Written by: Greg McCall-Peat
Recently we had a photographic group visit Umlani Bushcamp for a few days. Their aim was to have amazing leopard sightings. My constant bragging of how great the leopard viewing is here may have played a big part in that.
None the less, it always leaves the guide with a sense of nervousness to produce the goods. Especially when the photographers had just been on a safari during which they witnessed the Great Migration and two male lions taking down a buffalo right next to their vehicle. The pressure was on to say the least. I grabbed the challenge by the horns, or in this case by the rosettes and set out to find some spots.
Our first drive started out quietly, but I had heard on the radio that one of the guys had picked up on tracks of a female leopard in the eastern section of our traversing area. It was a bit of a drive but we headed out there hoping to find the leopard. On arriving in the area I decided to take a quick walk down into a large drainage line. Thinking like a leopard, I presumed she would move through the riverbed. My presumption was right and I quickly picked up on her fresh tracks in the soft sand. It had been a hot day and the temperature had just begun to drop so I wasn’t that far behind her.
I quickly went back to the car and looped around to a river crossing to see if her tracks had crossed… they had. We were now reaching our southern boundary and should she have crossed over then that was the end of our efforts. Luck however was on our side and while driving along the drainage line, in a small opening between thickets, I got the glimpse of Thumbela female lying in the sand. We had done it! We made our way around to her side of the riverbed and managed to get a few good photos of her before she got up and moved off into the dense vegetation. Day one was a success!
On the morning of the second day, I was hoping to continue with our good luck from the previous evening. Knowing that Thumbela had crossed the boundary I thought I would head to another area and try for Marula female, who is always a star when it comes to photography. There had been reports of her mating a couple of days before and that would not only be great to see, but also something extremely special for the guests and something they hadn’t seen on all their safaris across Africa.
For the most part of the morning our search was fruitless, no track or signs for any leopards let alone a mating pair. Then the call came in over the radio, one of the rangers had found the honeymoon couple! Yes please! We made our way to the sighting and on arrival we realised that the big male wasn’t the most relaxed individual. He kept more to the thickets, and when he did move out into the open, he would pause briefly before running to the next thicket.
Marula female was her normal relaxed self and we hoped that if we could stick with her that she would entice the male out of hiding when it came time to mate. This was not the case. We spent about an hour with the leopards, listening to them mating multiple times in the thickets, before we gave up for the morning, deciding that we would give them another try in the afternoon. We did all manage to get the odd photo of each leopard but the magic mating photos eluded us… for now.
In the afternoon we went straight to the area that we had left the leopards that morning, knowing they wouldn’t move very far while mating. As we arrived we heard the sound of leopards mating over the sound of the vehicle engine. It took us about 10 minutes of driving through the bush, turning the engine off every now and then to listen for the leopards, before we eventually found them. The male seemed a bit more relaxed, perhaps due to him being tired out from the repetitive bouts of mating that leopards endure.
We were able to get better photos of the leopards, however the mating part still eluded us as they preferred the privacy of the thickets. The mixture of frustration of not being in the right position to see them, but the amazement of being in the presence of these two elusive cats was an emotional roller coaster. After spending another hour with the cats and still not managing to get a clear view, we decided to go have a drinks break and return after dark.
This proved to be the best decision we made all day. While making our way back to the sighting, we found both leopards lying out in the open in a large drainage line. From our view point above, fortune finally smiled upon us. Marula slowly approached the male and then the mating began. We watched them mate several times out in full view. Finally, all the waiting had culminated into an exceptional sighting and we left to head back to camp after another long, but extremely successful day.
On the third day we were blessed with yet another leopard sighting. This time it was Nthombi female. She is one of our older females and not usually seen as her territory falls more to the north of our traversing area. By the time we got to the sighting, it was just us and we got to spend another hour and a half with her as she stalked the thickets of a drainage line for something to eat. We were able to consistently position ourselves in order to get the best photographs of her. It’s not often you get a leopard all to yourself and thus ended off yet another great day.
On the morning of the fourth day and final drive, the Timbavati offered us a final leopard sighting. We found Nthombi’s current youngster, known as Mondzweni male, a strikingly beautiful cat who is reaching independence. When we found him he was laying amongst some rocks in a small drainage line. He posed nicely for a few photos before we called it a day and the successful photographic safari came to an end, with a total of five different leopard sightings.
Umlani definitely delivered on the promise of great leopard sightings and it seems safe to say that our reputation remains firmly intact. Our photography clients left with all the leopard photos they could have wanted and I can continue to brag about how good our leopard viewing is.