.

 


 

Standing in a clearing, we sip South African wine from silver goblets. The sun glows red over the mountaintops; soon it will disappear until dawn. "Four out of five isn't bad," I say to Christa. I suppose I'm just consoling myself.elephant

 

Gerritt shakes his head. "She was there," he groans, "She just didn't want to be seen."

 

A cool rain lulls us to sleep that night, and unlike the previous three mornings, we emerge from our cabin in cotton pants and nylon jackets instead of safari shorts and vests. The rain continues falling, so we sit on the lodge's veranda, sipping Rooibos tea, and waiting for the airport van. I flip through Corbis's photo album. There she is – the leopard –staring at me from the page below. "You're a sly one, aren't you?" I whisper.

 

Hearing me, Corbis nods in agreement. We grin at each other. Probably because we know she's grinning too.

 

 

Details: The trip was a private 4-day African wildlife safari at Bundu Lodge, http://www.bundusafaris.com/, Greater Kruger National Park Area, South Africa.

 

© Paul Lalonde

 

 

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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