Mike Unwin describes how, on a wilderness trail in South Africa’s Kruger Park, a search for the source of amysterious noise produced a very close encounter with a leopard.
It was the final evening of the three-night Wolhutter Wilderness Trail in South Africa’s Kruger Park. After a day clambering up kopjes and following elephant trails deep into the bush, we sat on a warm slab of granite to watch the sun set over the hills to the west. Before we could relax, however, I heard a crunch from below us. ‘Elephants?’ I asked, thinking it was the breaking of a branch.
But when the noise was repeated, our guides both thought that it sounded more like the splintering of bone, and probably came from lions or hyenas on a kill. Below us was a dry riverbed, overhung by several giant sycamore fig trees, their buttress roots snaking down into the sand. Behind the trees was a small wooded ridge. The guides concluded that the noise must be coming from the other side of that ridge. At my prompting, we decided to take a look.
We scrambled down the rock, crossed the sandy riverbed and prepared to climb the ridge. I was near the front of our group and, grasping one of the fig tree roots to swing myself up onto the bank, I heard a rustle from close above me. I looked up to see – no more than five metres away – the face of an angry leopard snarling at me through the foliage. My guide, taken as much by surprise as I was, swung the rifle off his shoulder. The cat – which for a split second had seemed poised to spring – slipped backwards off the branch and thudded to the ground behind the tree.
By the time we had climbed up and rounded the tree trunk to take a look it had disappeared. Dangling from a fork above us we could now see the hooves of a half-eaten bushbuck. The guides looked at one another. They were as shocked as I was. Despite all their experience, they had miscalculated the nature and distance of the sound – and certainly neither of them had been expecting a leopard. Clearly the cat had known we were there and had decided to lie low and bluff it out. But at the last minute, as we had approached the very tree in which it sat, its nerve had failed. The glimpse I had lasted no more than two seconds but it is still with me today – as is the deep, menacing resonance of that snarl.