“The Greater Kruger National Park is renowned for having one of the world’s highest leopard densities.”
A Leopard Safari at Lion Sands
I can’t wait for this afternoon. Not just because spending a night at Tinyeleti Treehouse is a spectacular way to privately indulge in a Big Five wilderness experience, but also because this will come as a complete surprise to my travel companion, and niece, Anne.
Lion Sands is renowned for its leopard sightings, and Fransje van Riel shares with us the excitement of seeing these incredible big cats.
Leopards. They must be one of the most spectacular wild animals to see on an African safari. Having booked a few nights at both Lion Sands Tinga and Narina Lodges, I knew that the chances of seeing these magnificent predators were fairly good and thus, with great excitement, we embarked on our first afternoon drive with field guide Ryan and tracker Chris.
“Nchila, one of our territorial leopards”, Ryan says, pointing to a massive Sycamore fig tree leaning over the bank of the Sabie River, “hoisted a bushbuck kill up into the branches last night”. Driving closer and coming to a stop beneath the tree, he scans the higher reaches intently. We can see the remains of the carcass, but alas, the leopard is no longer there.
We pull away, meandering along the dirt track along the river when an elephant roadblock deters us from driving on. Mothers and aunts and youngsters are feeding on a series of small trees, and we take our time watching the lovely family herd on the road ahead of us.
Ten minutes must have gone by when suddenly Chris ‘s voice sounds, ‘leopard!”
Gesturing to the river on our right, we eventually spot a beautiful leopard far away, on the opposite bank, sitting down and apparently watching us with some curiosity. The irony to only notice the leopard after we have been here for at least twenty minutes!
In the now greyish fading light, we watch the leopard getting up and making his way to the river’s edge to drink. He is far away, but we still pinch ourselves at the unexpected sighting.
The sun is setting fast and, as the leopard disappears from sight, we find an open spot close to the river for sundowners.
Ryan decides to head back to the Sycamore fig tree for a last check before heading back to Tinga Lodge for the night, and there is Nchila! Not in the tree, but on the ground, partially obscured by the reed bed at the water’s edge.
It may not be the easiest of sightings, but we are elated to see the big male’s beautiful spotted coat amongst the reeds. “We’ll come back here tomorrow”, Ryan says. “He might go back into the tree later to feed”.
It is early the following morning when we rattle across the bridge to return to the area. The soft golden sunlight provides a beautiful canvas as we drive along the valley and turn left towards the bank. There he is! In the tree. Nchila is feeding steadily on his kill, while a single opportunistic hyena is standing patiently by the tree trunk, hoping for a morsel to drop.
After some time, Nchila gets up, stretches, and, as we hold our breath, slowly begins his descent down the tree. Jumping down, he casually strolls towards the river to vanish into the reeds.
I am ecstatic.
The following morning, we are driving east, toward a different stretch of the Sabie River when Sam, a recently graduated field guide who has joined us as part of fulfilling his training period, spots another leopard in a marula tree some distance ahead of us.
It is an older female; she is not a leopard Ryan recognizes. Resting comfortably on a tree limb, facing away from us, she changes position after a little while enabling us to have a clear view. Once again, our patience is rewarded as, sometime later, she stands to scan her environment before padding her way down the tree. Standing in the fork of the tree, she jumps down in one graceful leap.
When we move to Narina Lodge a few days later, we come across another two different leopards: a female and young independent male.
It is on our last full day that we are back on the river road in the eastern side of the concession. Our Narina field guide, Quolani, and tracker, Isaac, are immediately alert and halt the vehicle when they hear a troop of vervet monkeys calling in a frenzy. Scanning the river’s edge, Isaac points to a moving shape.
There is Nchila once more! He is on patrol, a long distance from the Sycamore fig tree where we first saw him on his kill. It is a fleeting visual, but I just manage to capture an image as Nchila determinedly strides along the water’s edge where reeds further obscure a visual.
Returning to Narina a little later for a hearty breakfast, I ponder these incredible cats and the lives they lead. Their existence and survival at Lion Sands is testament to the protection of this pristine land. We, as people, have an incredible privilege to catch a glimpse into these beautiful spotted cats’ lives – and their home.
“Did you know?”
Did you know that the field guide team at Lion Sands documents all leopard sightings and behaviour, as well as collects leopard scat? This data is submitted to non-profit Panthera for a collaborative look at their lineage and territorial range, all of which you will learn about on a Lion Sands safari, as well as how to identify individual leopards with their unique whisker spot patterns.