A base-jumping Garfield

25th May 2014
© Chris Davies

© Chris Davies

Sunday 18th May 2014

Another exciting day at the office. This morning we went to walk Hlangaluwe Pan which is on the Limpopo floodplain near to the EcoTraining camp. We’d heard over the two-way radio that there was a breeding herd of elephants in the area so we were primed that there was a chance we may run into them.

We were not long into our walk, actually we’d barely started our walk when we heard them trumpeting over to our east. The eles were this side of the Sporobolus plains which was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t too long after this that Rhodes raised his right hand to give the universal signal for stop. As he did 20 elephants came running across our path from east to west.

They were about 50 metres in front of us and were clearly agitated by something. It certainly wasn’t us as we’d been silent and the wind was in our favour. Afterwards we’d narrowed it down to one of, or a combination of three things. Firstly, it had been very windy throughout the night which may have unsettled them. It can do so because it severely inhabits their two most valuable senses, hearing and smell. Secondly, Duncan had just driven along Middle Road and may have inadvertently spooked them and finally we later saw a big bull elephant trailing them. He may have been trying a bit too hard with the herd’s cows.

We immediately retreated and watched them from what we thought was a safe distance. Well that was until an adolescent bull peered from around the corner of a bush. This caused another immediate but much quicker retreat to even higher ground. It was this last element of a the bull sneaking up on us that made it a proper heart thumping encounter.

Once we’d managed to stabilise our vital statistics we were able to enjoy a really good sighting. However, we decided not to walk this route as it wasn’t wise to go into the “coverless” Fever Tree Forest, the breeding herd were heading that way. Even if we’d gone west our scent would have carried to the eles which would have added to their stress. Instead we got back into the Cruiser and walked from the bottom of Sand Pad to Makwadzi.

After lunch we took a short walk down to the river which was incredibly productive “game wise”, this even included a buffalo encounter. But this was just for starters, the main course was a walk down at Chichatcha, again the Limpopo floodplain was our destination. However, we never got there.

As we drove along Pafuri Main there was lots of chatter with no one really paying attention to what was going on in the bush. That was nobody other than Nicola who suddenly shouted, “Stop, there’s a leopard in the baobab”. Rhodes wasted no time in backing up and there it was as bold as you like lying in the afternoon sun draped along a branch as if it were posing for a photo shoot.

As we were trying to get a good position to watch him I started to get over excited and said to Rhodes that we should walk him, to which he replied he was thinking exactly along those lines. Despite Rhodes’ agreement I carried on making my case, “We should definitely walk him, it’s not as if he’s going anywhere and we’re not going to get a great view from the road. We can walk from the airstrip access road, it’s only 750 metres away. We should definitely walk him, we must walk him.”

I’m not sure if Rhodes had already decided to make the approach on foot, whether he wanted to or whether he just wanted me to shut up but it wasn’t long before we were out of the vehicle and on our way.

The wind was in our favour, the only thing that wasn’t were the leaves on the floor which crunched under our feet, However, everyone was super keen and walked incredibly quietly. The approach was in two phases, the first gave us a good view at 100 metres but it wasn’t “photography” good. We pressed on for our final approach which was the adjacent baobab, just 50 metres from the leopard. Here we could see him clearly but it wasn’t long before he raised his head and saw us.

Up until this point I hadn’t realised how big he was. He suddenly jumped up onto his feet, ran along a limb of the giant baobab and launched himself spreadeagled out of the tree. He resembled a base-jumping Garfield. The jump must have been 20 foot if not higher and he hit the bushes with a thud, then he was off. We could track his path away from us by listening to the vervet monkeys that announced his route as he went.

We carried on to the Baobab so we could see the tree for ourselves, it was huge. Neither Rhodes or I thought he would jump like that. There was always a good chance that he may catch onto our presence but I thought at worse he’d shin down the tree and then be off. We had a good nose around the area. Rhodes found some drag marks which he followed up to find an impala carcass.

After all the excitement of the day we now needed a break so we carried onto Reed Buck Vlei by vehicle for sundowners. This wasn’t the end of the game viewing, we had genet, buffalo, elephant, hyena and a white backed night heron to round the day off in fitting style.

This is now my fourth leopard on foot. Technically it doesn’t actually count as an encounter because we first spotted him from the vehicle. But still it was an incredible experience. I know everybody says their favourite African animal is a leopard, I’m afraid I can’t possibly break the mould here. Each and every sighting is so incredibly special.