Conrad Cooke

Out early one morning with my beautiful wife and a flask filled with ready-made coffee we set off in the direction of Wamilombe-plain, not far from the main-gate to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It was a cold morning, and for a while our doorless, roofless old company Land Cruiser was the only vehicle around. Wamilombe is usually filled with animal activity. Impala and puku graze there 24/7 and warthogs and baboons are always around to provide entertainment. 9 out 10 times you’ll find yellow-billed storks and Egyptian geese there and your chances of seeing the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe are very good.

But on this particular morning the plain was empty… We knew that something was up. With my binos fixed to my eyes I scanned the dusty ground ahead of us. There was nothing obvious to see, but the monkey chirps from the Jackalberry trees close by told me that my eyes (or maybe my binos!?) were lying to me… I scanned again and saw a puff of sand in the distance. On any other morning I would have ignored such a puff, but not today – not on this animal-less plain! We immediately set off in the puff’s direction and as we came closer our excitement grew. There, on the ground was a beautiful leopard with an impala ram, still kicking, in her jaws. Not wanting to disturb her we stopped about 25m’s away and watched as she suffocated the antelope, before taking a quick breather.

She sat up for a couple of seconds, scanning the plains to make sure that her kill was safe for the moment. But it was early morning and the hyenas might still have been out and about. She decided to drag the kill towards the closets bushes, which wer about 40 meters away. I had parked our vehicle between her and the closest combretum thicket. I honestly tried to get out of her way, but old Cruisers on a cold morning are not the easiest things on earth to get going! After one noisy attempt we decided to wait and see what she’ll do. She was not fazed at all! She came closer and closer to us, stopping every now and then to rest. She was now less than 10 meters away and as she looked up once again my right leg, not being protected by a door, suddenly felt like a big piece of meat merely hanging from my body. I sat motionless and watched her as she took the impala’s neck into her jaws once more and continued on her journey, coming closer and closer to us. She was heading straight towards me but at the last moment changed course. As she passed in front of the car we heard her tail flicking against the bumper. We could hear the full weight of the impala ram being dragged across the soft sand. We heard her heavy yet rhythmic breathing. She was now on the left-hand side of the vehicle, still going strong. I passed our little happy-snappy camera to my wife who got some more pics. The cat was so close that the side-mirrors actually got in the way!

Just then we heard the moan of morning-safari vehicles. I know it was the wrong thing to do, but we were rooting for the leopard to get her kill into the thickets before the masses arrived there. And she did! By the time two or three cars had arrived she had made it into the thickets and was out of sight. We told the guides what had happened and they continued circling the lone-standing thicket, unable to see anything. We decided to leave her there and to head home…  She had given us all the entertainment that we could have ever asked for!