“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Ernst Hemingway
In celebration of World Leopard Day, I sit here reflecting on one of the most outstanding periods in my life. Getting to know and embrace the leopards of Londolozi.
Finding Londolozi whilst finding myself
It’s one thing to read about leopards, to look at a striking image, to listen to their fleeting stories. Before arriving at Londolozi these were the only mediums in which I had encountered a leopard, I thought I had them mapped. I can recall vividly heading out on a drive with Sean Zeederberg, on the first of our many photographic adventures. I had only just arrived at Londolozi, hadn’t unpacked my kit and was feeling a little shattered. Sean didn’t give me a second, a flash and we were out in the bush.
After seven years confined to a town, theorising the world, I felt something fall away. The world died outside of right now and I just welcomed every wild encounter. I was gripped by a rush; talking too fast, laughing for the sake of it, I felt genuine happiness accompanied by pure bliss in my soul. For the first time, I felt as though I didn’t need to be anywhere else. I have always felt most comfortable in nature and now I was living at Londolozi, I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
The first Leopard encounter
My mind was running out of control and I gripped tightly to every sensation that pulsated through me. A muffled voice crackled over the radio and, stuck in the moment, I forgot to listen. Sean turned with a smile,
Would you like to see a leopard?
There was only one answer and I didn’t have to say it, my big smirk was enough of a tell. We headed into a clearing and Sean calmly pointed out the Ximungwe Female and her son, the Ximungwe Young Male. It’s not a feeling I can put in words, my heart almost jumped out of my chest and my deep breaths failed to fill my lungs, quickening my breathing. I didn’t have a camera so I just lived that moment.
The pair seemed unperturbed by our presence. She walked right past the vehicle staring deep into my eyes, it was a moment that seemed to stop time. My back muscles contracted and I lent back slowly, feeling like I needed a little more space between the two of us. The Ximungwe Female then summited a large termite mound, the Ximungwe Young Male followed and flopped clumsily over his mother provoking a warning snarl.
“Don’t you find it interesting to see people so immersed in the life of an animal. They are just living, carrying on despite our presence and that captivates us humans” Sean Zeederberg
The land provides
Three months down the line and the sight of a leopard still drives my heart into my throat, but I have now begun to learn about their lives. I wanted more; Sean and I repetitively spoke about the Nhlanguleni Female. She was a leopard I was yet to see and rangers were confident she was about to birth cubs. For two weeks we visited multiple old den sights repeatedly and were unable to locate her.
I was taught a saying by ranger Chris Taylor :
“The land provides”
Chris chuckled, recalling how he’d chant it to himself when having an unsuccessful drive, he’d say it when he felt pressure to produce something for his guests, and sure enough something unfathomable would happen. It was one of the most important things I learned. Every fruitless outing we had was followed by something incredible and all you had to do was have a little patience.
But two weeks of failure felt a little different and I started to lose a little hope. Waking up before 5 every morning can become taxing, but the mantra rang continuously in my head, “the land provides, the land provides…”. Sean would return to suspected den sites every drive and every evening we’d be left appreciating a sunset
“Not what we were looking for but at least we get to see this everyday” Sean would start
“It could be worse” I’d respond
At 10:30 in the morning, we had returned from our drive and were working in the office. Sean bounced out of his seat dashing for the camera equipment. I was up in response, not really knowing what was going on but I could see in Sean’s demeanour that it was something important.
“Jess has just seen Nhlanguleni carrying a cub, we need to go now!”
So the creative team hopped aboard the photographic vehicle, beneath a blistering sun, in the hopes we hadn’t missed the most incredible sighting. A sighting I had continuously constructed in my mind, I had obsessed about this moment. We stopped at a distance to avoid disturbing the scene and scanned with binoculars. Sean caught a glimpse of the Nlanguleni Female but she was tucked under thick brush so we just waited patiently for any view of her cub.
About an hour went by and we witnessed fleeting views of a tiny creature, the atmosphere in the car was tangible and we just couldn’t believe we were in the presence of a mother leopard and her cub. Sweat streamed and it was getting really uncomfortable to be out but suncream was on and you couldn’t move us.
Nhlanguleni then got up and left her den, she was marching in the direction of her old den site and that triggered Sean, she could have a second cub! Instantly my heart returned to my throat and began its usual jackhammer thumping. We arrived at her old den site and sat for a couple minutes waiting for her to arrive. Movement stirred in my peripheral and I turned and laid eyes on the Nhlanguleni Female.
There! She’s been here the whole time!
Nothing can compare
The rosette beauty made her way down toward the road and we held our breath in anticipation. Then I witnessed a small fur-ball, with speckles, not rosettes, resting helplessly in the clutches of mum’s mouth. A moment in my life that I’ll struggle to draw a comparison to, it could well be the most incredible moment I have ever experienced.
A brave and courageous mother carried her cub along a winding road for over a kilometre. We had the privilege of being with her every step of the way. Being mindful not to get too close, but being close enough to really live this once in a lifetime experience. The Nhlanguleni Female was unperturbed by our presence. In nearly 40 degrees Celsius temperatures she had one goal, to carry her cub to the safety of her new den.
We found ourselves back at the den where we first laid eyes on the Nhlanguleni Female. Just in time for her to walk down the riverbed and our final view of mother and cub was the most stunning. She reached the riverbank and paused for about ten seconds. Again, time stood still, I lowered my camera and lived the last seconds of that breathtaking experience. Cognisant of the fact that I’d probably never witness something quite like this again in my life.
I will conclude this piece by referring to Hemingway’s quote. Watching leopards over the past four months has taught me how genuine nature is. There is no point to prove but rather a need to be, to survive. And I have learnt wonders from the animals I interact with on a daily basis. Sean’s quote is one I have thought about for a long time. Why are we so drawn to the life of an animal, being able to watch them in their natural state? I find it evokes longing in my soul, I want to exist as genuinely as they do, I want to feel that integrity in my being.