Walking up to a Leopard
It’s not uncommon for people to live in Africa for many years, without ever seeing a leopard. They’re relentlessly cautious, have the patience of …well, a large cat, and can melt into the background right in front of your eyes.
But in my experience, even a leopard can be caught napping. Going through an old diary of mine from the Selous, I find an entry for a walk on 20th July ’97; “…crept up to leopard and watched from 35 yards…out in the open and completely at ease.”
Unsurprisingly I remember this day pretty clearly. In this part of the Selous, the Rufiji River comes out of a steep-sided rocky gorge and spills into a mile wide sandy area. Here it divides into a series of islands and channels, many of which are dry, or partially dry, in July.
These sandy channels make for excellent walking. Wild melons grow in abundance, acacia trees with fat, nutritious seedpods crowd the riverbanks, and fresh water flows continuously below the surface of the sand. With these ingredients, elephant are virtually guaranteed.
Arriving by boat, we began walking, barefoot, with the wind in our faces and the sun behind us. Almost immediately, we noticed a shape about ¼ mile ahead of us on the riverbed. More through force of habit than any real conviction, I checked it with the binoculars. And for once, it wasn’t a log, but the head of a leopard.
And at that point we had an exceptional bit of luck as the leopard, which hadn’t seen us, chose to lie down flat. He happened to be at a point where the riverbed dropped quite sharply, so was out of sight.
Walking silently in sand with bare feet is actually quite easy to do, but none of us really expected the leopard still to be there when we crept up close. But I can still remember the jolt of excitement when we were able to see over the drop in the riverbed. And there he was.
We were close enough to watch easily without binoculars while he rolled around on the ground playing with his tale like a large house cat. It was only after a few full minutes - on one particularly large roll - that he noticed the humans watching him.
To say he looked mortified is a gross understatement. To the creature that invented creeping up on things, to BE crept up on is beyond humiliating. The look he gave us as he shot into the bushes – a mixture of rage and profound embarrassment - made me feel just slightly ashamed.