29 Jul KRUGER NATIONAL PARK (South Africa)
02 DECEMBER – 05 DECEMBER 2017
This is an entry that I wrote for our fabulous tour guide in Kruger, Robbie Williams of Nhongo Safaris.
In his near 20 years as a guide in the park he rates this incident as one of the ‘crazier’ events/sightings that took place.
So here you are Robbie, this one is for you, here’s to what will inevitably be a great book.
Ever since I was a child, I had known it was my mothers’ eternal dream to go on safari in Africa. It would often come up in our family conversations when discussing our top of our list destinations. However, dreams can have the propensity of remaining just that, aimless thoughts that lie sedately in your mind, uncomplicated and uncommitted to ever finding a way to realisation. It had seemed, in my mind at least, knowing the financial situation of our family growing up, that my mothers’ dream would always be just that, a fantastic dream without the means to be realised.
We were a lower middle income migrant family that lived in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Not that we ever struggled in life, my father worked tirelessly as a storeman for our national carrier, Qantas for nearly 30 years. But making plans for what felt like an adventure for the rich and famous was somewhat contrary to our standard, and somewhat mundane, biennial visits to Belgrade, Serbia where our relatives lived. I, (we), were fortunate enough however to have substantially discounted airfares, (which we could afford), through Qantas, due to my fathers’ tenure with the company.
In recent years our family circumstances changed. My father passed away five years ago and I, now older and earning a reasonable salary, was now in the fortunate position to be able to make my mothers’ dream come true, which is something that I had personally always wanted to do for her.
Thus, this brings me to a story that took place in Kruger National Park, on a Nhongo Safaris tour, guided by the wonderful Robbie Williams, who I now consider to be a life-long friend.
For me personally I had always thought that in going on safari you needed to have a particular kind of passion or yearning for a specific style of experience. As I said, this was a dream that my mother always had, it was never mine. Truth be told, at the start of this adventure I anticipated that the only real amount of excitement that I would have would be the joy and happiness I received from knowing that my mother would be fulfilling her eternal dream. But hey, life is never short of surprises and you know the quote that goes, ‘Africa changes you forever…once you have been there, you will never be the same’. Let me tell you, not a truer word has been spoken. Africa, in particular Kruger NP, had a wonderful impact on me.
This story however is not about my own minor epiphany but rather about an encounter our safari group had with a somewhat curious and cheeky leopard that earned the nickname ‘Dunlop’.
Date: 04 December 2017
During our second morning in Kruger our guide Robbie had wanted to follow up on the sighting of a pride of lions. I don’t recall exactly where it was but somewhere during the drive to the last known locatio of the pride, Robbie received a call of a dual leopard sighting on a road nearby that was occurring at that moment and thus made the decision to go and investigate.
It was probably a 5-10 min drive later that we sighted two safari vehicles stopped on the road, and right in front of them were two amazing looking leopards, with beautifully dark rosettes, light to dark golden coloured fur, a shortish ringed tail and beautiful white bellies. These cats were simply majestic.
Robbie stoped about 15-20 mtrs away from the other vehicles and it took about 10 seconds for us really to really comprehend what was going on. On closer viewing it appeared that one of the leopards had taken an interest to the tyre and mudguard of the front right wheel of one of the safari vehicles in front of us, and there we sat in our vehicle just watching as this cat pawed away and then licked both the tyre and mudguard for what seemed like an extraordinarily long period of time.
A question from a guest in our own vehicle to Robbie was, ‘Is this a common thing for them to do?’, to which is responded, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘No, this is highly, highly unusual’.
For me personally I didn’t care whether it was unusual or not, the sighting was absolutely mind boggling and magical. It felt like there was a big playful cat just roaming around the streets of downtown Kruger NP looking to be mischievous and alleviate a bit of boredom from being out in the wild all day, taking a break from having to utilise its natural instincts to survive. This schism, the clear break that we tourists have from the reality of being in the natural habitat of wild animals is really a danger as our awareness of what is real becomes blinded by a false sense of security.
Now, I’m not sure what the trigger for Dunlop was but after a few minutes he got up and started to move, tracking directly toward our vehicle.
Approaching slowly, almost languidly, the mood in our vehicle started to change gears. Cameras ready, phones pointed and held high, poised to capture fantastic shots, the leopard made its way to the front left tyre of our car. Rubbing itself against the tyre at first and then climbing under the vehicle, again it started pawing and licking, and then biting first the wheel and then mud guard. Sprawled out on the dirt road, laying on its back and looking upwards, it was, I’m sure, an exhilarating site for all those other groups that had now surrounded us.
In many ways this was the unforgettable dream sighting that we all wanted. The perspective however, which I feel in a situation like this gets kind of lost, is that this is not a Safari Disneyland. These animals are wild, we’re inhabiting their environment and believing in the predictability of their actions is both as ignorant as it is possibly stupid.
Robbie, constantly calling for updates for the positioning of the leopard from both within the vehicle and by radio to those that were surrounding us then said something that snapped my brain into a state of hyper vigilance…’Guys, keep your hands inside the vehicle, be as still as you can’.
After what felt like an eternity Dunlop got up and slowly started walking down my side (the left hand side of the vehicle), I was seated on the highest bench on the back left hand side. All of a sudden, I felt an overwhelming rush of anxiety and fear. This situation and this action pushed me into a sense of panic. But, to completely understand my blinding burst of fear I need to recount a situation, or rather an encounter some 7 years earlier to which I immediately regressed.
Years ago, I had been travelling through South America and during my time dedicated some 4 weeks to undertaking volunteer work at a Wildlife Sanctuary in Bolivia.
Parque Ambue Ari was, and still is, a park that cares for many different types of animals, inclusive of such beautiful animals as jaguars, panthers and pumas. The work of the dedicated staff and myriads of volunteers that move through the camp involve, for a large part, taking these domesticated cats (I say that facetiously), out for walks in the jungle environment of the Bolivian Amazon. Volunteers literally tie a rope onto the collar of a selected cat, wrap a harness around themselves and click themselves in via a carabiner. These volunteers, of which I was one, were tethered by a 3mtr length of rope to a power, unpredictable animal. That is all the protection that we were afforded.
Now, youthful exuberance aside, there is something fatally flawed in believing in the total safety that we implicitly placed in that process. I discovered quite quickly that the false faith that I trusted to my 10min training and induction was crudely misplaced when on the second walk that I did, with a fully grown female puma, she turned on me, pinned her ears back, snarling and with animalistic fervour grabbed my leg with both its paws, claws cutting through my trousers, and then wrapped its jaw around my right knee. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like the dismay, complete fear and overwhelming disbelief of being attacked by what is effectively a wild animal. In an attack that lasted a matter of seconds the hundreds of thoughts that populated my mind all ended the same way, this attack could potentially kill me, this shit is real!
For whatever reason the attack was only short, and the puma backed off, but the fear that accompanied that attack has always lived with me. This moment was now just about to be revisited.
Back in Kruger, sitting in an open vehicle, exposed on the back seat, I was frozen stiff. There was a leopard not 30cms from my feet, hovering with all the wild ferocity and unpredictability that a cat of that nature should have. Anything could have triggered an adverse reaction, if it has been spooked or simply curious and had jumped into the vehicle, what then? What would be our reaction? What sort of panic and what some of carnage could have ensued in that sort of scenario?
I simply held my breath and willed it to walk away, anywhere else at the moment was good enough.
‘Dunlop’ passed around the back of our vehicle and walked around to the front right hand side near the driver’s door.
Robbie had armed himself with a baton of some sort, I’m not sure exactly what it was, but he and I both knew that in a real attack, what it could be used for could be counted on zero fingers. At best it could have been a momentary stall.
For other passengers in our car I know that this experience was not fear driven but sheer excitement, I’m sure had they have placed their minds into the possible consequences then their thoughts may have been different. Better for them, I guess. Ignorance truly can be bliss.
Perhaps a minute later ‘Dunlop’ made his way off, tracking back passed us and along the dirt road we had driven in.
I literally breathed a sigh of relief. A crazy, crazy encounter that in many ways we were both fortunate to experience and fortunate to get out of with just our photos and nothing else added.
What an experience! What a head spin!
To use a catch phrase from Robbie, TAB, That’s Africa Baby!