There are certain days in ones guiding career that you will never forget. The stars align, magic happens and you know beyond all doubt that you will never have a day quite like it again and that if you ever take on a different career path, it is unlikely that you will ever have the same kind of job satisfaction! The strange thing for this particular day was that we were out looking for lions, and when I say looking for lions I mean that we had spent hours and hours in search of even a track! But alas, there were no signs to be found. My guests had not seen leopard either, and although this was on the request list, it was the king of the jungle that was at the top of the ‘must see’ list.
The morning had begun with Bennet and I planning to find the Sparta pride which judging from the last place rangers had seen them, was in the deep south. So, beanies and scarves on we took the treacherously cold drive south. Other than a beautiful sunrise, it was quiet and bone-chillingly cold. We were a good hour and a half into the drive and had really not seen much let alone a sign or track of lion. We were far in the south and there was not another ranger nearby! Moving through a particularly thick section, I suddenly noticed the characteristic flash of spots that our ranger eyes are always so eager to find.
“Leopard! Leopard, leopard, leopard, leopard”
Yes, I must have said it about that many times, as if no one could hear me, I was so excited! There, lying just off the road was the Camp Pan male leopard happily grooming himself. He was, as usual, completely unperturbed by our presence and continued with his morning titivation before finally rising to his feet and continued on his path. We had a fantastic view of him as he patrolled and scent marked all the way down the road. We followed him for quite a way before he ducked off into rather thick vegetation and disappeared. And so, on our journey for the day, we encountered leopard number one.
Feeling a lot more relaxed and spirits lifted that we had actually found something, we continued our search for lion. However, this was just not what the bush had planned for us this morning as it was not long before Bennet’s excited voice called, “Leopard, leopard!”. Sure enough, Makhotini male was lying just off the road staring straight at us. Just as I positioned the vehicle, yet another surprise hit us as a female popped her head up and peered at us through the grass! This was just too much, here we were in one of the farthest areas in our reserve, in an area that we do not usually go searching for leopard and yet here they were…two of them! What made it all the more exciting for me was that I had never seen this female before. I could see she was old, had an old but healed injury on her spine and a characteristic brown patch in her left eye. More importantly, she was pretty intent on following Makhotini who had clearly had enough of her.
Some of the other rangers had found a mating pair of leopards a few days before but much further west, but I suspect it was the same two that had moved as Makhotini male tried to give this female the slip. After drive I found out that she is known as the Moodies female. We watched them for some time as he walked across an open grassland patch while Moodies female followed exactly behind. Eventually they also disappeared into a Sicklebush thicket. There it was: Leopard two and three! The rest of our morning resulted in our eventually finding the Sparta pride tracks which quite promptly crossed out of our property leaving us lioness for the morning.
No worries, our plan for the afternoon was to relocate the Majingilane male lion that had been found further north in the morning while we had been searching in the deep south. The male lion had been left midday, so barely two hours before we set off on drive. I was very confident that they would be, typically lion-style, lying up in the shade where they had been left. That was until we got there and found a massive herd of elephant in that exact position. The breeding herd was on edge and vocalising quite a bit, with mothers hurrying there calves in all directions and the lions were no where to be found. We then spent the next two hours driving in what felt like circles around a block of land from which no tracks came out, yet there was no sign of them there either. It was a horribly thick piece of bush and with a herd of elephant in the area as well, walking around looking for tracks was not the smartest idea!
As a last hope, Bennet and I decided to cross the river and check if by some miraculous chance they had been chased north. As we made our way into the riverbed and passed more elephant, we suddenly heard the distinct call of a leopard very close by. After some tricky sand driving and evhical positioning, we found Marthly Male lying between some wild date palms. Number four! It was only a few moments before the Mashaba female joined him and us, in jaw-dropping realisation that we were now on number five! The two then mated followed by Marthly male lying up on the sand in the sun. It was a spectacular sighting as a large female elephant then chased the pair further into the riverbed. Just then, Bennet, almost shouting, cried, “Another leopard!”. I thought he was making a joke! But as I looked on the northern bank of the Sand River Tutlwa female sat curiously watching Marthly male and Mashaba. I did not know where to look! There were elephant all around as as well as three leopard which made up one of the most epic scenes I have had in my years in the bush. Marthly male then did something that I have waited years to watch…he crossed the river! Tentatively at first, and then with confident strides he made his way through the water to Tutlwa on the other side while Mashaba was left looking rather sorry for herself on the Southern Bank. He then mated with Tutlwa, enjoyed her company for a while before crossing back south to a waiting and rather too-forgiving Mashaba on the other side.
So there it was. Our lion count was down to nought but leopards were up to six in one day! Now, as well known as Londolozi is for its leopards, this is not an everyday occurrence, which is why it will always be a day to remember.
Written and photographed by: Andrea Campbell