Every trip has one: a favorite moment, event, or experience. This is my favorite experience from four+ months in Africa. Because this was our Big Experience, I’m making all the images Big; that is, if you click on them, you’ll see them at a larger size. You’ll need to use your back button to return to the blog and continue reading.
We had arrived at the Halali Resort in Etosha National Park. That’s the middle of three resorts, spread east to west across the park. We spent two nights at each.
After registering, setting up camp, eating lunch, and cooling off with showers to soak our clothes (evaporation cools), we headed out around 3:00 p.m. for our afternoon/evening game drive. Because the resort gate closes at sunset—roughly 7:30 p.m.—evening game drives started in the afternoon.
We weren’t seeing as much game as we did around the Namutoni Resort farther east. The terrain was drier, and animals were more concentrated around the waterholes.
In a woodsy section on a horrible road, a spot of color caught Mike’s eye as we slowly cruised along. “Stop. Back up,” he said.
This is what we were looking at, except, of course, the scenery extended on and on all around.
Does anything catch your eye? Not so much, I imagine.
Now look more closely.
The color was red. It was on the ground, just a few feet off the road, but tucked between tree trunks and obscured by grass, branches, and rocks.
We crept up and back and up and back, sussing out the best view and angle for pictures. It wasn’t easy. Something was always in the way.
It was the carcass of a baby zebra. Eviscerated, but clean and fresh. All the quarters were still intact. Why wasn’t it eaten up more, I wondered.
Really. I wondered that. Hey, it’s all part of the thought process.
Well, du-uh. It wasn’t eaten up more because this was a fresh kill.
A fresh kill!
That meant the predator was probably still around, not far away. In fact, it probably had a wary eye on us right then.
We searched. Six eyes peering through three pairs of binoculars scanned the trees and brush all around, focusing close and then farther away. We pulled the truck up a few feet and searched some more.
“There’s a lion under that tree,” Mike said, pointing.
We all zooomed in.
No. It was a cat but not a lion. It was a leopard under a bushy tree, a big, beautiful, well-fed, male leopard, significantly bigger than the leopard we saw at Mahango, which was probably female or young.
We oohed and ahhed. We inched back and forth with the truck for the best possible view. We took the best pictures we could get.
Meanwhile, the leopard panted heavily, shifted and turned, stepped out from under the tree to poop, and laid down again in the not-nearly-cool-enough shade.
Mike was bearing the brunt of the sun in the truck and was desperate to get some cold water out of the fridge in the back. Survival in the heat is all about cold water for Mike. A pool of warm water simply won’t satisfy.
Of course, you’re not supposed to get out of your car at all, except in designated areas, and even Mike wasn’t keen to get out of the truck next to a leopard kill with the leopard in sight. So we backed away from the scene to a shady spot, and Mike snuck out and got some cold water.
When we returned, the leopard was gone. Sneaky devil.
But the zebra carcass was still there, so we were pretty sure the leopard would be back. We decided to continue with the game drive and return for the last part of the evening, before heading back to the resort at sunset.
When we returned in the evening, the leopard was back in his spot under his chosen tree.
Because we had to be inside the resort gate at an early-ish hour, Mike was convinced we wouldn’t see any activity. “We might,” I said, countering pessimism with optimism as I am wont to do. “It’s been a while since he’s eaten, and I think he looks hungry.”
Africa delivered. Again. Oh, Africa, I adore you!
About twenty minutes before we needed to leave (according to the GPS, which knew how far we had to go and how fast we were likely to travel), the leopard got up and cautiously stalked toward its kill, which happened to be toward us as well.
Clearly, the leopard was habituated to cars, but it watched us intently nonetheless.
If I had to pick a single best moment from the trip, it’s this: The leopard walking toward the kill and us. It was magnificent! I can see it clearly in my mind, in slow motion. The smooth, slinky gait. The watching eyes. The silent stealth. The gorgeous spots. The thin, hammock-like body, slung low between the shoulders and hips. The disproportionately thick legs and large feet. The open mouth, tongue, and yellow teeth. The panting.
He licked the zebra hide.
He pulled fur from the hindquarter.
He revisited the empty gut cavity.
He yanked on the zebra’s tail.
It’s not easy skinning and butchering an animal. Knife-like teeth are handy, but so are hands and thumbs.
Eventually, the leopard tore through skin on a front quarter and settled in to rip, shred, and devour hard-earned zebra flesh.
And we had to leave or risk missing curfew and being ejected from the park. GAH! Don’t get me started on how annoying the no-driving-after-sunset rule is.
The leopard didn’t flinch or bat an eye when we started the truck and pulled away.
We were the first car out the gate in the morning. Surprise, surprise. We swung by a waterhole first, then revisited our leopard to see what kind of progress he’d made overnight.
In addition to setting the location on our GPS, we had rolled a rock into the road at the site and noted an old pile of elephant poo nearby. We didn’t want to lose our leopard.
The GPS said we’d arrived. The rock and ellie poo were there. The zebra carcass was not.
Sigh. My optimistic heart sank. Imagine what Mike felt.
But then my optimistic heart embraced the mystery: What had happened? What clues could we find to tell us what had happened? Had the zebra carcass been consumed or merely moved? Had hyenas ganged up on the leopard and stolen the kill? Had jackals snuck in while the leopard wasn’t watching?
Again, six eyes peered through three pairs of binoculars, scouring the surrounding area for a zebra carcass, leopard, hyena, scraps, evidence of dragging, any clues at all. We inched forward and back. We turned the truck around to orient ourselves differently and inched forward and back.
We began to think our leopard experience was over. That would be okay, really. It was an awesome sighting.
We decided to move on to whatever was next and maybe return once more later in the day. As we pulled ahead, something caught my eye. Something red, I thought. But we’d been back and forth countless times already; I was sure it was nothing.
“Stop,” I said, sheepishly. “Go back.”
I didn’t find it on the backward drift. “Try pulling forward very slowly; that’s how I saw it originally.” I explained that I thought I saw something red up in a tree.
Leopards climb. We know that. We also know they are capable of hauling heavy, cumbersome kills up into trees where lions, hyenas, jackals and other would-be thieves can’t get to them.
Six eyes searched.
There it was: the zebra carcass stashed in a tree, about ten feet off the ground, a bit farther back from the road than where we found the leopard yesterday.
Honest to dog, if we hadn’t already known about the carcass in the area, we would never have noticed this.
If the zebra carcass was still here. Was the leopard?
As a matter of fact, it was.
It was just lying there as big cats do, so we mucked about, trying to figure out how to get a halfway decent picture of the leopard and stashed zebra, zooming in through sticks, leaves, and grass, and getting our subjects in focus. We were so focused on getting the cameras to focus that we failed to notice the stealthy approach of another predator.
“Look!” Mike whispered. He pointed toward the front of the truck. Two feet in front of us was another leopard: a female, quite a bit smaller than the male.
Lady leopard had to have walked up along one side of the truck, but which one? We had no idea. So much for our keen observation skills!
This leopard paid us no attention whatsoever. I don’t know what she saw or smelled, but her attention was riveted on the area around the zebra and male leopard. I suspect she knew what was up, that the male was here and he had fresh meat.
Leopards are solitary and territorial, but territories overlap, especially those of males and females. However, neighbors generally avoid being in the same area at the same time, except during mating times.
Lady leopard sat down beside the truck and watched the big guy with us for a few minutes. Soon, he got up and took a few purposeful steps toward us, and the female hastened away. This was not breeding season, and he wasn’t sharing.
We, too, decided to be on our way. We checked back at the end of the day and found our fellow about a kilometer away, strolling through the woods alongside the road. Perhaps he had gone out for a drink.
We broke camp at the Halali Resort. We’d spend the next two nights at the westernmost campground: Okaukuejo.
Our first stop on the morning game drive was the leopard site. Would the zebra still be there in the tree? Would we see the leopard?
I boldly made an optimistic prediction: “We’ll find the leopard in the tree, eating a zebra breakfast.”
“Uh-huh.” Mike rolled his eyes.
Mike recognized the area well before I did and focused in before I even had my bearings. He shook his head in disbelief, and I think he sounded exasperated when he said, “He’s in the tree, eating the zebra.”
See? Told you. When will Mike learn? Africa delivers!
As we watched and marveled at our luck, a hyena arrived on the scene. The leopard wanted nothing to do with that: He hopped down from the tree and walked away.
The hyena scavenged around below the cached zebra.
It seemed to find a few scraps—and maybe some blood. I can’t figure out what’s happening in this photo. Where did the hyena get those jowls? They don’t seem to be there when the hyena picks up its head. The animal appears to be sucking something off the ground, and the ground appears to be red. Is that a pool of blood?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t satisfying. The hyena saw the zebra, desperately wanted the zebra, but had no way of getting the zebra. It performed a pathetic jump in an effort to reach the feast, but it was hopeless. The hyena would have to wait and see what else might fall during the leopard’s next meal. Such is life for a scavenger.
And that’s the last we saw of the leopard.
During the three days that we watched this leopard, we saw just one other car on the road, and it didn’t stick around.
Watching a leopard on a kill will always be a thrill, but finding this leopard on our own added another layer of fun to the experience. We pieced together clues and worked hard to locate the animals. That effort makes the event even more satisfying. We earned it.
Our parents always said we’d appreciate things more if we had to work for them. They were right.