The Leopards of South Luangwa
For the 5 years, since I was bitten by the African Safari bug, a leopard sighting has evaded me. Last year in Northern Kafue, a brief glimpse at sunset was exciting but ultimately unsatisfying. South Luangwa is famous for its leopard population so I was filled with high hopes for the trip to Kafunta Lodge at Mfuwe, but previous disappointments had left me cautious.
I needn’t have worried. On my return home, I was asked at work what the highlight of the trip was…. I said, with typical English diffidence, the 11 leopard sightings!
Here are the leopards….
Day Two PM - Leopard 1
A great night sighting for our first leopard was this male stalking a group of impala. We went over to watch and he settled down to wait. I could hardly believe how slight and beautiful he was and it was brilliant to see him skilful manoeuvring ever closer to the prey. We left her patiently watching them in the moonlight.
Day Three AM - Leopard 2
Morning plans had changed suddenly as we left the camp when we saw a group of elephants moving across the plain in front of us to go to the river. Whilst we watched them drinking, baboons were making alarm calls in the trees on the opposite bank. We raced across the river by pontoon and immediately came across a herd of puku, alert and alarm calling. Josephat, our guide (and who was later christened the Leopard King) told us to start scanning the tree line. I am rather proud to say I spotted our second leopard yards from the landcruiser. The leopard was moving quickly and soon disappeared into the trees but was a brilliant sight for the sheer proximity and clarity of viewing in daylight.
Day Three PM - Leopards 3-7
Our first spot came soon in the afternoon with a leopard moving quickly in the undergrowth. We watched in awe as he walked in front of the car and was gone in the flash of an eye.
The others came at the end of the evening but were all the more interesting as we spotted 2 mating pairs. The first was a male, climbing the rocks to a female waiting high up for him. The second came shortly after when we turned a corner and saw a male with a small, very shy female, just walking down the road towards us.
Back at camp for drinks and dinner and we can’t help a small amount of celebrating – 5 leopards in one evening drive – 6 in total for the day!
Day Four PM – Leopard 8
The briefest but most exciting sighting came tonight. We were tracking a small group of lions (2 female and 1 male) when in the sweep of the night light, we saw a leopard in the middle of the plain drinking from a stream. The 2 lionesses walked towards the leopard, who, with a certain amount of arrogance, casually walked away. Suddenly the lionesses started hunting and the leopard was running for its life. In a moment of almost comic action, the leopard leapt down a gully and then came back up running around a tree, followed quickly by each lioness in turn. After 2 circuits, the leopard shot straight up the tree and left the lionesses watching thoughtfully below. I sat with my heart pounding, willing the leopard to get away – I thought with horror that after 5 years of waiting to see leopards, I was about to watch one being killed!
Day Five AM – Leopard 9
Our fifth day brought us to Alice. A leopard well-known in the area and perhaps the best sighting I will ever have in my life. We came across her sitting in the sunshine, pregnant and resting quietly. She was very calm as we watched her from close by.
The nights had brought full moonlight and therefore poor hunting and while we were watching, Alice clearly decided to take advantage of the relaxed state of the impala and puku nearby.
We followed in fascination as she stalked down a gully through the middle of the herds, moving so carefully and purposefully.
As she rolled in the dust, Josephat explained she was disguising her scent to allow her to get closer to her prey. We stayed for an hour with her and left her hiding in the gully, yards from an impala that was completely oblivious to her presence.
The following days brought a break from our routine as we moved to the Island Bush Camp, a four-hour drive from Kafunta, where the days are spent on walking safari and learning bush craft in a beautiful, remote and rustic environment.
Day Nine PM – Leopards 10 - 11
Our last evening drive with Andrew (we’d left Josephat behind in the Bush Camp) did not disappoint and our luck continued with a brilliant sighting of a leopard sleeping up a tree. I’d seen this in other people’s photos and had always thought it was a great sight to see them totally relaxed, flopped across a branch, legs dangling freely.
Our last sighting came as we were tracking two lionesses and an old male. It was a very dark night and perfect for hunting. We drove ahead of the lions to park on the side of the plain in the direction they were heading in the hope of catching them hunting. As we waited for the lions, we saw a leopard stalking impala down the side of the plain. Suddenly the impala took fright and ran off, calling. The leopard found a spot on a hill nearby and settled down to wait.
For a while we turned the lights off and sat in perfect darkness beside the leopard, waiting for the lions and listening to the sounds of night. I will never forget the feeling of the bush, so alive with the sense of anticipation of something waiting to happen. Of course, for humans, the park closes at night so, too soon, we had to leave, and with a deep pang of regret that this was my last night… until next year and another adventure.