It's hard to not overstate how amazing this Leopard sighting was. Given that this was the first leopard sighting for me and how our trip had progress so far it's still hard to not get excited about the time we had with this beautiful animal. Eli and I started our trip to Botswana last November under some really crappy circumstances and ended the trip with an equally worse incident. However, the two weeks in between we had in Botswana was one of the best experiences either of us had enjoyed. I suppose I'll start at the beginning.
Our trip to Botswana was to be 15 days and we had planned to take my newly acquired 2002 Toyota Hilux. Our Hilux seemed to be in good shape for the trip. It had 4x4 a canopy and we had fitted it with a roof rack for mounting a tent on the roof. I had even just purchase new mud tires which mad the truck look pretty mean. All was looking good except for one little thing. On our first day of the trip we went down to Windhoek to pickup camping equipment and the truck would only get up to 70km/hr and if you pushed the gas pedal down black smoke spewed out the back. After running errands in Windhoek we stopped by a Toyota dealership and had the guys take a look. I'll quote what the mechanic said - "Do not drive this truck back home." He called an engine repair guy in Windhoek and told us to stay the night in Windhoek and visit this guy first thing in the morning. The trip was off to a roaring start. We were supposed to head back to Otjiwarongo that night and set off for the North of Namibia the next day.
The following day we took the car to the engine repair guy and right away he said the engine was shot. No compression and apparently the engine needs to be a vacuum to operate normally (I learned a lot about engines on this trip). Our truck is totaled (or as the locals say - finished) until the guys can tear open the engine block and figure out whats what. What do you do when your truck dies? Well, there was no way we were gonna cancel, months and months of planning had gone into this trip. When else are we gonna be able to go for two weeks in Botswana?
We immediately looked into a rental camping truck and although extremely expensive we bit the bullet and hired a fully equipped Toyota Hilux with all camping gear. Within 4 hours of dropping off my Hilux we were off to Otjiwarongo and then off to Botswana.
Fast forward through 6 amazing days of driving safari in Moremi Game Reserve and we get to the day we saw this leopard. This day was our last full day in Moremi and we had been tipped off from some camping neighbors that a leopard had been sighted so we headed off looking for a needle in a haystack. Passing by the guard station by airstrip we stopped at the sightings board and saw that someone else had posted a leopard sighting in the same area we were headed. We bolted in that direction.
Once we got to the general area we both fell silent for probably an hour looking in every dang tree as our Hilux traversed the winding dirt tracks. We passed by many groups of animals, that on the first day of safari would have been interesting, but today were just part of the scenery. Eventually, we approached a herd of Impala who didn’t pay much attention to us. As we got closer to the group we noticed that not one of the animals had even given us a glance. Strange for a group of herbivores to not even look over once at an approaching vehicles with humans in it. Then as we got within about 50m of them we noticed they were all looking directly at a stand of trees and making a sort of snorting/grunting call.
Immediately we stopped the truck and switched off the engine. We pulled out cameras and binoculars and began to silently scan the trees for any sign of our leopard. After a few minutes the Impala began to disperse and we noticed on the ground a faint set of truck tracks driving right towards the trees. It’s not uncommon of the local safari guides to go off road in search of a specific sighting for their guests. We, however, had abided by the rules of not going off road in order to keep the park in good shape…that is - up until this moment.
We quickly switched on the engine and crawled towards the tree as silent as we could be in a diesel 4x4. The tracks ended at the base of a giant tree and we quickly switched off the truck again and began to scan the branches above us. A few minutes passed and then Eli whispered “Oh my God, look right in front of us.” Sure enough hidden in plain sight on a branch abut 10m up right in front of our truck was a gorgeous adult female leopard feasting on a small impala kill she had dragged up the tree.
About an hour passed as we quietly sat in the truck and admired and took photos of the leopard. Actually for about the first 10 minutes I didn’t even pull out the camera and just silently admired her. This was definitely one of those moments where you can hardly believe what you’re seeing and you just need to relax and take it in to appreciate it.
As the hour was up we hear a local safari vehicle approach from in front of us and then wind around to take up a position just behind our vehicle. The leopard herd it too and just as the safari vehicle was approaching behind us she quickly climbed down the tree and then disappeared off into the thick bush. She was gone just like that. The driver stopped and motioned to ask us what we saw. Our only reply was “Well, we were watching a leopard. She just left.” We took some satisfaction that our sighting would only be for us that day.
While this was the animal sighting highlight there were many other amazing experiences on the trip as we finished up camping in Moremi and then camped in Nxai Pans for the last couple nights.
Trouble in Windhoek
Trouble from the beginning of the trip continued when we returned to Windhoek at the end of the trip. We had just been in Windhoek for nearly a couple hours when we were pulling out of a parking garage when it happened. Just as we had stopped at a traffic light in 5 o’clock traffic a crazy guy approached the driver side window and opened my door yelling and saying incomprehensible things at me. Eli and I calmly looked at him and yelled at him to get off or vehicle. It was only maybe 5 seconds but he was gone. We drove off a little shaken thinking we had dodged a situation.
A few minutes later as we drove off I noticed the door ajar light was on. We looked around and that was when we noticed it...Eli's bag was gone from the backseat. The guy grabbing at our driver side door must have just been a diversion for another guy to sneak open the opposite rear door of the truck and swipe his bag. We had not even noticed in the heat of the moment and we had left our doors unlocked as we had just exited a parking garage. Lost in the bag was a computer, some camera lenses and a passport, but the real loss was Eli's pictures on the hard drive from the trip - gone. The whole basis of this trip was to take photos and now one of us had lost a significant amount of these photos.
We trolled around the city for a few hours looking for suspicious people and talking to vendors on the street in the area looking for tips and offering rewards, but no luck, the bag was gone. We turned on Find my Mac to try and find it by GPS but in a semi-3rd world country where internet is scarce as it is it never turned up. We went to the police station and filed a report (which took 2 trips due to the police indifference) and visited the US Embassy to try and get a new passport.
After all that had happened we returned the rental truck and went over to the engine repair guy to pickup my truck. Luckily, he had finished all the engine work although the cost was about $2000 USD. The truck ran like new and as soon as we could we paid the guy and got out of Windhoek to head home.
At the end of the day when we got back home to the farm we were confronted with questions from everyone about how the trip was and how amazing of a time we had. It's still kinda hard to explain all the emotions of that trip to folks. In one moment we were having some of the most life changing experiences in nature and the other we're just completely depressed for humanity. Either way, along the trip we met some of the most wonderful people camping and sharing animal sightings with. If there was anything that we could take away from the trip was just how amazing it is to really be in nature and experience it for what it is. When we were in cities or around lots of people everything seemed very complicated but when we were just in the park around wildlife it was somehow much simpler to understand the needs of everything. It was simpler, that is until we needed to cross some man made bridges in the game reserve which we may or may not have gotten stuck on. A story for next time I suppose.