For everyone visiting Africa there is a deep desire to capture in memory the experience of witnessing all cast members that make up the “Big Five”. It’s not an easy feat and for some it never happens.
My time in Africa was fast coming to an end. After 2 months and seven safaris across four countries I had seen and photographed hundreds of animals. Impala and springbok by the herd, wildebeest by the chaotic stampede, meerkats by the family, and birds by the undulating flock.
Of Africa’s Big Five I had seen four. In the two months of traveling Southern Africa the Cape Buffalo, elephant, lion, and rhinoceros had all made themselves available to me on more than one occasion. Sometimes standing there right in the middle of the road.
It was the leopard that remained elusive.
I had been told from the outset that spotting one would be difficult and photographing one near impossible. They are solitary and extremely cautious creatures who lay claim to a large territory. Even with luck on your side, being able to come away with an experience to talk about is often the reward of only the most patient; those who wait in a place they suspect to be the leopards path, not those of us who hope the leopard will cross ours.
From my journal.
I rose early once again, as is typical and natural in Africa. A completely unnatural act for me that still shocks me to this day that I am able to do it, greet the rising sun, with energy and enthusiasm. Today is my final day in Moremi and one of my last in Africa. After two months I will soon be heading across the ocean to start a new adventure in India.
This final game drive turned out to be uneventful and my hopes of seeing a leopard were dashed. The only member of the “Big Five” I have failed to see. I still feel extremely lucky to have seen what I have seen but as time went on I wanted more and more to spot the most elusive of all.
We drove this morning for a couple of hours before heading back to our camp, packing up, and making our way towards the southern gate, our exit point out of Moremi National Park.
It seemed like all the animals had taken a vacation as there was only a few impala where hundreds had previously been yesterday. Our trip back was along the same track that had brought us here except the added diversion on the way in of abundant wildlife had been extracted for this return journey.
We drove upon mud tracks, got stuck in deep puddles, and baked in the heat and humidity of the jungle; dozing and eventually nodding off. My hazed worry is that my leg will stick too far out the side and become harpooned by the extremely sharp thorns of the acacia trees that lined our path. In the heat I was drowsy.
What, what, what!
This was my reaction to the commotion being unleashed around me. The stealth and silence applicable to this situation was dismissed in the excitement. All three of us looked at each other and boomed with restrained jubilation; our excitement breaking the silence and serenity like a giant burp. The kind of noise you only make when you are supposed to make no noise at all.
A hundred feet in front of the land cruiser was the awesome site of a young female leopard. For just one second she darted across our track and into the bushes. We began the pursuit; taking the cruiser off-road like it had not been taken and likely was not designed to be taken. Our guides enthusiasm towards the chase was appreciated though the chase itself did not last long.
We spotted her once more as she stopped, looked back with her head tilted to the side, almost winked as if to taunt us into further pursuit, and vanished.
It gave me a great opportunity to look into her face and lock in a memory that will not quickly fade. She was beautiful and wild and just wanted to be left alone but for whatever reason allowed us a brief moment to study her face and maybe, just maybe, understand her desire to be the most elusive animal in the African bush.
I got to see my leopard and I got to see her on what was to be my last day in a game park in Africa. I have no photographic evidence but she was real; it’s as clear in mind today as it was on that last morning.