Some sightings are just too beautiful not to post. Not all sightings in the bush need to be drama and action and high intensity in order to leave you stimulated, speechless, or make you pulse elevate until you can hear your own heart beating. Sure, lions hunting buffalo or the thrill of a wild dog chase are just made for the stuff of great stories, but the simple beauty of the bond between a mother leopard and her cub while they enjoy the afternoon together can be pure magic.
I use the word magic a lot out here, but there is something intangible about the bush that cannot be expressed in words or captured in a photograph. It is a stimulation of all the senses at once, sometimes on a subconscious level, that can fill your heart to the brim or leave it feeling hollow and empty when you depart.
Recently some guests arrived from a reserve further north of us, and the one thing they wanted to see was a leopard cub. Leopard cubs are difficult little things to find at the best of times as they are kept so well hidden by their mothers, so I was very honest when I told them it was a tall order, but we would try our hardest.
The day after they arrived I was on my way to the airstrip just after lunch to drop off another set of guests, when tracker Judas Ngomane, on his way down from a pick-up at the airstrip, stopped to tell us that they had just passed a female leopard further down the road. Hurrying up the hill, we soon spied the unmistakeable form of a leopard’s head poking up from the long grass at the base of a termite mound, watching a herd of impala on a distant clearing.
Recognising the leopard as the Mashaba female, who currently has a cub of around 9 months, I knew this would be the best chance we had to see a cub, but having to return to the lodge after my drop-off to prepare for game drive there was no way to stay with the female or guarantee we would find her again a couple of hours later.
Enter the trainee rangers.
Londolozi’s main pre-requisite in the rangers they employ is that they have immense passion for the bush, and as a result any ranger on his or her day(s) off can usually be found prowling around in the bush anyway, taking photographs, tracking, or just taking great pleasure in immersing themselves in the environment that they live and work in.
It was early afternoon – down time for staff and animals alike – but a quick radio call back to camp got the current crop of trainee rangers eagerly bundling into a Land Rover to come and sit with the Mashaba female, following her movements until we could make it back out with our guests.
By the time we had left camp once more, the female had met up with her cub and was steadily moving towards the airstrip and its surrounding clearings.
We arrived just as the pair headed into a thicket, but it wasn’t long before both had emerged onto the short hippo-grazed grass in the late-afternoon sun, treating us to the most amazing sighting as they pounced on each other, harassed wildebeest, and provided the most amazing photographic opportunities for all who were there.
It wasn’t just what we were seeing but how we were seeing it that made the afternoon so special. Leopards are normally shy animals, so we were incredibly privileged to be witnessing such intimate behaviour between two beautiful creatures, right out in the open.
As the sun slowly sank towards the western horizon and the light faded, the mother and her cub retreated into the dense thickets of a nearby drainage line, closing the curtain on what for me – and I’m sure everyone else who was present – was a very, very memorable afternoon.
Written and photographed by James Tyrrell