Every now and again I’d be accompanied by the Lodge hosts Fran and Nick and when on leave from camps Katie would join me on my drives. They seemed to be my lucky charms. It was great to share my experiences first hand with them, usually they’d have to listen to me going on about what I had (or hadn’t) seen plus at the same time they got the chance to venture into the park instead of being lodge-bound all the time.
So far on our drives together we’d had some great cub sightings, wild dogs fighting hyenas and loads more and this particular evening was to be no different.
It had been a relatively quiet drive before we arrived at Wamilombe and saw a few cars beneath an ebony tree. Knowing this usually meant leopard we headed over and sure enough sprawled out across a branch was Alice’s elder daughter. Finding her coincided with sundowner time, a traditional safari past time but something that I never could understand. Going to drink gin & tonic just when action was about to kick off and in the best light never made sense to me, but I never complained, it meant I almost had the park to myself for 30 minutes every evening.
As the cars headed away towards their sundowner spots we were left with only one other vehicle and sure enough at about twenty past five the leopard woke up and headed down the tree. From my experiences so far quarter past five onwards seemed to be leopard wake up time, the hot sun was setting and it was hunting time.
We backed off a little and the leopard came up on to the road, right behind the other vehicle. Using the raised road as the perfect viewpoint over Wamilombe she surveyed her kingdom, no doubt trying to work out where her potential dinner was grazing.
After a few minutes she slunk off towards the plain and lay concealed behind the bushes to observe her prey for a little longer. This was the signal for the other car to leave for their delayed sundowners and we now had her all to ourselves. Bliss.
Driving round to get a wider view of her and expectant that she’d no doubt head towards us to hunt we viewed from afar.
Wamilombe is the perfect rooting ground for warthogs but as the sun sets they hurriedly trot across the plain towards the safety of their burrows. A fully grown warthog is more than a match for most leopards, especially this small female. Their tusks are formidable and could easily spell the end for a leopard on the receiving end of them.
Alice’s daughter was clearly hungry though and being an opportunist was willing to try. She lay between the plain and the warthog’s burrow so when she saw a family trotting towards her seemingly unaware of her presence she sprung into action, slinking across to cut them off. At first the male passed her, untouched and still unaware then the first youngster but then it was too late. She was spotted. The sow ushered the rest of her youngsters past, staring down the leopard, daring her to try. A half-hearted hunt but luckily she hadn't been spotted by any baboons or grazing antelope on the plain so there was still the chance of a hunt for her on Wamilombe plain.
Now knowing the leopard’s habits more than on my arrival I knew she’d probably use one of the dry hippo gullies to make her approach. We were situated perfectly with a gully running directly towards us. We had a ringside seat.
The sun was dipping behind the horizon rapidly, leaving just a warm glow across the plain. Usually in the park the only sound you hear is natural but with Wamilombe’s close proximity to some of the riverside lodges you sometimes heard more human noises, this was usually music or machinery but tonight was a bit different.
As we stared along the gully, a loud speaker started up. ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming’. As the sentence finished Alice’s daughter appeared, crawling towards us along the gully. Ears pricked, paws treading down softly to avoid detection by the nearby puku and impala.
Again the loudspeaker continued. The leopard didn't react. We all soon realised what we were hearing; one of the nearby lodges was hosting a wedding and whilst we were sat watching a leopard hunt we were listening to the best man speech drift across the Luangwa to us. Just a bit surreal.
The leopard continued its stalk, right towards us. With failing light I switched to manual focus, not wanting to miss the shot if the auto-focus decided to start faltering. As she neared I began to click away until she was too close to focus. I put my camera down and watched. The gully passed within feet of us and I picked up my phone to film her pass by. We let her move onwards, all amazed at what we’d just witnessed. My three lucky charms had struck again. Clearly not lucky for the leopard though as she was unsuccessful in her hunt after all. All antelope out of range.