Expect the unexpected
By Nico Brits

As a ranger in the African bush, I always try to predict where a certain animal might be, what it will be doing and what it will do next. However, every now and again, nature will throw you a curveball and the unexpected will happen. This is one of those unexpected moments I had on a morning safari that I will not soon forget.

It was just before Christmas and another very hot day that was predicted. We left the lodge as soon as everyone had their morning tea and coffee to try and get out before things started heating up too much. The animal that we had our sights on was the elusive leopard. At Kwandwe Private Game Reserve leopards can be a very difficult animal to find because of the vegetation and deep river valleys. One of the females that we see regularly moves around the Great Fish River very often, so we decided to follow the river from Great Fish River Lodge heading west.

There is a certain area along the river that this female leopard was seen moving, scent-marking, calling, and possibly looking for a male to mate with. As we got into the area, Ivan, our tracker, put his hand up into the air signalling me to stop the car. As soon as the engine was turned off all we could hear in front of us was the alarm calls of not one, but an entire troop of vervet monkeys. The alarm calls confirmed that she was around here. It didn’t take Ivan long, scanning the landscape with his binoculars along the river, to spot her lying down on the opposite side of the river close to Fort House.

She started vocalizing, got up, moved down towards the river and about thirty seconds later she was gone. Now it was time to decide, do we leave and go have a cup of coffee or do we go around onto the other side of the river and try find her again? It was late in the morning already and starting to get hot, I was leaning toward rather going for a coffee break when I just heard Ivan in the back of the car saying “listen”. The entire car went quiet, you could just hear the faint rasping further ahead of us close to one of the river crossings. I immediately started the car and headed for Mkululis Crossing.

We crossed the river onto the northern bank and now I was trying to predict where she might be. Just east of the crossing there is a part of the riverbank that is very steep, and I have seen her come toward the top of the bank to continue walking west before. We drove to a prominent path that leads down to the river and as we approached this path there was a female impala staring towards this path. I stopped and switched off the car and knew she was here somewhere. A few seconds late she appeared walking towards the top of the path. The impala must have heard her vocalizing and that is why it was staring, there was no way the impala could have seen her. As the leopard neared the top she very slightly peeked over, and as she did this the impala started alarm calling.

Usually when this happens all other animals in the area are on alert and we didn’t expect anything else to happen. The impala was frozen, still alarming and the leopard sat at the top staring at the impala. The leopard got up and started walking towards the impala and this is when the impala ran away. Everyone on the car was very excited and there were grins all around. Little did we know the unexpected would soon happen.

As the leopard started walking back towards the river bank I was in a deep conversation about this particular leopard and how amazing she was for us and the future of leopards here at Kwandwe, when suddenly I heard Ivan’s voice again from the back “Nico, there is a baby impala.” My head was suddenly all over the place looking around for this baby impala, and there it was lying under a bush right next to the path the leopard came up from. Everyone suddenly went quiet, you could feel the tension in the car as the leopard walked straight towards the baby impala. As she got closer and closer the suspense grew, and we were all waiting for her to see the baby impala, she paused for a second, then carried on walking right past it. At this moment there was a sigh of relieve but also slight disappointment. A snort came from the bushes the female impala ran into, in a flash the baby impala shot up running towards its mother. The leopard turned like nothing I have ever seen and started chasing. All we could see was a blur as she was diving through bushes and swerving around trees, very quickly catching up to the baby impala. She emerged from a cloud of dust with the baby impala in her mouth, walking back to the path she came on and disappeared.

From seeing this leopard on the other side of the river late on a hot morning, not really expecting anything incredible to happen, to her catching an impala right in front of us an hour later just sums up the unpredictability of the African bush.