On safari, the lion might be king of the jungle, but the leopard is the hardest of Africa's big five to spot. Deep down, I feared I'd only ever get to see the African animals so vividly captured in my childhood picture books as a blur in the distance; a glimpse of a giraffe through the tree tops, or the bulk of an elephant's outline disappearing through the brush. There was little chance of seeing a Leopard.
But I was ready for my Kodak moment in the cringe-worthy way only a tragic tourist can be. I'd bought an expensive camera with two lenses I barely knew how to use, wildlife photography books weighed down my backpack, and heavy binoculars borrowed from my Dad remained permanently stationed around my neck. At least I wasn't as bad as the guy who brought night-vision goggles.
Despite my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the thick of animal encounters, throwing chunks of meat to a cheetah and her cubs in Namibia, scratching a lion under the chin in Zimbabwe, and being charged by a rhino in Zambia. Of course I'd see a leopard, I smugly told myself two weeks into my 56 day overlanding trip, as I watched a herd of elephants use their trunks to snorkel across the Chobe River in Botswana. But as the stamps filled up my passport and the national parks flew by on our journey north, there were no leopards.
I began to get nervous.
At each National Park office I'd run in to check the chalkboards for any sightings of the elusive creature. Many times we'd stop to stop to study the dappled shadows of a far off tree, only to clock up another false alarm. At night I even began to dream of leopards. We returned from the bar one night to find a cluster of guards with guns, shining a spotlight into the black jungle that rimmed our campsite. After ushering us to a safe spot on top of our overlanding truck, our guide turned and grinned at me.
"You'll never guess what just wandered through the camp. A leopard!" I would have happily been eaten by it at this point.
The last day of my safari coincided with my birthday, and I knew what I was going to use my birthday wishes for. "All I want to see today is a pussycat, up a tree, with spots." I declared at breakfast. But after a full day of game driving, there were no leopards. My friend tried to make a joke of it. "Here" he said, handing me a permanent marker. "Go grab a lion and colour it in". Sensing my disappointment, he promised to take me to see one at the zoo when we got home.
But I wanted the real thing- that magic moment of glimpsing a wild animal for the first time in its natural environment. Suddenly chatter broke out over the radio. Our guide sped off down a dirt track, before pulling up next to another vehicle. Five metres up, slung across a branch and half asleep, was exactly what I had wished for: a pussycat, up a tree, with spots. The rare tree dwelling lion, with its spotted fur, opened one eye and let out a low hiss, before promptly falling asleep again. It wasn't quite the member of the cat family I wanted. But it was pretty cool.
I left Africa disappointed that I had not seen a leopard, but in a way I was kind of glad. It just gave me a reason to come back.
By Shaney Hudson