I was half asleep when I heard the radio going. The sun had just started to rise and I was enjoying not being on early morning duty. Through the radio chatter and half dream-world I was in, I deduced a leopard had wandered into Mombo Camp and the manager on duty was keeping track of its movements so as to make sure guests and staff were safe. After the leopard had slunk past the main area and into a thick bush near the rotunda all the guests left for their game drive. They had just witnessed one of Africa’s most elegant, whilst sipping on their first cup of coffee. The radio went silent and I managed to get another 30 minutes of sleep in, gold in the bush!
After arriving at the morning meeting, the staff and the duty manager were understandably excited. They recounted the story, making the rest of us envious, before we set about our morning chores. I thought it must be Legadima, the most relaxed female leopard in the area and a frequent visitor to camp. Around 9 am I realised that the guides had been unable to follow the leopard out of camp and that there had been no further sighting of her in the field. No tracks were recorded of her leaving her last known location. Even though she was a relaxed leopard and one I had personally ‘bumped into’ on numerous occasions, one could not risk the chance of excitable guests disembarking their Land Rover with a leopard near the rotunda and either of them scaring the other. Safety first!
Being at the helm of Mombo Camp I thought it quite important for me to go and check the area where she was last seen. I casually walked to the rotunda and stood on the edge of the decking. I waved at the staff vehicle and driver parked at the exit to the rotunda (he was also scoping the area) and started to peer into the bushes. The vegetation was thick after the rains and so I kept my eye on a few feverberry bushes, hoping to see some movement. A butterfly here, a relaxed robin-chat there… I was so focused that I could have won a staring contest with a baobab. After a good minute or so my eyes started to water and no movement was seen except for different dancing shades of light. I decided she was nowhere near the rotunda and the area was now safe again. I grabbed my radio from my belt and without breaking my gaze from the shrubbery declared the area safe to the rest of the camp. Then, as Mombo’s ‘brave leader’ turned to go back up the boardwalk in a triumphant lope, all hell broke loose.
The sound I heard was akin to my days growing up when we fired up the fishing boat outboard engines on land to clear the salt from them, only louder! Brrrrrrrruuuahhh! It felt like a Boeing 747 had just buzzed camp. An eruption of small birds within a 100 metre radius took flight. The closest woolly caper shook, trembling, almost as if trying to separate itself from whatever previous plant structure it had grown upon and the well-hidden leopard it had now decided it was a bad idea to conceal. My knees went weak and I said to myself out loud, “Don’t run!”
I knew this moment would come one day and all the scenarios I had played in my head had led to this one. Don’t run! Before I could finish the last word, my feet took off down the boardwalk, refusing to be controlled by my brain. It was if they said, “You stay and get eaten, but I’m outta here!” After a few metres and no leopard rucksack, my senses prevailed and I twisted back in a half-squat motion in case she was still coming at me, my eyes darting in every direction expecting to see a spotted cat zig zagging towards my prehistoric man squat. Fortunately the scene had returned to the calm that it had been just 20 seconds prior to the encounter. I still stood my ground.
The driver started the car and sped towards the decking in a cloud of dust, but there was no leopard to chase off of my flailing arms and legs, just a foul smell I may have left at the rotunda. Calm prevailed. I walked up to the office in reverse, thinking no one had heard, in an attempt to warn everyone from the safety of this area. I was met in haste by the girls in the office who exclaimed that they had heard the snarl/growl/roar and the girlish scream of “Don’t run”. They had thought I was being attacked, and one of them was smiling strangely. Hmmmm… I may have to remove her from Facebook. I assured them I was fine.
I was then advised that I should sit as I was a new shade of white. The office radio had just reported Legadima had been sighted about five kilometres from camp and that the leopard at the rotunda was in fact one of her not so friendly adult daughters, Pula, who in no uncertain terms would not hesitate at attempting to disembowel me if she felt threatened! I took up the offer of a chair and asked for a sugary drink!
Written and Photographed by Graham Simmonds