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Photo by Ross Couper.

Ask any safari guide what animal they fear most and you are sure to hear leopard. They are the ghost cats. Silent, swift and deadly.

Unpredictable and efficient, nothing is more entertaining than watching a leopard hunt. Check out this video of one at work in an undisclosed location.

Wow. Videos and stories like this sum my fear for the ghost cat. However, my first close experience with a leopard, thankfully, did not end as it did for the poor reptile above.

My first close encounter with a leopard occurred while tracking and monitoring African Wild Dogs in the foothills of the Drakensburg mountains. The den site of the local dog population was tucked down in a dark valley populated by thick, dark green overgrowth and magnificent Fever trees.

We monitored the dogs during the day. At night, we retreated out of the valley and to the summit of one of the mountains, where camp stood.

Four tents composed camp and I shared one with a fellow teammate, Jonas. Pitched against a patch of mountain overgrowth, the tents opened up to the wide and bare mountaintop. However, the small growth behind the tents was dark and mysterious. An eerie feeling always crept down my spine when I approached it.

On one especially chilly night, the whole team packed into my tent. We passed around a bowl of rice mixed with mince meat, Chakalaka, corn and peppers. Tea, rusks and a few games of 30 Seconds followed. Around 2200 hours, we heard the leopard.

Ga-ruff ruff ruff ruff ruff sounded out from the overgrowth just behind our tent. A territorial call from what sounded like a rather large leopard. The tent grew silent. Ga-ruff ruff ruff ruff ruff echoed out again.

We quickly gathered pans, threw open the tent flap and yelled and banged the cast iron together in an effort to scare the predator off. Ga-ruff ruff ruff echoed out louder and more aggressively this time. This was the leopard’s territory and it would take more than pots to drive her off.

Minutes of silence eventually eased our minds and we played 30 Seconds until late, 12 or so. We cleaned up and the others retreated, in pairs, to their respective tents. I claimed my corner of the tent and soon fell asleep.

One A.M. brought an unfamiliar sound, footsteps. Ever so light, they pid-padded over the crunchy brown grass alongside the tent. There were four feet, not just two. The sound of something running along the tent made my skin crawl. Leopard. I could hear the light, stalking footsteps and the tail dragging across the canvas. The full moon silhouetted the leopard. The leopard was maybe six inches from my head, separated only by a thin layer of canvas.

Its nose snorted lightly as it investigated the tent and my scent. The footsteps continued and the tail drug along. In all, the leopard was there for five minutes but it felt as if had been frozen for days.

Sleep came again but I was soon woken by the call of nature.

My watch read 1:47.

Curse all that damn tea, I thought.

An hour passed before my courage, or maybe bladder, swelled enough to push me to crawl from the tent.

I shone my torch in a circle and searched for eye glint. Nothing.

I walked to the edge of camp and looked over the bare mountaintop, illuminated by a brilliant full moon and decorated by the entire southern hemisphere of stars.

In the distance, down the east side of the mountain, the leopard called out.

I smiled.


Have any close wildlife encounters of your own? Share below.

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