The Leopard With The Broken Smile

 

Going on a safari is a cocktail of emotions and adrenalin. From the first moment the dust of the bushveld touches your skin, you are overcome with the excitement and anticipation of a childhood you may have forgotten. What will you see, when will you see it, what do the days ahead hold in store for you... these are questions all yet to be answered. As each day draws to a close with another one of Africa’s exquisite sunsets, the feeling of excitement and anticipation never wane. These are however amalgamated with the disappointment of missed sightings, and the reality that the bush can be unforgiving, and as romantic as the tales of adventure are, the reality is that the beautiful creatures that call it home, can be as elusive as a shooting star. This however is what makes Africa so special, it’s what adds to its allure, its why nothing in the world compares to going on safari. It’s the reason that Africa has captivated mankind for generations and will for generations to come.

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We had spent an incredible few days in the bush, with no shortage of special moments in the company of some of our planets most iconic creatures. From lions to wild dogs, from elephants to cheetahs, it was an incredible safari to say the least. However, as is the case, Africa’s elusive one, proved to be just that… elusive. Days had passed and there was no sign of a leopard (something we really wanted to capture on camera). Now, I have to say that we had not dedicated any time out in the field solely in the quest to find a leopard, because we had made the decision on day one that we would go on a Safari the way it was intended, to explore and let the days play out the way Africa chose them to. On the last morning however, we decided that we would head to an area of the reserve where these beautiful cats were occasionally seen. To maximize our chances, we headed out just before sunrise. After searching for a good few hours, we decided to put an end to what seemed like an unattainable quest and rather head to a large water hole and spend what remained of this incredible safari in the company of a large herd of rowdy zebra (are they ever not rowdy?). There was no disappointment or sadness, just a further love and appreciation for this diamond amongst predators. As we were taking in the beautiful scene on display before us, the radio which was silent for most of the morning crackled into life, “INGWE” (Zulu for Leopard) … Could it be, would we still get to see…

Our ranger put his cup of tea down and looked at us, the excitement on his face too, was apparent, proving that this cat excited even those veteran rangers who have spent years in the bush. “A leopard has been spotted, it is far from here, it is on the move… it’s a gamble…” that’s the thing about being on safari, there are moments when you have to gamble, leave a sure thing in search of something that may not be there when you get to the spot where it was last seen. I usually prefer to stick with the sure thing, but this was something special and it was our last morning in the bush. So, we packed up our breakfast, piled back onto our Land Rover and headed out. The leopard was spotted quite a few miles away from the waterhole and the zebra who entertained us during breakfast with their antics, so it was a huge gamble, and we did our best not to get our hopes up, but when it comes to a leopard, remaining composed is usually an attempt of failure.

The radio came to life once more, the leopard who was originally spotted walking alongside a dirt road had now headed, into the thicket… “He is headed to the mountains, once he gets there here will disappear and we won’t be able to track him” yelled our ranger over the rumbling of the Land Rover’s perfectly built 4x4 engine, this did nothing to diminish our excitement or adrenalin.  When we arrived at the area where he had been spotted heading into the bushveld, there was another Land Rover searching for him. Teamwork is essential when it comes to spotting an elusive predator like a leopard. “No visual”, called out the ranger. So instead of following behind, we decided to head down further before cutting into the bush,  I must  state for the record that when it comes to “off roading”, nothing compares to a Land Rover, and going off road in search of a predator is at the pinnacle of life changing experiences, so adrenaline levels were through the roof. Now, not following the other vehicle, who had already spotted the leopard prior to losing the visual, was another gamble, but one we had to take. After going off road for about 50 meters, we began second guessing our decision… did we make the wrong choice? Should we have just followed the other vehicle? Have we missed our final opportunity to see the rosette patterned beauty of the bushveld? As these thoughts crossed our minds, as we began to accept what might have been, as each of us told ourselves, “well, it was worth a try.” When we looked up, and there he was… 

It was Munye, in all his magnificence and he was walking right towards us… We instantly knew it was him because of his disfigured upper lip (remnant of an old injury). To me he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. This moment, these few fleeting seconds, would last with me for years to come. To this day it is one of my favorite moments in the bushveld, because it was a culmination of incredible tracking, selfless teamwork and a series of gambles that paid off… It was the African safari experience at its best. This is what going on Safari was all about, excitement and adventure. 

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This regal cat allowed us to share his company for just a few minutes before disappearing into the thicket without a trace, but these few minutes were all that we needed to see why these beautiful predators are so special… Munye reaffirmed what we already knew, the essence of his beauty was in his elusiveness. 

I hope I see Munye again someday, but If I don’t, I shall remain content, for I will always remember the moment I shared a piece of Africa with one of her most beautiful creations… the leopard with the broken smile.

 
Faizel Ismail