Driving along next to the Sand River, the sun beating low in the afternoon sky. The fresh air is tainted with the earthy organic smell of the water, swirling relentlessly through the cascades of granite lining the course way. Golden shades stream through the canopy of leaves above us, highlighting the miniature movements of ants as they file up and down the tree trunks.
As we head west along the pathway, some evidence comes to light. Footprints of a female leopard indicate her current presence in the area and sure enough she appears just ahead of us. Her head held high, she moves in what looks to be a relaxed but determined manner. Using the open road ahead of us to avoid navigating in the tall grass. We watch as she selects a small guarri bush to scent mark, backing up and spraying urine against the leaves, the sweet smell clouding the air for a moment. Rebel, my tracker, identifies this leopard as the Schotia female leopard; a striking creature and mother to a young male leopard born in January the previous year. One way that Rebel identifies this female leopard is with her unique patterning on her face. By looking closely at the spots on the top row of her cheeks, just above the last line of whiskers, we count four marks on her right side and 3 on her left, thus giving her a 4:3 spot pattern.
With the air taking on a crisp cool turn, we watch her move through the thicket and down into a deep dry riverbed. Her gait still relaxed but with purpose in her stride, we watch from above as she weaves through the sand. To our knowledge she had earlier left her son in a separate dry river system about three kilometres away and it now appeared that she was intending to get back to him.
With the vegetation getting thicker, we skirted around the top of the drainage line but lost sight of the leopard. By predicting her direction, Rebel guided us to an opening where a small animal pathway cut up from the base of the drainage line, and we waited. Moments later, like a curtain being drawn open after an interval at the West End, she appeared – curving around the corner, following the pathway. Approaching us from the right, she walked comfortably around the vehicle, and straight into sight of a spotted hyena.
Calmness left and tension arrived.
With a cool confidence, the spotted hyena approached us. Electric energy filled the air as high pitch shrieks arose from one, followed by threatening hisses from the other. This type of confrontation is not uncommon for these two species and after a few seconds, the interaction dissolved and the hyena moved away.
Relaxing back in our seats, we set to continue on with this afternoon’s journey, but little did we know that things were about to dramatically change for this mother.
With no pre-warning, the air suddenly prickled with the sound of overwrought squeals and animated high-pitched shrieks that could only belong to one animal. Tension elevated instantly. The electric sound rose to a crescendo as the bushes in front of us erupted with a pack of African wild dogs chasing two scrub hares. The female leopard bolted. This wasn’t an interaction worth staying for, for her. With the dogs dashing around the vehicle, scrub hares in their mouths, the feeling of survival was never more blatant. It was an impressive sight to be audience to. We counted nine dogs, although with their hunting still in full swing, their movements made it a challenge to keep track. With sunset imminent, their mottled coats radiated the soft mauve lighting emitted from the dusty sky. It’s not hard to see why they are also known as painted dogs.
And as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. Dust particles caught the sun rays as they floated to the ground and we were left alone in the clearing. Still intent on following the Schotia female leopard, we navigated our way through the thicket in the direction which she ran. It wasn’t long until we located her, standing on top of a prominent termite mound. This, however proved to be nearly fatal for her, as for the second time, but with no warning, the ground erupted again. Our hearts jolted as the dogs hysterically sprinted across the mound, chasing the leopard up into a neighbouring marula tree. Hysterical squeals and cries lit up the air as the dogs’ dance continued around the tree and vehicle. Their infectious excitement and enthusiasm surrounding us once more. We watched for several minutes as the shocked and bewildered mother sat in the branches of the marula anxiously watching the events below. There wasn’t much she could do but wait. The dogs, still hunting, seemed unprovoked by her position and gradually they started moving away once again. Their calls progressively moving away from us in a westerly direction, leaving a lingering cloud of anxiety in the air.
Our eyes moved back to the female leopard. Remaining in the safety of the branches, she too was fixated on the direction in which the pack had run. This was the same direction she was heading in to retrieve her cub. An expression of concern and anxiety cemented on her face. It now seemed very risky to descend the tree, especially after being caught out on the termite mound. For several long minutes we waited as she scoped the western side, and then moving around the tree to access the east. In the distance the dogs were calling to each other. It is incredible how much distance they can cover over such a short period of time.
With the sun having long since set and the waxing moon taking over the night shift, the leopard descended the tree. Setting a dedicated and firm pace, we watched as she disappeared into the dark shadows of the bush.
Photographic image by Nick Du Plessis, drawing by Kirsten Tinkler