Individually recalling the past, we are flooded with specific memories of times, places, events and their characters. Our memory, whether vivid or vague, produces amazingly powerful emotions and re-emerging thoughts to an otherwise linear progression through life. By either reminiscing on the past or unintentionally stumbling into something which sparks a moment in you own history, you can be tossed into briefly reliving a previous time in your life and all of the feelings that come with it.
Of course memory cannot fully recreate that moment in the past, but often the most important parts of the experience are captured and stored somehow, somewhere in the subconscious. Humouring myself, I understand that a memory, particularly from a long time ago, may differ from the actual happenings at the time but the essence of what was felt remains and may even strengthen or grows as that memory ages.
I will never forget seeing my first leopard… Well, in actual fact, I hardly remember seeing my first leopard. But I could hardly forget its impact, if that makes sense?
I was only about six years old and on a family holiday in a quiet area of bushveld wilderness, a fairly common type of getaway destination for most city families with an inkling for wildlife (or, “the bush” to many South Africans). It was an easy lodging reserve with no electricity or perimeter fencing and saw lots of general wildlife moving through the area. Only very seldom did anyone there see lions or any other predators and any sighting of elephant, buffalo or rhino was huge news. This one visit produced my first leopard, though, and the only one seen by me or my family for many years after that.
From what I do remember it was after sunset, and someone nearby spotted it and announced the anomaly on the radio which sent everyone and everything into chaos. Within a few minutes we arrived to a waterhole with several other vehicles, scanning with spot lights for what I never quite understood just yet. The figure soon emerged after a drink of water and casually slipped into an adjacent thicket and vanished from my eyes forever. I don’t even know if this was a male or female, a young or old leopard, nomadic, dominant, with cubs, on the run, full-bellied, injured… nothing. Nothing was relevant! This was a leopard; an animal I had only ever heard about. We might’ve watched it for five minutes, or it may have been the glimpse I remember, but either way I vividly recall a flood of amazement and awe followed by an uncontrollable pump of adrenaline and euphoria, especially in a vehicle of family members with a contagious buzz of elation.
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
That was my personal rush. That was my descry into natural beauty; my revelation of wildlife. That was my first leopard sighting in the wilds of Africa and mine to keep, and certainly was what contributed to my path through life, no matter how slightly. Although I am privileged to see, follow and often spend almost undeserved, intimate time with these impressive animals during my time here at Londolozi, I cannot ever have a first sighting of a leopard again. I can, however, re-live that moment with a lot of you.
Among many other rewards of guiding is the opportunity to be a part of that first sighting; sharing in that moment of discovery and awe. Out of all of the joys in my job (which there are many) my utmost favourite is the chance to contribute to someone else’s first sighting of something they have desired to see. From a leopard to a male lion, sometimes a massive rhino or tall giraffe or even a rare bird, these moments of achievement are once in a lifetime and I know that feeling. I remember that rush and I acknowledge that momentousness. And if it is reached, I am immediately cast back to those emotions I felt at a young age and can therefore share in the excitement at present.
Recently, I could relate to this feeling on a deeper level as we found lions early one morning. As a first sighting for most, excitement and disbelief on the vehicle meant that sought after feeling had already been achieved and shared, but then a spark of nostalgia was forced onto me. Being a prominent pride close to camp, the Tsalala Pride had formed a significant part of my more than three years at Londolozi and I had many memories involving them.
During winter 2014 I experienced a very special moment after recently buying my first camera and then having an incredible photographic opportunity first thing in the morning with the Tsalala Pride and their cubs walking down off the airstrip and into the misty landscape below; a moment I have never forgotten and a photograph that still stretches across my laptop screen and up on my wall above my bed.
And so when the lions we saw recently were the Tsalala pride and current cubs, and they made their way up to the airstrip, I had no choice but to realise the added beauty in the occasion. With a lump in my throat I sat and enjoyed the lions moving about so elegantly, playfully and without knowledge of how significant they were to me in that moment. The success of a pride and its legacy in an area I completely stole for myself, for just a moment.
That sighting lifted me back to that amazing winter’s morning in 2014, it reaffirmed an appreciation for the characters and figures around me, it further humbled my respect for the vulnerability of a moment in time and it sent me hurtling back into that feeling I got at age six seeing my first leopard. It was my souvenir sighting.