This was our 6th trip to Kruger National Park in the 16 months we’ve lived here. I know we need to explore other areas of this incredible country, but we’ve accepted that we are just “those” kind of people: the ones who get hooked on wildlife, on the beauty of the park, on the endless possibility of sightings. Kurt and I both are wildlife junkies. We love knowing that every time we visit, we won’t see the same thing. We love knowing that we may not see much at all. And that’s what makes it more special each time we have a great sighting.
On a morning game drive, we came across a leopard in a tree with a freshly killed impala. Impala are abundant in Kruger National Park, and in Africa they are called “The McDonalds of the Bush” because they are identified easily by the large arched “M” on their bottom, and they are an abundant “fast food” for predators.
It was not quite light yet, so I tried to snap photos by the spotlights from our game viewing trucks. Daylight was growing, however, and sunrise would be hitting the tree perfectly. I was surprised, then, when our guide said we would continue on and stop back after light to get better photos.
“But won’t the leopard be gone?” More than one of us on the drive posed this question. He assured us the leopard would still be in the tree with its kill when we returned in daylight to get better photos. I wanted to protest. I wanted to ask that we just wait there the ten or fifteen minutes it would take for the light and take spotlight photos in the meantime.
But I thought since nobody else was arguing, they must all know better than me the behavior of leopard with a kill in a tree. Especially the guide. Certainly the expert would not let us miss good photo opportunities on a leopard just to go looking for lions that might or might not be around.
We left. We found no lions. About fifteen minutes later we returned to the tree in light. The leopard had jumped down to the ground and was, according to the guide, lying somewhere in the grass by the tree (none of the rest of us could see it, even looking where he was pointing.)
I was furious with our guide. I was more furious with myself that I didn’t speak up about something important to me, like taking photos of a leopard in a tree with a kill while the rising sun would have been hitting it.
Driving away could either have been a bad decision or just an unlucky decision by our guide. But then Kurt and I compounded that with our own similar decision. After returning from the morning game drive, we had breakfast and headed back out to the leopard tree. The kill was still in the tree but the leopard was nowhere to be seen. We then made the choice to drive away and return later after we gave the leopard more time for a nap, wherever it was hidden in the bushes.
Our drive took several hours on a long loop on a dirt road, and when we returned, both the leopard and its kill were gone. We don’t know where it took the kill. Presumably further away from the road and prying human eyes to enjoy its feast.
It’s easy to say the moral of this story is to just stop when you see something good, and just enjoy it for the moment. That’s what we usually do, after all, and that’s how best we enjoy The Kruger.
But I don’t really believe in putting morals to stories. There are as many morals as there are protagonists and perspectives. If the guide had been lucky, we might have seen lion, or wild dog when we drove away from that leopard. We might have seen one of those crazy other NatGeo moments of a predator taking down prey.
Here is my theory on why game drives don’t stay on one animal very long, even when it’s an amazing spot…
When a game drive returns from its outing, it lists everything seen on the drive on a board in the restcamp for all passing tourists to see. The more big cats or rare sightings they list on the board at the campground from the game drives, the more tourists I imagine sign up for the next game drive. We’ve done enough of them to notice this marketing approach. I don’t mind this. It’s exciting to see what’s there and it does, in fact, encourage us to sign up for extra drives hoping we might see one of those animals if we haven’t seen one by ourselves.
I personally would still sign up for a game drive that listed only one thing, if that one thing read: “Leopard in a tree with a fresh kill.” I believe they are so focused on getting quantity into the drives that sometimes the quality of sitting and watching something epic is lost.
As for our own drive-away instead of waiting for the leopard to return to the tree? Well on our loop we came across a boomslang—one of the deadliest snakes in Africa, one that’s really rare to spot, and one we would have missed had we sat waiting for the leopard to return to the tree.
Maybe the moral is just that Kruger has a different story to give us for every choice to be made, and it’s up to us to let go of what we didn’t see and embrace everything we did.
Nah. That’s still a moral.
Some stuff happened. Other stuff didn’t. I hope you’ve enjoyed the photos.