Friday, October 21, 2011

The Day I Saw A Leopard

(Photo by Maclaren Safaris)

The word "safari" is overused and misused by almost everyone other than the people who speak Swahili because in Swahili "safari" means "journey." As far as speakers of Swahili are concerned going to the grocery store is a safari. It has nothing to do with bouncing around in the back of a truck peering over endless miles of African savanna grasslands looking for fantastic mammals. However it sounds cool when you say safari just the same.

So, on my safari to southern Africa I spent the first seven days or so in the incomparable Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. Kruger borders on Zimbabwe and Mozambique and extends south for about 350 km. At about 2 million hectares it is the largest and most visited national park in South Africa. 2 million hectares converts to about 7,000 square miles or slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Its a huge patch of habitat and being there makes you feel like you are in an endless lab experiment for Steve Goddard's Wildlife Biology 440 class in college.

While in Kruger as in any other natural area in South Africa one of the objectives is to see "The Big 5", namely African Elephant, African Buffalo, Wide-lipped (White) Rhinoceros, Lion, and Leopard. Some people call them "The Big 5" because they are dangerous. However if that was the case then Hippopotamus should be added to the list as should Great White Shark. And while watching a Spotted Hyena one day I had the chilling fear come over me of it snarling as it ripped my testicles off so maybe Spotted Hyena should be included. And for that matter, as far as dangerous is concerned the Puff Adder and the Black Mamba certainly need to be on the list. Maybe to be more accurate "the Big 5" should be renamed "African Animals to Never Piss Off" and leave the number out of it.

On my first day in Kruger I easily saw African elephant which was almost everywhere in northern Kruger (and the subject of a later post). Because of an anthrax outbreak the population of African buffalo had been substantially knocked back however I saw them on my second day. On the fourth day I found both Lion (38 of them!) and one Wide-lipped Rhinoceros. I had four of the Big Five under my belt.

I spent my last night at the Skukuza Rest Camp in Kruger. As with all rest camps it is surrounded by a fence and the top of the fence is heavily electrified to keep out dangerous animals. The front gate to each of the camps is closed and locked at 6:00 p.m. and remains closed and locked until 6:00 a.m. This is another precaution to keep people safe from the Big Five. That proposal works most of the time however a couple of years ago a woman who was staying at Skukuza went for an early morning run near the Lower Sabie River. As she passed near the boundary fence a Leopard leaped over the fence, attacked and killed her, and then bounded back over the fence and disappeared. I was told this story after I stayed at Skukuza.

On my last full day in Kruger I left camp early and drove along the Sabie River looking for whatever mammals and birds I could find. By now I wasn't even paying attention to Impala any longer and I had developed a "ho-hum" attitude about African elephants. Savanna baboons where out along the road and a group of four Southern Ground Hornbills put in an appearance. Other than that there was nothing exciting to see.

Until I was four kilometers north of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp. There, at about 9:00 in the morning, I encountered a traffic jam - at least by Kruger standards it was a traffic jam. I stopped my car and jockeyed for position trying to see whatever all the others were seeing. I noticed that all eyes were trained on the branches of a massive sycamore fig tree so I knew it wasn't another elephant observation.

Finally after peering around for several minutes I saw what everyone else was seeing. A leopard. It was sleeping on a lower branch of the sycamore fig. A British woman in the car next to me had herself parked in a way that blocked my view. As I swore at her under my breath for blocking my view, I rolled down the windows in my rental car on the off-chance that I was able to get a clear picture of the Leopard. As I looked at it, one head suddenly became two as a second leopard stuck its head up. I guess the old adage about when it rains it pours holds true. I hadn't seen any leopards and now on my last day, my last chance, I saw two of them.

The leopard closest to me had a massive neck. I guess it needs that if its going to take down and kill an African buffalo. A chill settled over me as I realized how close I was (30 meters) from the cat and how easily it could turn me into a snack if it wanted. Still, the windows remained down just the same.

After maybe 10 minutes of watching the cats, one of them decided it was time to get up, stretch its legs, and go for a stroll to work off some of last night's dinner. As it leaped down from the tree the second leopard followed. Although not as massive as the first one it was still a heart-stopper to see.

The leopards walked maybe 10 meters north of their resting spot in the tree and then turned west and walked straight at me.

This is the larger of the two leopards - walking directly toward me

My heart was racing as I tried to decide if I should roll up the window and protect myself from being leopard lunch or take the chance on keeping the window rolled down so I could have a clear view if the leopard decided to come closer. I kept the window down and the leopard walked closer.

At this point the leopard is 5 feet (1.7 meters) from me

I remember once in Churchill Manitoba looking at beluga whales from a boat in the mouth of the Churchill River. With my then 3 year old oldest daughter on my right knee we took pictures of belugas from so close that one picture is just of a whale eye. Later, after looking at this picture, I through back to that frigid day in the Canadian Arctic and remembered that I was much safer five feet from a whale!

The leopard is walking away from me now

It crossed directly in front of the hood of my rental car and then passed over the road toward the veld on the other side. The picture above was taken as it was walking just to my right.

Leopard disappearing into the veld

I snapped the picture above and one other as the leopards disappeared into the scrub forest on the other side of the road. It wasn't until now that it finally sunk into my head just how dangerous it was (and how stupid I was) to sit there with my windows down hoping that the cats would put on a show. Now, safely inside the walls of my home, however, I can reflect back and I'm glad I did it - for the story I could tell if nothing else.

My heart was still racing a mile a second as the leopards disappeared and the thrill of what I had just seen sunk in. As the adrenalin rush subsided I also realized that I needed to get to the bathroom fast! However in Kruger you don't get out of your car for fear of a 800 Rand ($110 US) fine. I just waited.

Leaving the leopard tree I drove south about 1 km and came onto another traffic jam. This was for a lion snoozing on a rock next to the road. After the leopard sighting a minute ago I took on a snobbish view of "just" a lion and continued my drive south.

I continued south 3 km to the entrance of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp where I stopped for breakfast and to use the facilities. While munching on breakfast and watching hippopotamuses in the Sabie River, a couple from Canada I met my first night in South Africa strolled into the open air restaurant. I had not seen them since the morning I was driven to the Johannesburg airport to pick up my Avis rental car. We chatted briefly and compared notes on what we had seen. The topic quickly turned to the leopards just 4 km up the road. The husband of this pair asked me "did you see that lucky son-of-a-bitch in the red car who had the leopard walk right in front of him?"

I just smiled, pulled my camera out of my day pack, turned it on and showed them the pictures. "You mean the leopard that was this close to him," I asked.

It was a huge rush getting to see the Big 5 and not everyone gets to. However later at Crocodile Bridge gate, the sothernmost entrance gate to the park, I met a couple from Komatipoort who were trying to see the Big 5 in a day for the FIFTH time that month! Still for me it was a superb way to end my time in Kruger and among the Five I now think that leopard is the biggest of them all.

Crocodile Bridge Gate - the southernmost entrance gate to Kruger National Park

The instant you leave Kruger National Park at Crocodile Bridge Gate reality sets in as the wildlife-filled habitat is quickly and permanently converted to endless sugar cane and way too many people.

Many people I talked to in and out of Kruger told me that the best mammal watching is in the southern quarter of the park. And, with the exception of the one Wide-lipped Rhinoceros I saw, all of the Big 5 were seen in the southern quarter of the park. In fact the last large mammal I saw in Kruger was a group of four African elephants ripped the stuffing out of a massive tree along the road just 1 km north of Crocodile Bridge gate.

Birding and mammal watching in Kruger was one of the high points of my biological life and seeing the Big 5 was at the pinnacle of that high point. However the rush I got from being eye to eye with a leopard is something that I will never ever forget.