I decided to leave the lodge before sunrise at 5.15am. My plan was to drive directly south to Hwata Pan, to not pass Begin and not collect $200. Hwata Pan is an active waterhole due to it having permanent water in an otherwise dry area, and I wanted to see if I could find a nocturnal drinker. I was determined not to be distracted by anything else, and made good progress on the chilly drive as I glugged steamy sips of Zimbabwean coffee from my flask.
Turning on to the road for the pan I spied a low-slung leopard slinking across the path, away from the pan. Time stood still. Instantly I turned the vehicle off so as not to scare the cat. Through the crispy bronze mopane leaves I could still see it sitting in the bushes. It wasn’t running away.
Leopard sightings here are fairly frequent but often fleeting and nearly always in fading light.
I started the vehicle again, just letting the engine turn over without putting my foot on the accelerator, and crawled forward. The leopard moved and I stopped. It walked around a bit and again I drove nearer and switched off. After sniffing various stumps and leaves it settled down, sat, and then even lay down and curled up for a quick nap – or led me to believe it was napping. I recognised it as the territorial male of the area that has a ripped nostril. He now knew he had been seen but had decided he would endure being spotted.
I wondered if he had already drunk at the pan, because the direction he went in was away from the water. Then I wondered if he wanted to hunt something that came to drink – but the white rhino at the waterhole was well off the menu. About 15 minutes later, when the rhino walked away, the leopard sat up and walked past the ivory scrub thorns in the direction of the water. The francolin and guinea fowl were screeching blue murder at his brazenness. Now I knew he was going to drink and quickly drove to the water, parked low to the ground and dialled in all the manual settings I desired with the rising light.
This resultant photograph is my most precious leopard moment and will stay etched in my heart forever.