stories from the bush: chasing leopards in botswana

I awake with a start to the sound of feet padding softly outside my tent.

It is so cold that I can see my breath; I start to freeze both literally and figuratively. Still pitch black outside, I can see nothing through the flaps of canvas above my head.  We’d been warned that lions frequently passed through camp on their way to drink from the marsh during the dry season. My tent is equipped with air horn for just such an occasion.

Just as a panic starts to warm my chilled limbs, I hear the soft, familiar call of my guide, Mox.

5 AM. Time to start the day.

sunrise over southern africa

sunrise over southern africa

I crawl out of my bed, already fully clothed. It is winter in Botswana. Too cold in the mornings to undress. Three days in; my clothes are stiff against my goose bumps.

I wrap myself in even more layers, grab my fuzzy hot water bottle and shuffle to breakfast for hot oatmeal and red bush tea. Our last day at the camp in Chobe, we are determined to find the leopard we’ve been tracking for days. I shovel down my breakfast and hop in the open-air truck for yet another freezing drive through the bush.

The wind whips my face and I am suddenly wide awake. I wrap a scarf around my head, so only my eyes are exposed, scouring the area for the elusive cat. The bush is eerily still, and I brace myself for another morning of defeat.

monkey 1

Out of nowhere, the birds and monkeys start going crazy in the trees. Warning of danger. Mox slams on the gas, driving over bushes and small trees towards the noise.  We spot a family of baboons fleeing. I notice something coming towards us in the clearing.

hyena distance

hyena1

for reference: the black metal on the left is our truck, the hyena not 3 feet away from us

A pack of hyenas surrounds us. My breath catches in my throat. I’ve been warned that hyenas are not only the most dangerous animals in the bush, but also the most ruthless. Three of the dogs are fighting over the remains of a small baboon, while the rest circle us, still hungry.

hyena2

As my fear builds, I notice something darting out of the trees a few hundred yards away.

leppy

She appears with the other half of the poor baboon. Mox chases the leopard down, fleeing from the hyenas and following her to the base of a tree.

leopard 8

leopard tree

She waits there, breakfasting on the prey she stole from the hyenas. Ready to climb the tree if they decide to come for revenge.

leopard 7

leopard 4

Never have I been so terrified, thrilled, horrified and amazed in such a short period of time.  This was the circle of life, in real life. The female leopard had challenged a group of hungry hyenas on her own, stealing the majority of their prize. She did what she had to to survive the winter.

leopard3leopard 3

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