A leap of leopards

Those of you who read my previous post “I should have known better” will enjoy this one! I returned last month to Zambia to spend another six days in the Luangwa Valley. Days went by, enjoying unusual species including civet, honey badger, four toed elephant shrew and some spectacular birdlife. Lions roared in the evening but eluded our eyes. And finally, on my third night drive, we rounded a corner and saw the curl of a fluffy tail – it could mean only one thing – leopard! At last my luck had changed. We watched him slope casually through the bush, in search of his evening meal. The following night, another glimpse of spots by spotlight on a night drive.

But it was my penultimate night in the South Luangwa that really pulled out all the stops. Driving past a beautiful sand river watching three buffalos, we hear an alarm call nearby. The driver puts pedal to the metal and we zoom over in the direction of the noise. And there she was – Alice – one of the valley’s most renowned matriarch leopards who at the time of writing has two yearling cubs under her charge. To see a third leopard was beyond any expectation. To see one in broad daylight, totally relaxed around our vehicle, strolling around and then eventually laying down until nightfall when she could hunt was beyond words. We enjoyed sundowner drinks as she relaxed, lazily eyeing four puku nearby. Starlight overtook sunlight and we followed her as she made her way into the denser bush, finding a male impala which she stalked for hours. Eventually we lost sight of her, so I don’t know the outcome of her hunt, but it certainly was a game drive I won’t soon forget. And the Luangwa Valley certainly came up trumps this trip, when I had left my “shopping list” back home!

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I should have known better…

…than to go on safari with a shopping list. I’ve been on too many safaris to think that I could have a wishlist of animals to see and for that list to transpire into reality. I’d told clients countless times to just enjoy every second, the smells, sounds, observing the smaller creatures and not just focussing on the bigger ones. I knew better. But somehow, I’d ended up on safari, desperate to find a leopard. Sure, we’d seen wild dogs within the first hour of our safari – pretty incredible. But we wanted to see a leopard. It was the South Luangwa, in Zambia, renowned for being one of the best places to see leopard in Africa – so everyone I knew kept telling me before I left the UK. And somehow I listened, and it transformed what was one of the best safaris of my life, into a slightly crazed, desperate search for that elusive spotty cat.

We had five days on safari in the Luangwa, staying in two superb bushcamps in the very heart of the park. The guides were top notch, it was the end of the dry season which meant conditions for game viewing were superb. As the dry season wears on, the grass is grazed and trampled down and the water sources dry up, meaning grazers are commonly found around waterholes or the rivers, and predators are never far away. Each morning we set out before the heat of the day on a walking safari, which the South Luangwa is famed for. Great for taking in the smaller details of the bush, learning about the flora, how plants adapt themselves against invasion from insects and grazing animals, watching warthogs and their baby wartlets scurry away, and creeping up close to the spectacular clouds of carmine bee-eaters nesting in the banks of the river. Elephants are prolific in the park, too, and rarely a walk went by where we didn’t have a heart-racing encounter with a herd or handful of ele’s – trust me, you will never appreciate how large, powerful and intimidating an elephant can be until you meet one on foot, rather than from the comfort of a 4×4.

The afternoons were hot and spent zooming around on game drives, to see what we could see, stopping at sunset each day to soak our feet in the cool river and enjoy a cool gin and tonic, contemplating the last rays of sunshine. Then the game drive turned into a night drive, and this was prime leopard time – even the guides said so. We searched in the fading light, and then following the spotlight, listening for alarm calls from monkeys or birds which might point us towards our leopard. We searched and searched, secretly praying for a spotty cat.

In the end, we found one, but not the kind of spotty cat I was after! Instead of a leopard, we found a serval cat, skipping across the branches of a tree. Five days went by in this way, and we left the South Luangwa without a leopard in sight. I wasn’t as disappointed as you’d think. It served me right for going on safari with a shopping list – and I knew it. Plus it gives me an excellent reason to go back one day…