I DON’T KNOW WHO spotted him first, but word quickly spread via the drivers’ radios. Our open-top 4WD sped up along the track, coming to a dusty halt near a large, leafy tree. The object of our attention was big and strong and perched on a high-up branch. He was feeding on a ‘kill’ he’d made the previous night – probably a red-buck or impala. Using his powerful jaws and legs, he had obviously dragged the victim up the tree and jammed it into a convenient fork, away from hungry hyenas and other predators who would happily steal from him.
He was a leopard, handsome and beautifully-coloured. And he was giving us Kiwis a rare African surprise …
It was by no means the first. Since arriving in Kenya, just three days earlier, we’d already enjoyed more than our fair share of surprises. In Amboseli National Park, for example, framed against the glorious backdrop of snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro, we bounced across rolling grasslands, oohing and aahing and animal-spotting all the way. Elephants are the prime attraction here – Amboseli’s the best place to see these giant fellows up-close – and, almost everywhere we turned, we witnessed jumbo-sized families on the move, plodding patiently across the dusty plains, and feasting greedily on green salads while standing up to their haunches in muddy swamps.
Surprise No.1 happened just 10 minutes into that game-drive. A young female elephant in the herd we were watching must’ve been on-heat and ready to mate – because a big mature bull gave chase. She ran, pretending a total lack of interest, but he, thundering along behind, eventually caught up and had his way with her … right before our startled eyes! Then he went back to eating.
Surprise No.2 happened an hour later when one of our drivers spotted a cheetah way off in the distance. By the time we’d all reached the spot, that one cheetah turned out to be five – a mother plus her four almost-fully-grown youngsters – and to our great excitement they started moving towards us through the grassy scrub. Suddenly there was an explosion of activity – the cheetahs had disturbed a big hare, which promptly took off with these five speed-machines in hot pursuit. The result was a great commotion – again, right in front of us – plus an even greater cloud of dust! And Mrs Cheetah finally emerged with the hapless hare hanging limply from her jaws, her four offspring following close behind.
Fantastic? That’s an understatement! A rare on-the-spot encounter with these elegant endangered predators.
Three sleeps later we found ourselves in Tanzania, driving across a vast, sunken volcanic caldera. We had overnighted in a stunning lodge, which was clad in river-boulders, cloaked in creepers, and set high on the crater-rim. It was cold up there, 2200 metres above sea level, but that didn’t stop us getting out of bed early, downing bacon’n’eggs, and then descending in our safari vehicles some 600 metres onto the floor of the famous Ngorongoro Crater. This astonishing place is one of the planet’s largest natural ‘zoos’ – and on our morning game-drive (I kid you not) we saw a huge Cape buffalo, almost reach-out-and-touchable from our vehicle … wildebeest single-filing to who-knows-where … warthogs digging for tasty roots … a granddaddy ostrich with three wives … some picture-perfect Grants gazelles … a lone bull elephant with massive tusks … a trio of sunbathing hippos … a thirsty lioness drinking from a pool … a silvery-backed jackal … a squadron of pink flamingos … and a pair of nesting vultures.
But it was Surprise No.3 – that magnificent leopard-up-a-tree – that we’re all still talking about, because I doubt if any of us will ever see anything like it again! He crouched upstairs eating for quite a while … then leapt down for a clean-up on a dead log … before waving us goodbye with his tail and disappearing into the undergrowth. It was an unforgettable, hold-your-breath half-hour, one none of us Kiwis will forget in a hurry.
Leaving Ngorongoro, we continued our trek westward, enjoying several action-packed days in the famous Serengeti and its next-door neighbour, the Masai Mara. These two game reserves are centre-stage for the most dramatic wildlife show on earth: the legendary migration of vast herds of wildebeest and zebras. And we Kiwis watched in awe as large numbers braved the fast-flowing Mara River, avoiding its waiting crocodiles, and scrambling frantically up the opposite banks.
Some of our group were in the right place at the right time, and actually witnessed one unlucky wildebeest get caught and dragged under by a giant croc. An incredible sighting, for sure, and Surprise No.4 without a doubt.
Life is tough out on Africa’s never-ending grasslands, and death is a constant reality. But there’s a natural rhythm and balance to this place that becomes more remarkable the longer you’re there.