Getting Catty at Sabi Sands Game Reserve
The following story by journalist Dana Hammond, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a regular contributor to AAA publications, first appeared in Horizons magazine. Or, Horizons and Your AAA magazines.
People say a leopard can’t change its spots, but I say watching a leopard can change people. I saw that happen for myself while on a safari with African Travel at the renowned Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa. Bouncing across the wild tundra in an open safari vehicle with just a few like-minded souls, we were homebound for the eco-chic Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge after our first exhilarating game drive. Visions of mud-splashed hippos, lumbering rhinos, elephants of all sizes and myriad antelope already decorated our memories.
As we drove the air swirled around us like an embrace, still warm and welcoming as the the last wisps of sunlight left the sky. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a bright beam of light caught the eyes and eventually illuminated the full coat of a leopard on the prowl. Surely Mother Nature took her most fashion-forward stance when she dressed the leopard in such spectacular finery from head to toe, and I couldn’t help thinking we were privileged to spy the ultimate cat walk. Our tracker spotlighted the animal for only a brief moment. It was simply a glimpse of what was to come.
Sabi Sands sits adjacent to the legendary Kruger National Park. Animals roam freely between the vast park and the private reserve, but by all accounts the elusive leopards have developed an extra soft spot for the Sabi Sands area. It’s recognized as one of the best places in the world to spy the shy creatures.
During our first morning game drive the area’s bounty continued to reveal itself. A hush fell over our group as we spied a pair of leopards playing and preening in a clearing. Usually leopards are solitary creatures. We watched for several mesmerizing moments before they disappeared into the bush. That encounter would have been enough to satisfy me, but it proved to be another prelude. The next hour flashed by in what seemed like a minute. It started with a single leopard snoozing on a termite mound, yet another marvelous scene. But the excitement kept building as the leopard woke up with a series of tooth-baring yawns and then strolled right alongside our safari vehicle to reposition itself atop a tree. As if a fantasy wildlife director were choreographing every move, the leopard seemingly posed in a few different positions and then decided to sprawl out across a limb with its tail dangling freely in perfect repose. It made me want to put down the camera and get out a sketch pad. And, that was telling.
While the leopard was obviously unfazed in our presence, it nonetheless made me feel as if it was obliging in some sense. It was like this amazing creature knowingly let us into its secret world, gave us time to take lots of pictures because that’s what we do in our own tech-centric world, and then challenged all of us to put down the gizmos to absorb the true essence of its being. The raw magnificence, the clarity of primordial power, was palpable. In those moments, I felt connected to Africa. It informed me. I started breathing in its time. And, I created a map in my mind to get back to that place whenever I want to return in a daydream.
All Photo Credits: Kym Hammond