Leopards at Cheetah Plains
Sabi Sand, the world-famous private game reserve that shares a 50km unfenced border with Kruger National Park, is not only the oldest private reserve in South Africa, but is also renowned for its leopard sightings. After all, this 65 000ha wilderness has the highest density of leopards in the world.
So when, before Christmas, I visited one of its lodges – the intimate, friendly Cheetah Plains in the north of Sabi Sand – I was pretty confident I’d spot a leopard (even though the lodge is called Cheetah Plains).
What I didn’t expect – and this was a first in 40 years of going to the bush – was that I would see four (four!) different leopards on one evening game drive.
We had flown to Cheetah Plains with the efficient charter airline, Federal Airlines, which serves most of the Sabi Sand lodges, as well as destinations all over South Africa.
It was an overcast evening as my friend Gail from San Francisco (making her fourth visit to South Africa and to the bush) and I climbed aboard the open Land Cruiser driven by Andrew Khosa, our experienced Shangaan ranger. We’d just feasted on a sumptuous ‘high tea’ – a bush lodge tradition – of savoury and sweet goodies, and were off for a four-hour evening game drive.
We stopped to take pictures of a couple of old bull elephants as they sauntered through the feathery grasses, digging for juicy tubers and casually knocking over a few young trees and shrubs as went. A few minutes later we watched a magnificent male kudu nibbling fresh green leaves, and later enjoyed the sight of tiny baby impalas (like baby Bambis), some with their umbilical cords still dangling, as they grouped together in nurseries of up to 30 at a time as their mothers grazed nearby.
But then we got the photo opportunity of a lifetime as the ‘twins’ clambered up a termite mound and posed for us like feline supermodels.
As we drove by a dense thicket of trees and shrubs, Andrew heard the warning bark of kudus, followed by vervet monkeys shouting in alarm. ‘Leopard,’ he said, and immediately drove off-road, deep into the bush. A few minutes of bumping, jolting and dodging between thick vegetation, and leopard No 1 crossed in front of us. It was a young male, starting his evening hunt. We followed him for a while until he lost us in the thick bush, but not before he posed briefly on a rock in the evening sun.
Back to the main sand road, and after another twenty minutes' driving, far, far in the distance Andrew saw three shapes walking steadily along the road. It was a mother leopard and her two 14-month-old cubs.
We caught up with them, as, totally unperturbed by the presence of our vehicle, they continued to pad stealthily along the road. Mother disappeared to go hunting solo, as the two youngsters were not old enough to hunt successfully on their own.
But then we got the photo opportunity of a lifetime as the ‘twins’ clambered up a termite mound and posed for us like feline supermodels – eyeballing us steadily, tossing their gorgeous heads every now and then, and gazing ahead with their beautiful yellow eyes.
And so we sat for maybe 30 minutes, before the cats decided that they had given us enough of a mega-show, and climbed down from the mound and vanished silently into the twilight.
Oh yes, we also saw the rest of the Big Five – rhino, buffalo and lion – during our three-night stay at Cheetah Plains.
On the last evening drive we joined a beautiful female cheetah as she hunted silently through the tall grass, before lying down a couple of metres away from us, panting as she surveyed the landscape for potential prey.
A safari just doesn’t get better than this…