Opened as a protected reserve in 1931 the Kalahari Gemsbok National Reserve straddles the South Africa Botswana border and makes up the southern most portion of the greater Kalahari Desert. It is a sanctuary for a wide variety of game and I hoped to see them all; giraffe, hyena, cheetah, wildebeest, lion etc…and the incredibly elusive Leopard. Like everyone I wanted that photo of a leopard relaxing on a tree branch, staring straight at me with a look of calm self-indulgence as it processes the ease in which it could scare the crap out of me with little more than a swift move in my direction.
It was the middle of summer though, a time when temperatures average 104 degrees, and swift moves on the part of a leopard or anything else with a pulse were few and far between. Our first day would start out early in order to beat the heat; give us a few hours before the wildlife collectively decided to retreat to any place offering shade. As the padlock to the entrance was removed and the gate made a wide berth to officially open the reserve, our jeep moved forward at a crawl.
We had arrived at base camp last night and after a braai and beer had bedded down for the night. The entrance to the reserve, at that time gated shut, was only a few hundred feet from me. As I lay down under the infinite blue of the African sky the last rays of the setting sun melted into the tops of the acacia trees; the horizon a blazing orange. I slept well.
By 5 am we had eaten a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon then washed; I remember this part well as my toothbrush had become the resting pad for a scorpion with a Houdini complex. Following its eviction we cranked up the jeep and made our way to the gate.
Anticipation was high.
Reward, when immediate, is a bittersweet thing. You can easily fall into the trap of thinking this to be normal. It leaves you vulnerable to let-down when future experiences cannot possibly live up to the bar set by a fluke of instant gratification.
I kept this in mind as not more than five minutes passed the gate, traveling at a snail’s pace, we came upon a female cheetah and her two cubs. They were crouched down and drinking from the muddy shallows of a waterhole better described as a puddle. Our arrival broke their concentration but only long enough for Mama to glance up and dismiss us as no real threat.
As a spectator you can’t help wonder what they were thinking. The cubs were clearly not thinking much of us, or of the water, as they spent their time leaping about and playing. Mama on the other hand always had one eye in our direction; even when attempting to corral the cubs and instill in them the importance of water during these long, hot, dry days of summer.
As the cubs settled down and drank, all four eyes became trained on us. A look of curiosity and skepticism swept over them and their expressions changed. Their body language lurched them forward playfully, towards us, but this seemed tempered by past teachings. They gave the high-pitched snarl of a cub proving might and kept drinking, now imitating Mama with an eye in every direction.
Throughout the morning we follow the road alongside the bed of a dry river. The flow of green grasses no more than a few feet wide, keep us on track. It seems all animals have congregated in this area and we are fortunate to encounter wildebeest, eland, springbok, and several prides of resting lion.
At one location we stopped the jeep as the guide had heard lions were in the area. We waited patiently; eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement. Almost immediately branches and rocks became life-size predators and we saw lions at every turn.
It takes time for your eyes to focus in on wildlife. I think we all want to bear witness so desperately to the natural inhabitants of the great wild that we see them when there is nothing to see. Rocks and branches refocus back to what they really are and the mirage of a lion surge melts back into the waves of rising heat.
After several minutes it was decided to move to a better spot. As the engine-turned over with a start, a head, no more than ten feet from us rose above the blades. A sleepy-eyed lioness focused in. Without a sound several more lion heads surfaced. All in all a pride of eight lay undetected, within jumping distance of our open-back jeep.
It was an incredible sight. Like huge house cats that could devour you. A couple were even laying on their backs, front paws flopped forward as they rolled in the grass to regain their disturbed comfort.
We lapped up the encounter locking in the appropriate amount of awe.
Other than our route, the rest of the park is bone dry; some sections are made up entirely of red dirt and stone or massive sand dunes. We exited the jeep to ascend one of these dunes and in the reflected heat of a midday sun we felt slightly more cooked at the summit than we had at the base.
By afternoon we were back at camp and setting up the evenings braai (BBQ). The experience in the park had been incredible and the guide had been an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding not only animals but also the connected nature of the entire ecological system; from dung beetles to lions, his enthusiasm was contagious.
I sat with my group, a beer in one hand, once again watching the sun burn orange over the distant horizon as only the setting sun in Africa can.
I head to bed shortly after the fall of darkness. My Afrikaans neighbors talk of politics and “blacks” is disturbing but all to common; drinking has made the rhetoric louder and even more racist…if that is possible.
In the morning I am awoken by a pit bull licking my feet. He follows me outside and together we sit and watch the dawn of a new day in Africa.
Maybe today I will find my leopard.