Written and photographed by: Greg McCall-Peat
Wildlife photographers can be some of the most difficult people to please on safari. I know this as I am a photographer myself. They are people who come to the bush on a regular basis, and have taken many photos of animals doing many things. They know what they want and sometimes even have the image in their minds of the exact photo they’re looking to capture.
Guides work tirelessly to meet these expectations. However we all know that animals don’t always play along. But every now and then, the planets align and everything comes together for a moment of absolute glory. This is the moment when a guide becomes a champion and photographers’ dreams are met.
A couple of days ago I found myself in the situation of having to impress some photographers who also happened to be leopard enthusiasts. I had been in contact with them before their stay and had built up our leopards sightings. There may or may not have been talk of some of the best leopard viewing to be had here at Umlani Bushcamp.
Their first drive produced a female leopard, Nyeleti, with a kill.
Hearing about the sighting over the radio it sounded like it was going to be a dream viewing experience of her. However, on arrival that dream was soon shattered. She lay in a drainage line amongst extremely thick bush, making it nearly impossible to get a decent view of her. With a lot of backwards and forwards driving and some Land Rover acrobatics we managed to get into a position where we had a clear window of her and got a couple of photos. She was uneasy for some reason though, perhaps she had been hounded by hyenas, but she kept glancing over her shoulder and within minutes of us arriving at our tough-to-get-to spot she got up and moved deeper into the thickets lining the drainage.
It was a far cry from the amazing leopard sightings I had spoken so highly of and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, not only for myself but for my photographer guests as well. But that is the name of the game and I assured my guests that we would get better sightings the next day.
The following morning produced no leopards at all! The pressure was mounting. Where were all our leopards when I needed them? Where was our old faithful Rockfig Jnr or the ever obliging Marula female? Nyeleti still had her kill but she had moved it into the thick stuff so she wasn’t going to offer a photographic sighting. We decided to rather try find one of our other leopards but the morning proved fruitless.
That afternoon when we left camp, I felt positive that the law of averages would be in our favour. We see leopards on most drives, so to go a few drives with even one mediocre sighting surely meant our luck was bound to change? … And it did.
As I left the camp about 200m down the road, the radio sounded that someone had found a female leopard sleeping in a tree. I immediately responded to the call, yet again with high hopes that this was going to be the sighting I had been hoping for. It doesn’t get better than a leopard in a tree, golden sunlight emphasising its beautiful markings, clear unobstructed views – it was the best news I had heard all week.
As we were getting closer to the sighting though the radio crackled once more: “This leopard is now down from the tree and mobile south.” My heart dropped. The area that she was in is a notoriously thick, almost impenetrable fortress of acacia and sickle bush trees. I decided to try my luck anyway and hoped that she would make her way through the thicket and we could at least get to see her.
On arrival at the sighting I could see the other game drive vehicle trying to follow the leopard, they had by now lost visual of her and were blindly trying to relocate her. The terrain was even worse than I had imagined – add a steep drainage line to the mix of thorny trees just to make things even more difficult, and my confidence had taken a bit of a knock. I headed around to the other side of the drainage line hoping that she would cross it and I could intercept her. My suspicion was right!
Through the thicket our eyes caught a movement, a glimpse of rosettes as she emerged from the drainage line. I could see she was heading towards a more open area so decided to wait in the opening for her. I positioned the vehicle where I thought she would come out and informed everyone to get their cameras ready as we wouldn’t have much opportunity to get photos if she keeps moving.
So with cameras in place we waited for her to make an appearance, but it was not to be… yet. Just before she cleared the thicket she stopped and sat in the shade of the tangled trees. The only thing visible was part of her face, but she looked focused, like she was on the hunt and scouting the area for a potential meal. I knew this was just a temporary break in her mission.
We were able to get a few close-ups of her through the bushes before she moved out and into the open. I had positioned us too well and she walked straight up to the vehicle. None of us were prepared for this as we needed our macro lenses to get any photos, she was that close. Once she passed the vehicle we skirted around to continue following her. She once again had headed into a thicket. Fortunately it wasn’t a very big one this time so we waited on the other side for her to make her way through.
Yet again, she walked right up to the car before carrying on along her path. It was then that we saw the large marula tree that she was heading straight towards. Our excitement levels raised as we thought maybe, just maybe, she would climb it to use its height as a vantage point.
It was like she could hear our thoughts. That moment I mentioned earlier, when everything becomes perfect, happened before our very eyes. She scampered up the tree and lay on a branch, in the most glorious sunlight, and after a short grooming session focused her attention on looking for prey.
The sounds of camera shutters filled the air as her different poses were captured by our cameras. There were comments like: “This is the best leopard sighting we have ever had” and “Unbelievable”. We all realised this was a special leopard encounter as everything came together in a moment of pure safari perfection.
After spending some good time with her we decided it was cause for a bit of a celebration and that a drinks stop at sunset was the next order of the day. So we left our leopard, still up in the tree, while we reflected on what we had just seen with huge smiles that couldn’t be wiped from our faces and memory cards filled with photos of a sighting that won’t be soon forgotten.