“There he is!”
We’d been working the central south-eastern sector of the reserve for over an hour, searching high and low for the Senegal Bush male leopard. Ranger Mrisho Lugenge and tracker Tshepo Dzemba had been hard at work leading us through thick brush and over impossibly steep inclines, and as the sun began to dip, our vehicle’s collective anxiety spiked, fearing we might have missed our chance. We had driven almost directly under the leopard’s last kill – an impala carcass dangling precariously from a tree deep in a ravine – but still had no sign of him. As we emerged onto a main trail, the sun peeked through the clouds as if to encourage us not to give up our pursuit.
Only a few minutes later, while we were flying down the road, the Senegal Bush male revealed himself in spectacular fashion, charging our vehicle with a menacing snarl. It was a hair-raising but thrilling end to a challenging search, and we caught our breath in a clearing up the road while observing this skittish male leopard from a safe distance.
As we left the sighting (giving this on-edge leopard plenty of space), Mrisho explained how the male had been pushing into the Inyathini male’s territory. With that, Tshepo suddenly stunned us all when he pointed out a second leopard – the Mawelawela male – just as ranger Jess Shillaw radioed that the Senegal Bush male was quickly approaching our new position. We held our breath and braced for the impending confrontation.
Soon after Jess’s update, the Senegal Bush male arrived, with our vehicle positioned perpendicular to the two leopards’ line of sight of each other. In the minutes that followed, we could have cut the tension with a knife: Senegal Bush male and the smaller Mawelawela male growled threateningly at each other, walking in parallel as they sized each other up. Whether these male leopards ultimately boxed we don’t know – we briefly followed them through the thick bush but eventually left them to settle their scores undisturbed, ourselves retreating to an open pan some distance away to finally exhale and toast our success.
After such a high-octane afternoon, I climbed into the vehicle the next morning with some apprehension, the steady drizzle and grey skies doing little to up the excitement. But every game drive has its own energy, and this one was no exception, with a feel and a flow all its own.
The bush had a luscious scent after the previous night’s rain, and we revelled in the newly flowing river as we crossed into the north, marvelling at the landscape’s overnight transformation from dry and desiccated to an unbelievably lush green.
Driving along the western boundary, we stopped short to let a dung beetle cross our path, taking a moment to appreciate its remarkable dung-rolling behaviour and its pivotal role in the ecosystem.
And as the sun came out, we pulled up for a coffee break before scaling Ximpalapala Koppie, the highest peak on Londolozi. From the summit, we watched swallows perform a dramatic eye-level airshow, spotted elephants in the distance, and surveyed a panoramic view of the reserve as it sparkled in the sunlight.
In more ways than one, the drive was a testament to the value of experiencing something familiar from a new vantage point: a reminder of the simple joy of enjoying a hot cocoa in a beautiful natural environment, one that offers endless flavours of excitement and an endless diversity of surprises.