The following originally appeared with Vagabundo Travel Magazine on May 22, 2012:
“If you’re not comfortable, just let me know,” said Adam Richardson, as he started the engine of our Land Rover.
Adam was our guide with a private game reserve near South Africa’s Kruger National Park and he was talking to our tracker, Pauley. Pauley was firmly seated on the front of our vehicle in an attached chair, and the focus of our attention was a young, male leopard, with a notch in his right ear, who had recently wandered onto the property.
“Because if it is that leopard, we want to try to make sure we leave him happy.”
We first encountered the leopard a few days prior on a game drive shortly after he made a kill, and it was trying to drag the carcass into a tree. The noise of the Land Rovers and cameras clicking away spooked the apprehensive leopard, so our guide chose to pull away and let him get slowly acclimated to human interactions before trying to get close again.
Now, a couple of days later, we were on a game drive through the bush and stumbled upon a large, male rhinoceros patrolling its area. We watched as the rhinoceros approached his dung pile and proceeded to mark its territory. Then our guide, knowing what was developing, zipped ahead to a nearby watering hole, realizing it was probably the next stop for the rhinoceros.
After we parked near some large bushes for cover, the rhinoceros approached the scene, checked out the surroundings and plopped into the mud pit. He rolled around in the mud, freely passing gas, while my wife shot video and I took pictures. After he was finished, the rhinoceros made his way up the small incline towards a clearing.
About 15 feet from the watering hole, the wandering rhinoceros was caught off guard by a leopard laying in wait. The rhinoceros jumped in the air from fright, but continued his course knowing the leopard wouldn’t attack. While Adam was repositioning the Land Rover for a closer view of the leopard, he realized it was the same apprehensive animal from a few days prior.
Very cautiously the leopard watched as the Land Rover slowly crept towards it’s resting place. At a safe distance, Adam turned off the engine and for nearly an hour he, my wife and I chatted about everything from life as a guide to the potential back-story of this leopard.
Our guide’s goal was to give the leopard an opportunity to have a good experience with vehicles and people. Each time the wildlife on South African game reserves has a good experience with vehicles, the more likely it will allow the vehicles to get in closer next time; the sounds of the vehicle’s engine, people’s voices or clicking cameras will no longer bother it as much. In this particular case, Adam had a new animal on the property that could use some “TLC,” plus he had my wife and I in the vehicle and we were more than happy to give the leopard all the time it needed.
It was one of those unplanned moments in life where “going with the flow” was exactly what was needed. As a result, the whole sequence became one of my favorite moments on our safari: the skill of our guide Adam to acknowledge an opportunity ahead with the rhinoceros aiming for the watering hole; the adorable “freak out” from said rhinoceros stumbling upon the new leopard; the new leopard checking out humans, letting out a large yawn and falling back to sleep for its nap; us parking and allowing the leopard to become acclimated to tourists and Land Rovers; knowing that, potentially, my wife and I are helping a family get closer to the leopard when they come for their safari in a few weeks or a few months.
Arriving back at the lodge fairly late from our time with the rhinoceros and then the leopard, the other guests were all gathered near the fireplace swapping stories about their day’s game drives while sipping cocktails. Three women from the United States really, really wanted to see a leopard but hadn’t been fortunate enough yet, but they also knew that we had been very lucky to see a leopard every day (including an incredible kill on our first night). Because it was best for the new leopard to only have one compassionate vehicle near it — versus swarms of vehicles and tourists — other guides respectfully stayed away and mentioned nothing to their guests. As a result of all of this, it was sort of a situation that became “our little secret” with the other guides in the lodge. Showing up late, one of the women looked directly at me and said “Don’t tell me you saw another leopard today!”
I am a terrible liar, so I mumbled some sentence containing a “No” and quickly took a large gulp of my drink.