We were sitting with a large herd of buffalo on our eastern boundary, just south of our north-east corner. Impala were alarming nearby, slightly west of us, but in the middle of the rutting season, the territorial calls of the males as they chase each other round and vie for the right to mate with females can often be confused with alarm calls. It takes a keen ear to appreciate the difference, but in this case, we were convinced that the impala had seen something. We had only just arrived at the buffalo herd and it was a really beautiful sighting with the dawn light just touching their backs, so ranger Melvin Sambo and tracker Milton Khoza who were just ahead of us and who had been with the buffalo for some time, said that they would go and investigate while we stayed with the bovines.
Barely five minutes later Melvin’s voice came softly over the radio that they had found a female leopard and her cub moving along the northern boundary. Even with his voice lowered, I could hear the excitement in it, and so we quickly forgot about the buffalo and moved towards Melvin’s position.
Now, our northeastern section does not have many roads. It is a difficult area to track in, and sightings of big game, particularly the cats, are uncommon. However, it is for this reason exactly that I find the area so appealing. It is here that the Styx pride is most likely to be found, or an unknown leopard, or the 5:5 male who still patrols on Londolozi from time to time. If you DO find something, it will almost certainly be an unusual sighting, or at least one of an animal not often viewed, and you will most likely have at the most one other vehicle there with you.
We had decided to drive along our boundary purely for the high risk/high reward factor, and after finding the buffalo we were happy with the gamble. But the area was only just getting started.
Not knowing who the female leopard was, or how old the cub was that Melvin had just seen, we approached cautiously in case it was still very young and not relaxed around vehicles.
Slowly freewheeling down the hill to where Melvin was parked, we caught our first glimpse of the female leopard, standing just off the track in the grass, calling to her cub.
She moved off a good 50m, stopping all the time to turn and call, and we held our collective breaths as we awaited our first sight of the cub. Eagle-eyed tracker Mike Sithole, who spots anything way before the rest of the vehicle, suddenly pointed out a very small shape moving through the dew-laden grass a short distance behind it’s mother.
The cub was tiny! Probably only around 3 months old, it was still nervous of vehicles, and it had probably been taken on very few excursions by the female, who we had by now identified as the Campbell Koppies 2:2 young female leopard.
We followed at a distance, with the cub trotting along next to its mother, stealing an occasional glance behind it to make sure we were not coming too close.
It was incredibly special to see such a diminutive little animal for the first time, even from afar.
The female stayed on the sandy track for a long time, relatively content to let us follow them for awhile, until after what was probably almost a kilometre, she decided to move off the track and into the thickets. We lost sight of them as they moved through the undergrowth, but our hearts were still beating fast for the rest of the morning, knowing what a special thing we had just witnessed…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell