The flying gangs of glossy starlings and hornbills at Kruger’s picnic spots are a menace. Drop your guard for a minute and they’ll descend onto the hot skottel braai like gannets, and your bacon is flying away before you know it. It’s all part of the experience of a traditional mid-morning brunch in the park. But on my first ever visit to Kruger, the skottel braai raider didn’t have wings and a beak – it had spots and fangs.
I was just nine years old at the time. But if I live to 100, I will still never forget that sunny morning in March. We had entered at Malelane Gate and everywhere I looked I saw impalas. While they may be boring to many, as a young first-timer I was captivated, gazing out the window as they rutted and grazed beside the road all the way up to Afsaal picnic spot.
Afsaal, like all picnic spots in Kruger, is unfenced. It is carved into the bush about half an hour’s drive from Malelane Gate on the tarred road up to Skukuza, right on the junction with the old Voortrekker Road that heads west to Pretoriuskop. Being almost equidistant to both camps, and sitting in one of the most game-rich areas of southern Kruger, it is a popular stopping point. By mid-morning, the skottel braais in the shade of the tamboti trees are usually hissing away, and children are scampering around the tables and benches. But when we arrived that morning, it was still relatively quiet; a handful of families and couples were enjoying a late breakfast, while a group of people near the wooded edge of the picnic spot piled strips of bacon onto their skottel.
Several years back, a pair of scops owls made their home in one of the trees in the middle of the picnic spot and have remained there ever since. It was there that my family and I were standing, peering up into the branches, when I turned to see a leopard wander out of the bush just metres behind me. For a second, it felt like a dream. Before I could even gasp, one of the women in the group near the edge of the picnic spot saw it too and screamed, “Leopard! Leopard!”
Everybody spun around to see the group backing away slowly from their table and a leopard padding casually towards it. One of the men in the group turned and ran to get help, while the others continued to retreat cautiously. The leopard was not interested in the people though – it could smell the bacon and made a beeline for the braai. With the gas hissing away, the leopard stared at us for a moment, before it jumped up on its hind legs, placed its two front paws on the edge of the braai and began tucking into the bacon.
The game ranger, alerted by the man who had run for help, came running and yelled at everyone to stay back. He moved forward a little and shouted at the leopard to scare it off, but the leopard had bacon on its mind – and in its mouth – and simply ignored the racket. It didn’t even glance over. A few people laughed nervously, but the rest of us stood silently, watching in disbelief.
I had been barely 10 metres from the leopard when I first saw it emerge from the bush, but I slowly backed away behind the crowds and watched it from just outside the doors of the small shop near the picnic spot’s entrance instead. Word spread quickly, and people inside the shop filtered out to see what the fuss was about, almost falling over backwards when they saw the leopard casually propped up against the braai.
The rangers eventually gave up trying to scare it off and stood back and watched it with the rest of us. For almost half an hour, the leopard remained up on its hind legs, slowly eating the slices of bacon while the skottel continued to hiss away. I have no idea how its paws did not get burnt, but if the bacon was underdone when the leopard arrived, it must have been very crispy by the time the last strip was polished off. With nothing left on the braai, the leopard hopped down and, without even a glance in our direction, sidled off into the bush and disappeared.
For a short while nobody said a word. Then, when it was clear the leopard was gone, there was a sudden outpour of relief as the crowd erupted with laughter and nervous chatter. Nobody dared to go near the edge of the picnic spot for quite some time. Eventually, the victims of the smash-and-grab returned to their table, but they had clearly lost their appetite – they abandoned their picnic plans, packed up their belongings and left.
For us, it was a good half an hour before we felt safe enough to sit down and eat our sandwiches, but we made sure it was nowhere near the edge of the site. I’m pretty sure we didn’t even taste the food as we wolfed it down; we weren’t going to risk that leopard coming back for second helpings.
This crazy tale was originally published in the book 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of stories from ordinary visitors to Kruger National Park, complied by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This particular recount of Kruger events was shared by Gretha van Huyssteen who lives in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, and visits the park regularly during her school holidays – and sometimes in term time too. She has seen a few leopards since her encounter at Afsaal but definitely not while outside the car. She is currently in high school and hopes to one day become a pastor in the NG Church.
Got your own extraordinary story to tell from your time in Kruger? Submit it for the next edition by Jeff Gordon here.