On New Year’s Day 2016, I experienced what is possibly my favorite wildlife sighting ever, and had one of the happiest days of my life.
I’d been on safari in Botswana’s beautiful Okavango Delta for nearly a week. I had some ups and downs on this trip, as I was hoping for leopards and cheetahs and so far had not seen a single one. I was starting to get disappointed, after having spent so many hours driving in the safari truck and seeing so many antelopes and so few cats, specifically cats with spots. I couldn’t complain though, as I’d had great sightings of lots of other animals, and experienced an amazing moment when a group of mother elephants and their young ones walked passed our truck.
Still, I’d planned this trip with images of leopards in my mind, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed in not seeing one. The day before we had arrived too late at a spot where a male leopard had been spotted. My guide, Bonolo, raced to get us there, but the leopard had disappeared. I thought I’d missed my last chance, as this was New Year’s Eve, and the next day would be my last full day in Botswana, followed by a morning game drive and a flight out on January 2nd. Little did I know what was in store!
Before our attempt at spotting the male leopard, Bonolo and I were watching a pack of wild dogs alongside some guides and guests from Kwando Safaris, whose camp was nearby. Unbeknownst to me, the Kwando guides gave Bonolo a tip (speaking in Tswana/Setswana or some other language I of course couldn’t understand). They told him where they’d seen a mother leopard and her cub recently.
So the next morning, Bonolo and I departed camp along with a family of three guests from Germany. It was New Year’s Day, I had bounced back from my disappointed feelings, and I was hopeful and optimistic. Within an hour or so, Bonolo turned the truck offroad through some grass, and we came upon a small wooded area. There, laying on the ground about 50 feet away, and shadowy due to some dark shade, was a full grown leopard looking back at us. I couldn’t believe it! What was a leopard doing laying around on the ground? This didn’t make any sense! My small amount of knowledge of leopards told me that they either slept in a tree all day, or walked around hunting. Therefore this creature relaxing on the ground couldn’t possibly be a leopard, and if it was, it surely would disappear in a magic puff of smoke as we got close enough for a good view.
We kept quiet and Bonolo edged the truck as close as we could. We could only see her head and shoulders, but she didn’t disappear. Bonolo said he would try to reposition the truck on the other side where the view would be better, and sure enough after a minute or so we came around and saw her in the sunlight, and there in a small hole in the ground was her cute little cub! That explained why she was on the ground. She was calm and relaxed, and her cub wasn’t frightened. Bonolo turned the engine off and we quietly watched in awe. I snapped hundreds of pictures of her as she posed, and of her cub as he played.
We stayed for an hour or two, then it was time to give them some peace and quiet while we made our way back to camp for breakfast. That evening it was just Bonolo and I in the truck. When we got in the truck, Bonolo told me he was thinking we would go see the mother leopard and her cub again. I told him I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon. We drove back to her, parked the truck, and just watched. We spent the next couple of hours watching her and her cub, listening to the birds in the distance, and the sound of the soft breeze through the trees. What a perfect way to spend my last full day there, finally fulfilling my goal/dream of seeing a leopard on this trip, and in such a peaceful, beautiful environment.
Eventually we decided it was time to leave her and her cub in peace again, and we departed. I assumed I’d never see her again. Two years later, I would find out I was wrong.
I also assumed I would not see another leopard on this trip, as I only had one more morning safari drive remaining. That next morning, I was proven wrong.