After spending three decades in the bush, I find that certain experiences hang from my wall of memories like priceless masterpieces. One such experience took place when I was leading a wilderness trail in the far northern region of the Kruger National Park. It was early in the morning, and I was leading my group on the northern bank of the Levubu River, close to the Mutale River confluence.
It was one of those postcard days where the sun was shining through the large Nyala, Jackal- Berry and Matumi trees, creating golden rays that danced on the clear river. The water slid silently through the deep pools, then cascaded over smooth rocks making delightful bubbling sounds, while sunlight was reflected on its surface like shards of crystal.
I was walking with a group of keen birders who were hoping to see the elusive Pels Fishing Owl, or maybe a Narina Trogon. We were on a well-worn game trail weaving its way through the rocks on the river bank, when, about 100 metres ahead, the movement of something small and white caught my eye. To my astonishment, I realised that there was a full-grown male leopard walking on the path towards us. It was clear that he was not aware of our presence, and I indicated that the trail group should crouch down immediately. I lifted my binoculars, and the sight of this magnificent creature flowing like liquid gold towards us through the sunbeams, so perfectly camouflaged in the dappled light, was one of those bite-the-backof- your-hand beautiful moments.
I had never seen anything so magnificent. In those surroundings, it was as if time had stood still and the events before me were a manifestation of nature’s best offering. The leopard stopped to sniff a small bush and then turned to scent-mark, lifting his tail high up and spraying urine onto the bush. When I saw the white of the tip of his tail swishing through the air, I realised that it must have been this movement that had first caught my eye.
Everyone was frozen to the spot, not moving a muscle, and utterly transfixed by the scene in front of them. Suddenly, the peace was shattered when the leopard started its territorial call – like the sound made when sawing coarse wood – with his thick neck extended and the grunts coming from deep within. He continued walking towards us, with a swagger that comes only from supreme confidence in one’s ability. When he was approximately 30 metres away, the leopard stopped dead in his tracks, glanced in our direction, and then simply disappeared. We had witnessed a scene from nature that had left us all speechless. Nobody had even chanced a photo; we’d all just soaked in the moment and the glory of it all.
The leopard had been so intent on his territorial marking and vocalising, that − with the wind in our favour, the sound of the river masking all sounds and the dancing dappled light – we’d been hidden in the bush tapestry. By crouching low among the rocks, we’d been hidden from the leopard until he had come a lot closer. Later on, on reflection, we all realised how privileged we’d been to be part of that moment.
The Prince of Predators has this effect on people, and always leaves a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to witness one in its natural habitat. The fact that we were on foot, and not viewing the leopard from a vehicle, made it extra-special.
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