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One-on-one with iconic big cats

Jamie Paterson

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

As I passed beneath the arches of Gowrie Gate into the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, I was hit by an unexpected wave of overwhelming nostalgia. The reserve had been my home on and off for nearly five years, and every second tree and termite mound brought back another precious memory. But nostalgia rapidly turned to excitement when I remembered my purpose for this visit – six days of glorious exploration lay ahead, a chance to share my love for the reserve and its inhabitants with my special group of guests partaking in this Africa Geographic leopard safari.

Summer loving

January can be a tricky month for Lowveld safaris. The vegetation is lush and dense, water is plentiful, and tracking is almost impossible in places. It is often hot and humid, prey species disperse, and predators either cover huge distances at night or are comatose in the shade during the day. Of course, there are rich compensations for these minor challenges: the glorious contrasts of green and gold, baby animals finding their feet around every corner and the cheerful call of the woodland kingfishers providing the crack of dawn trill. It is a magnificent time to visit the bushveld for genuine nature lovers. Fortunately, ours was a group of well-seasoned safari-goers with enough experience and insight to appreciate the majesty of the unfolding summer.

leopard safari
The gang’s all here – our little group in the expert company of Ralph and Chris from Jaci’s Sabi House.

Our bushveld retreat

One of the highlights of this exclusive safari was having our lodge – Jaci’s Sabi House – all to ourselves. This meant we had complete control of the schedule. Want to enjoy the cool mornings? No problem, we just shifted our start time even earlier, departing at 5.00 am and returning only when the heat and hungry bellies finally chased us back to the refuge of the lodge. Similarly, afternoon drives started as early as the temperatures allowed. It was a pleasure to find myself in the company of like-minded individuals, and all thoughts of sundowners were abandoned in favour of letting the Sabi Sands work its magic. (To start planning your African safari to Sabi Sands, click here). 

leopard safari
Elephants are one of my favourite animals to view on a summer’s day, as they are frequently in search of a good mud bath to keep cool

Why waste a moment of that potential? By the time we arrived at the lodge each night, the day’s excitement had made the already delicious three-course meals taste like heaven on earth. We ate beneath the star-spangled sky, serenaded by roaring lions and the iconic whoops of spotted hyenas.

We enjoyed our scrumptious brunches on the lodge deck overlooking the dam, and on one occasion, we were interrupted by the appearance of elephants at the water’s edge. In ones and twos, they emerged from the treeline, doing the excited elephant “water walk” and swinging their trunks in anticipation. Soon, the waterhole was surrounded, and elephants everywhere were drinking, playing or greeting each other with low rumbles. The last of the bacon was abandoned as we watched, mesmerised, before they melted back into the vegetation, leaving the very affronted family of Egyptian geese in peace.

leopard safari
The dam outside Jaci’s Sabi House provides many opportunities for intimate sightings
Africa Geographic Travel

Leopard, leopard everywhere

Not for nothing is the Sabi Sands considered one of the leopard capitals of Africa, and it certainly lived up to its reputation for our leopard safari. We saw four different leopards over the six-day sojourn, and nearly every drive delivered a rosetted pelage for our indulgence. Yet the quality of these sightings, not the quantity, made the experience truly special. (It is worth mentioning this was due in part to the patience of our wonderful guests, who were happy to wait for the sleepy cats to move rather than barrel around from sighting to sighting.)

leopard safari
Langa – one of the stars on our leopard safari- looking the picture of comfort shortly before her encounter with a hyena. (You can see more of Lisa’s images by following @lisa.antell)

The stars of our trip were two young leopards – a female called Langa (“sun”) and a male known as Maribye (“rocks”). Both are on the cusp of maturity, with Langa set to carve out her territory and Maribye soon to begin the dangerous business of dispersal in search of a space of his own. From a viewing perspective, this is a wonderful age because young leopards are still full of energy and personality, capable predators but still learning the vital rules of survival.

leopard safari
Young male leopard Maribye climbed to dizzying heights in a jackalberry tree

Langa impressed us with her poise, focus and uncanny ability to strike the perfect pose for our eager photographers. However, her dignity was decidedly ruffled when she was chased up a skinny apple-leaf tree by two very determined hyenas. We could hardly believe it when the situation repeated itself two days later, though she sought refuge in a rather uncomfortable-looking russet bushwillow this time around.

leopard safari
Langa showing off her impala lamb kill in the last rays of the setting sun

By contrast, Maribye was insouciant, bordering on comical. His belly was perpetually full (probably due to the seasonal influx of impala lambs), but he still entertained us by pouncing on emerging termite alates one evening. On another hot afternoon, we found him lying on the damp mud on the side of the road, presumably trying to cool off somewhat. He then led us into a nearby drainage line where he had stashed his latest meal. Following this, he treated everyone to a display of the renowned leopard agility by leaping from bough to bough of a jackalberry tree towering over our vehicle.

Our trip also yielded two different wild dog (painted wolf) encounters – both accompanied by the usual chaos in trying to keep up with these athletic predators

In between our leopard sightings, we were diverted by several performances from the supporting cast of Sabi Sand mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. These included a zebra stallion chasing a pack of wild dogs (known affectionately as the “6-pack”) and several brand-new elephant calves, still pink about the ears. Other highlights were a herd of mud-splattered buffalo, one determined fork-tailed drongo intent on scalping a distinctly miffed brown snake eagle, and two directionally confused teenage elephants.

A fish eagle takes flight during a pleasant hour spent bird watching at one of the region’s larger waterholes
Africa Geographic Travel

Walking on sunshine

And just like that, the six days of our leopard safari that had stretched ahead of me when I arrived were over and done, and it was time to bid my guests farewell. This I did with no small degree of regret – time spent in the bushveld is always a great bonding experience, and the long hours driving through the reserve had provided countless opportunities for fascinating conversation. In the heart of Sabi Sands, we spoke about everything from conservation and politics to the state of the world and our hopes for the future. But for the most part, we were light-hearted and cheerful, entertained by our in-jokes and sheltered by the bubble of the wilderness around us, the perfect soul-refresher ahead of a new year.

“No wait, please don’t take a photograph, I’m still chewing my breakfast…”

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