I was driving in South Luangwa National Park on the main Chichele Road, less than a kilometre from Mfuwe Lodge, when I saw Duncan, driving a safari vehicle slowly towards me. He pulled over on the left side of the road and I drew alongside. We greeted each other and I asked him if there had been any special sightings that morning. He said, “You are looking at two leopards.” “What? Where?” I responded. “In the sausage tree behind me.”
He started his vehicle and drove onto the verge of the road so I could manoeuvre my vehicle to get a better sighting. It was enchanting. Two leopards, mother and daughter, were play fighting on a thick horizontal branch about halfway up a magnificent tree. The foliage prevented me from getting a perfect view, but it was clear that they were enjoying themselves. The daughter leapt above her mother onto another branch and out of sight.
It was after 10am and the morning safari vehicles were all leaving the park after four hours of driving. I was fresh and had no pressing engagements. I could sit in the shade, waiting for the cats to move into a more visible location in the tree. The other vehicles stopped for a few minutes, their occupants could chalk up another couple of leopard sightings, sadly not in plain sight, then moved on for breakfast back at their lodges.
I did a three-point turn and parked in the optimum position to observe the leopards, all on my own. The daughter skipped through the tree and ventured out onto a branch in plain sight. She was playing with the sausage tree fruits, patting them with her paw like any domestic kitty. The fruits are shaped like a fat sausage, covered in velveteen fuzz, with a long stalk. They are firm and tough, weighing over two kilos. Mum decided to investigate and the bough sagged noticeably. The daughter managed to get a small sausage in her jaws and jumped over her mum and went back up into the tree. I managed to get this episode on videotape which I will try to embed in this blog after it has been uploaded to YouTube.
I sat at the roadside for another 20 minutes until the leopards decided they were hungry and climbed gracefully down the main trunk into the long grass where they were invisible. It was a special experience.
South Luangwa is noted for its leopards. During my first visit as Valley Doctor in 2014, I lived in the territory of Alice, one of the most famous leopards in the park. I occasionally would see her in a tree when coming back to my lodgings. She was a prolific mother and gave her cubs the best start in life. She disappeared a few years ago at the ripe old age of about 15. Today’s mother was probably one of Alice’s progeny, whom I may have seen as a cub five years ago.
Female leopards stay in the area where they were born. Their mothers allocate a portion of their own territory to their daughters, but the sons have to leave and make their own way in the world. I know that the mother will be teaching the daughter to hunt in this location, between the Kakumbi Air Strip and the main Chichele Road.
Alice’s mother was called Marmalade. She was so habituated to safari vehicles that she used them to sneak up on her prey, often crawling underneath so the tourists were treated to the sight of a leopard a few centimetres below their feet.
My present lodging is in the Game Management Zone, across the Luangwa River, outside the national park boundary. The theory is that people can live in harmony with wild animals. All very well in principle, but growing fruit and vegetables here attracts elephants, who can munch their way through your crop in a matter of hours.
My neighbour, V, reckons she doesn’t need to visit the park as she sees all the wildlife from her verandah. There have always been leopards in this area. I remember seeing a leopard cross the track when I was making a home visit to Kapani late at night back in 2014. When V moved into the area five months ago, she would hear a female leopard calling mournfully for her mate (who had unfortunately wandered into a hunting concession area and had been shot). The leopard would regularly pass by the bungalow, often leaving “presents” of killed baboons or small impala for V by her washing line.
The only gifts I get are turds from the evil vervet monkeys, one of whom knocked my WiFi router to the ground, pulling out the cable and crapping on it.