We could hardly believe it when a curious leopard cub left its mother’s side and came so close to our vehicle that it started climbing the tires. But this is par for the course when you’re on safari in the oldest game reserve in South Africa.
These graceful cats are normally hard to spot, but in Sabi Sands you can get nice and close without having them run for cover at the sound of an engine.
It all started in the late 1970s, when Londolozi co-founder John Varty and naturalist Elmon Mhlongo encountered a young female leopard that was remarkably unfazed by their battered Land Rover. As the years passed and their relationship grew, she opened a door into the hitherto secret world of these wild cats.
Over time “Mother Leopard” passed on her relaxed attitude to nine litters of cubs. Today, more than 30 years since that first meeting, her offspring seemed content to ignore us and our cameras — at least as long we stayed inside our vehicle.
Each leopard is known intimately and the “Leopards of Londolozi” now have their own website, complete with range maps and information about their behavior and lineage.
African Wild Dogs
African wild dogs are one of a number of endangered species that finds refuge in the Sabi Sand Reserve. These opportunistic canids are the most efficient predators of all Africa’s large carnivores, and there is something almost mystical about seeing them running though the bush.
These so-called painted dogs were hunted mercilessly across most of the continent, and Kruger National Park harbors the only viable population in South Africa. As the border between the park and Sabi Sands is unfenced, the dogs cross between the properties, covering long distances in the heat of the hunt — which makes them far more difficult to spot than leopards.
They eluded us for more than a week. Then our luck turned on a game drive from the Chitwa Chitwa lodge when we came across a pack lying in the grass. We lost track of them time and time again only to find them again when they stopped to rest and play between hunts.
Nothing gets your heart beating like the menacing roar of a lion when you’re on safari in the African bush. At least that’s how Lion Sands Game Reserve founder Guy Aubrey Chalkley, who once spent a sleepless night in an old Leadwood tree to elude the predators, tells it.
A lion’s roar can be heard from far away, but as Chalkley once said, “Never fear the roar of the lion, for it is rather when you don’t [hear it] that you need to be aware.” On a night safari we were reminded of his warning when we stumbled upon a pride in the midst of a kill.
Ever alert, the lions locked eyes on our vehicle, but soon went back to feeding. The guide turned off the lights, heightening our senses as the cats crouched low around their prey, snarling at each other as they fought to eat their fill. We nearly jumped out of our seats when the large male lion gave a mighty roar, filling the night air with the sound of Africa.