Leopards – putting the ‘L’ in ‘COOL’

Filed in Leopard Tree, South Africa by on December 30, 2013 0 Comments

So there we were, hours into a game drive in the search for the most elusive of the ‘Big Five‘ – the leopard.

The sun was hot, my legs were getting restless, and we’d been looking forever. Finding a needle in a haystack has got nothing on finding a leopard which has decided to play hide and seek. It’s maddening; one of the most beautiful animals on the planet, leopards just delight in remaining hidden. You know they are there, you just can’t see them.Leopard Tree

My wife and I were in South Africa, staying at ‘Shumbalala’, a five-star private game lodge located in the Greater Kruger National Park. Our group of bright-eyed tourists had already seen lions, elephants and warthogs from our Land Rover, but what we really wanted to see was a leopard.

I looked at my watch. My stomach began to grumble when a quiet whoop erupted from our guide – “look, look!” Our tracker had found a leopard hidden deep in a thicket of spiky branches so dense it was hard to make head from tail. Squinting hard, I saw a leopard, his beautiful pelt gleaming as he stretched out in the sun. It was around this time that I also noted the rhythmic beat of his body, undulating as if… NO. Surely not. Unless my eyes deceived, it seemed as if the leopard was in the throes of passion with… the ground?

No-one in the vehicle could see anything else that resembled another leopard. Oooookay, I’m as open-minded as the next guy – each to their own, right? I can appreciate the appeal of getting a little dirty… but this?

The leopard suddenly let out a gigantic belch … and coughed up a furball. Phew, crisis averted.

Watching leopards in the wild is undoubtedly one of my favourite memories from South Africa. In fact, it was during another game drive to find a leopard that I had the first flash of inspiration for my upcoming novel Leopard Tree. More on that another day though.

I learned so much during our time at Shumbalala. Do you know, the old cliché about ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’ is actually true? That’s because it doesn’t have any to begin with.

Leopards actually have ‘rosettes’, not spots. These are ovals of loosely-clumped black dots which surround a dark orange centre. In the morning sun their pelt is stunning; it’s as if each leopard has a standing booking at the local beauty salon.

It sounds fancy, but it makes for fantastic camouflage – after all, you only see a leopard when she chooses to be seen. Our tracker once pointed at a leopard walking past us less than 30 metres away, but I couldn’t spot her through the undergrowth – the dappled light and shade made her harder to see than a shop assistant during a clearance sale. Without the magic of the zoom lens she was a ghost.

Another leopard we found had the most profoundly blue eyes. You know, it’s true what they say about eyes being the windows to the soul. Lions don’t look at you so much as ignore you. Elephants have this look as if they’ve seen it all before – you feel naked before them.

Leopards? They merely tolerate you. Those leopard eyes look right through your soul – a quick glance, then they move on unimpressed. So cool. In fact, in my experience the leopard is the Fonzie of the jungle (…but I bet you’ll never see a leopard jump the shark…)

We once were lucky enough to watch a leopard stalk his prey during a hunt. He flowed like liquid across the veldt, sliding from tree to bush to termite mound. Leopards are fussy eaters – they will pluck the hair or feathers from a carcass before eating their prey. What would he catch this time?

I held my breath as he glided into the bush. Seconds passed. Minutes passed. I could picture the leopard crouching to pounce on his unsuspecting meal. When he eventually reappeared we weren’t disappointed – he had his jaws locked around his prey. Ahh, an old shoe. Not quite a meal, but a fine trophy.

Leopards are loners. They are the bounty hunters of the savannah, asking and giving no quarter and avoiding a face-to-face confrontation with their own kind at all costs (just like WOW players).  😉

One time we found a leopard sitting high in a tree. She was sprawled along a branch, and looked down on us, seeming exceedingly pleased with herself. Her tail twitched and curled as if it had a mind of its own, already sniffing out her next meal. She had a full belly, a place in the warm afternoon sun and was safe from threats – just too cool for the veldt.

Leopards? Love ’em!

(PS: Apologies for the shaky camerawork – I shot all the footage shown in this article. Make sure you watch them in high definition!)

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About the Author ()

Nick Buchan is currently writing his first novel ‘Leopard Tree’, available 2015. “A burnt-out police detective becomes embroiled in a child murder investigation while on African safari. Will this case send Detective Duffy over the edge?” Follow ‘Leopard Tree’ online at www.leopardtreenovel.com or https://www.facebook.com/NickBuchanAuthor

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