The loud sound of African drums began beating to a steady rhythm. Gradually getting louder and filling the cold morning air, the music echoed through the camp and into our tents. A unique but effective wake up call for both guests and animals alike.
The booming voice of Vestment, our guide, called out to me: “good morning, good morning Charlotte!” There are no snooze buttons when on safari and so with that, I leapt up out of my bed and shouted back to him: ‘’Morning Vestment, I’m up!’’. Within a few minutes we all emerged from our tents. Greeted by friendly smiles and a warm drink to prepare us for our morning game drive and as a good luck charm for our search of the elusive leopard.
I am in the Manyeleti Game Reserve in South Africa, also known in the local language as “place of the stars”, has no fences between itself and the acclaimed Kruger National Park so the wildlife roams free. Although smaller in size, Manyeleti rivals some of the Kruger’s best wildlife sightings and together with fewer tourists, provides a more authentic safari experience.
We set off for our first game drive of the day at 6:00 am but even then, we had missed the sunrise some time ago. Following our other successful early morning drives, I held high expectations for our third morning with only one of the big five, the leopard, yet to be spotted. On previous safaris, I had never had the opportunity to see this elusive creature so when asked by Vestment what I would love to see, there was no hesitation in my reply. It almost felt like an impossible task but with this mission bestowed upon him, Vestment was determined to be the one guide in Africa to show me the best leopard sighting.
The brisk wind whistled through our vehicle and with open sides, we wrapped up warm in coats and blankets scanning the vast landscapes for wildlife. Visiting the Greater Kruger at the end of their winter is one of the best times to see wildlife due to the dry, vast landscape making it harder for animals to find camouflage in thick shrubs and trees. Travelling through the Greater Kruger National Park, there are bare trees stripped of their leaves standing on dry and arid planes exposed in the wide-open spaces.
We drove down the dusty dirt tracks and meandering African roads with large potholes, which surprisingly were home to many a sleeping baby hyena curled up inside. Bouncing around in the back of the 4×4 was a daily occurrence, but the game drives wouldn’t be the same without it.
After a storm the previous night, it was a much cooler morning and so the animals were reluctant to appear. Because of this, Vestment had said the morning drive would be a quiet one, yet having encountered two of the big five, elephant and lion, I don’t think our perceptions of ‘a quiet drive’ really matched.
Whilst watching the lionesses feast on her freshly caught breakfast and hyenas lurking in the background hopeful for leftovers, we almost didn’t hear the radio call. Spoken in the local dialect, we had no chance of understanding the topic of conversation. Vestment quickly alerted us. One of the other groups from our camp had seen a leopard! The bad news, however, it was on the opposite side of the game reserve and so when we arrive, the leopard may have vanished once more.
Racing down the dirt tracks, flying over potholes and waving to the passing wildlife, there was no stopping Vestment. The only time we had to put a hold on our pursuit was when a gust of wind blew the hat off an oblivious traveller sat in the back seat of our vehicle! As I sat wondering as to how, without any signs, he was able to navigate the roads, the 4×4 began to slow into a crawling pace as I heard “we are here.”
Elegantly walking down the pathway, its shoulder blades rhythmically moved up and down, exaggerating his slender figure. The leopard gradually got closer. His markings were picture perfect. As though they had been painted on ever so carefully and with complete precision. He was undistracted and fixed on an impala, a likely breakfast choice. Every step the leopard took was silent, its paws perfectly placed on the ground, leaving just tracks on the dusty pathway. Into the bushes he went. Even without thick green leaves and fruit-filled bushes, once you take your eyes off him it is a struggle to see him again.
A few moments later, he reappeared before us once more, now heading in a slow but measured pace to the waterhole. Unlike most wildlife we had seen, he was not afraid or scared to be out in the open by the waterhole. There was no sense of vulnerability. Nothing dared to join him. Quietly confident and ever so gracefully, he lapped up the water, much like a domestic cat would. Despite this familiar scene there was no doubt of the consequence of underestimating his strength and wildness. As his head bowed to the water, his reflection became clear, perfect ripples forming in succession each time he went to drink.
Emotions filled our truck. Cameras down, we sat in awe of this picture-perfect scene. I wasn’t prepared to feel so overwhelmed with joy. I looked over at Vestment proudly at the driver’s seat. He turned to me. “To be patient is better” he said. I couldn’t agree more.