Sep 17, 2016

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Stories Behind the Photos: “Leopard on the Runway” (January 2, 2016)

Posted in : stories on by : Mike Willis

In December 2015 I took another trip to Africa, this time heading to Botswana’s Okavango Delta region. Safari camps in the Okavango are very difficult to reach by land, due to being in a very remote area. Therefore, to get to your camp, you book a flight in a single-engine plane. This is actually one of the best parts of the trip, because these planes fly at only about 4,000 feet above ground, meaning you’re up high enough to see the landscape, but low enough to pick out animals like hippos and elephants. The views are amazing!

So upon landing in Maun, you wait for your plane and pilot to be sorted out, and eventually you are introduced and you walk over to your plane, load up your bags, and hop in.

Dirt RunwayThe airport in Maun is small, kind of like MacArthur Airport on Long Island in New York, and it has nice paved runways.

I know, you’re thinking that paved runways kind of goes without saying, right? I mean, they don’t really land on anything unpaved anymore, right? Right?? Certainly not something like, say, a narrow dirt strip with tufts of grass poking out all over the place.

Well, they do! It’s actually really fun!

Anyway, so after about a week on safari in Botswana, it was the new year and it was time for me to head home. My flight out of camp was scheduled for around 10 or 11 AM if I remember correctly, which left me more than enough time for one last morning safari.

My trip so far had been excellent, with great leopard sightings, African wild dogs, elephants, and many more. This final safari drive was like a bonus, I’d already seen everything I could have hoped to see. I always work very hard to keep my expectations low when heading out on a safari drive. My guide, Bonolo, had been a great guide for the past few days, but no guide has control over the animals, therefore any sightings are a combination of the guide’s spotting ability, and luck. Bonolo was great at spotting the wildlife, and since I’d already seen so much, I was content with whatever we might have seen on this drive, even if it was just the green grass and blue sky.

As luck would have it though, we very quickly came upon a young male leopard out for a morning stroll. The sun hadn’t fully risen yet, and we expected him to pick a nice tree and hop in for some sleep. But to my surprise, he spent the next hour or two walking around, and we realized he was still hunting. The sun continued to rise and eventually it got pretty hot, and he was panting as he walked.

I tend to lose my bearings while on a safari drive, because you’re basically out in the woods and fields, with seemingly random dirt roads that intersect in loops and swirls all over the place. This is also partly because I don’t care, it’s not my job to navigate, and I’m just looking for animals. So after a few minutes in the truck, I usually have no idea where we are in reference to the camp.

So after following this leopard for a half hour or so, I started realizing the surroundings were familiar. We were near our camp! They always say to be careful, even when at your safari camp, because you never know what sort of wildlife might be around, but I always imagine that leopards stay away because they tend to be shy. But here was this leopard getting within walking distance of our camp. Then I noticed the dirt runway up ahead. Sure enough he was heading straight for it. Bonolo realized it before I did, and he knew exactly where we would want to be to watch him cross the runway.

He quickly, and as quietly as possible in a noisy truck, drove around the runway to the opposite side, and parked. We watched for a few seconds as the leopard approached, and Bonolo had picked exactly the right spot. The leopard crossed right in front of us, giving us a great view in bright sunlight. What a great way to finish my trip! We followed him for a while longer, and even watched as he made an unsuccessful attempt at catching an impala calf. I have to admit, I knew the leopard must have been very hungry to be hunting so late in the morning in such heat, and I was torn between rooting for him to catch something to eat, versus rooting for the calf to escape with its life.

Eventually another truck showed up with more tourists who wanted to watch the leopard, and it was almost time for my flight out, so we decided to head out. We drove around for another hour or so but only saw the beautiful landscape, and then we returned to the runway to wait for my plane. By this time, a landscaper had arrived and was mowing the lawn around the runway. We got out and stood around waiting, and I contemplated the fact that a plane would soon land here to take me home, in the same spot where I had just watched a very beautiful, very dangerous animal, walking free.

Leopard On Runway - 1

Leopard On Runway - 2

Leopard On Runway - 3

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