Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 10, 2009 - Kruger National Park, South Africa

Talk about wish fulfillment. Last year, while visiting friends in Washington D.C., we saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian that fired our desire to go on safari in Africa. It was a very lifelike model of a leopard in a tree with a kill. We looked up at it and said "I wanna see that." We didn't realize what a big ask that would be.

In the wild, leopards are among the hardest of the cats to spot. They hunt at night. During the day, they rest in trees or in tall grasses. Seeing a leopard with a kill is even more unlikely. At Yala in Sri Lanka, we didn't have any luck spotting a leopard. In South Africa, it took us 3 days in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi to see one. But here in the southern section of Kruger National Park, we have had the most unbelievable luck spotting leopards.

Our first afternoon in the park we were driving along and came across three cars parked on the side of the road. We pulled up behind them, but couldn't see anything in the dense bush. So we rolled forward. At the front of the line of cars, we pulled back over to the side of the road. I scanned deep into the bush with the "close lookers". And there she was; a big, beautiful leopard. Sten had just enough time to focus his camera and get a shot off before she got up and stalked off.

The following morning we were driving along the S28 south of Lower Sabie camp. We were seeing lots of game, including dozens of elephants, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, rhinos, and baboons, but no cats. We had come nearly to the end of the road when a pickup truck passed us, slowed down, and stopped to ask what we were looking at. We chatted for a minute then asked if they had seen any cheetahs or leopards. The driver responded that they had, just a few kilometers back. Sten swung the car around and headed back the way we had come. There, deep in a tree just 30 meters back from the road was a leopard. Even if we hadn't seen it this time, we would have picked up the road spoor - tire tracks showing where others had pulled over.

As we sat there, looking at her gorgeous coat, several other cars pulled up. The word was out. Soon we were in the middle of a classic Kruger traffic jam as a dozen cars parked all over the road, trying for the best angle, blocking the flow of traffic. We could see why this section of the park is called "the circus." Eventually, the leopard had enough of the commotion, jumped down out of the tree, and stalked off, looking decidedly grumpy.

A few hours later, we drove back by the tree to see if she had returned. We were in luck. Not only was she back, but she had brought dinner with her. A small antelope hung draped over a branch of the tree. As we watched, through a decidedly obscured view, we could see her head shaking back and forth as she ripped at the flesh of the antelope. It was getting late and the crowd thinned enough for us to get a good angle into the tree. We could have watched her for hours, but we had to get back to our lodging at Lower Sabie before the camp gates closed.

A leopard guarding her dinner - the small dukier draped over the branch between her legs

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