Leopard Encounter and Life in Klaserie

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LEOPARD ENCOUNTER AND LIFE IN KLASERIE NATURE RESERVE, SOUTH AFRICA

She was obviously unimpressed with me. Which was a shame because I adored even the slightest glimpse of her. But there is a time in life when the collision of two worlds would prove disastrous. Now, was that time.

So, what do you do when you find yourself eye to eye with a snarling leopard?

A leopard encounter such as this isn’t something you normally prepare for, but luckily, I have an inquisitive nature and it just so happened that I had this one covered … or so I thought.

moon rising over Klaserie Nature Reserve
Moon rising over Klaserie Nature Reserve

Arriving at Klaserie Nature Reserve

We’d arrived at Klaserie Private Nature Reserve just before dusk. The grey African bush scrub, waiting patiently for the summer rains, stood guard over its precious wildlife. A camouflaged smokescreen masking the clandestine activities beyond.

We caught flashes of impala springing away from the mechanical hum of our bush camper as it justled its way through the rugged bush track. Mongoose darted into their burrows and rabbits hopped along in front deciding which way to run. Giraffes, who in spite of their loftiness, appeared and just as rapidly disappeared blending seamlessly into the bush. So much so, that we were left wondering whether we had really seen one at all.

Klaserie-Impala-in-sunlight
Impala in Klaserie Nature Reserve

Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, comprising 60,000 hectares, is part of the Greater Kruger National Park area and one of the largest privately-owned reserves in South Africa. There aren’t any fences separating Kruger National Park and Klaserie Reserve, so wildlife is completely free to roam between the two so that their natural migration routes are preserved.

Call it serendipity, luck or just pure chance that we found ourselves in this piece of heavenly wilderness in times of the Covid-19 lockdown. Arriving in South Africa at the end of January 2020, we were set to embark on a two-year African adventure. We had recently married in Perth, Australia, and this was a combination of a honeymoon and our ongoing quest to fulfil our travel dreams.

On arrival, we bought our 4×4 Hilux bush camper and set off with the plan of road tripping through South Africa and then heading north into Botswana, Namibia and onwards traversing the east coast of Africa.

As luck would have it, we had arranged a six-week house-sit in Prince Albert, in the Western Cape, to break up our road trip. Just after the pet sit began, South Africa went into strict Lockdown. Those intended six weeks turned into five months.

Our Hilux Bush Camper
Our Hilux Bush Camper

The family we were pet-sitting for were staying at their bush camp in Klaserie Nature Reserve. So, they were stuck there, and we were in their home on the other side of South Africa amongst the Swartberg Mountains.

After five months, with leisure travel still forbidden, they knew we weren’t yet able to continue with our plans to overland Africa.

As a consequence, they very generously suggested we swap with them. They would return home and we would travel to Klaserie and experience life in the African bush. Following advice, we applied for the inter-provincial travel permit required during the Covid lockdown, for a change of residence. Once approved, we hit the road and travelled 1600 kilometres from the west to the east of South Africa.

Klaserie Bush Camp
The private bush camp in Klaserie Nature Reserve

And that is how we found ourselves deep in the midst of the African bush.

Enraptured and spellbound at every turn.

A place where even the sunset seemed more majestic and the moon’s lustre more striking.

sunset-view over Klaserie Nature Reserve
The beautiful hues of dusk over Klaserie

Becoming in Tune with Nature

Within days, the bush took hold of our hearts. Beating softly in tune with the pulse of the land.

You cannot help but be changed by the African bush. It is not just a matter of survival — though that is indeed an important point to bear in mind. Nature compels you to be present, to be mindful and to be still.

The African bush whispers to you.

And, if you listen carefully, it will tell you its secrets.

You soon learn to recognise the varied grunts and growls, the raucous chatter and roars of the African bush.

A distant snap of a branch carried on the breeze tells you elephants are likely around.

A muffled snort of buffalo means watch out for the grumpy ‘Dagga Boys’, the old male buffalos.

You will hear the seagull-like screech of the fish eagle, the incessant demands of the go-away bird and the unmissable whistle of the pearl-spotted owl increasing in pitch as if practising its chords.

Elephants at Klaserie Nature Reserve
I don’t think you could ever tire of watching these incredible beasts passing by  
bird on orange aloe vera flowers
Go-Away bird on the aloe vera flowers
owl on some branches
Pearl Spotted Owl

Luckily we had a few days of handover with the owners. Over fireside dinners and exciting bush drives around Klaserie, they imparted their valuable knowledge of this wonderfully wild environment. 

We learnt that hyenas will run off with anything you leave out at night — even a torch stashed behind magazines, the pieces of which were found scattered around the camp. And to shut all doors at night, because they’ll chew through a freezer if given the chance. The freezer’s ragged, chewed corners, were a constant reminder.

Hyena walking in the reeds near the river
Hyena prowling in the South African bush

Every night we made sure the thorn bush branches were placed around our camper’s tyres — hyenas are also partial to a tasty tyre morsel.

You’d think they’d have a much tastier lunch waiting in the undergrowth, but they seem hooked on this ‘fast food’ — much less time to prepare I presume. As someone who doesn’t particularly like cooking, I can relate.

Camper surrounded by thorn bush
Our Bush Camper, surrounded by thorn bush branches to deter the hyenas

For all their mischievous antics though, it is highly unlikely that a hyena would attack you. If they spotted us, they would quickly dart back into the shadows.

The buffalo, however, is not to be trifled with.

You really don’t want to get too close to one of those — especially the loners or those in a small group – otherwise known as the ‘Dagga Boys’. They are notorious for being cranky old men and don’t need an excuse to be provoked. The best course of action if attacked?  Climb the nearest tree!

Despite being surrounded by the ‘anything-goes‘ wild bush, Lars and I slowly became comfortable with the idea of being amongst these wild animals.

In fact, we began to relish it all.

Buffalo with Oxpecker birds on its nose
Buffalo with Oxpeckers keeping it groomed

As I write this article, planted on the camp veranda, I can spy a fish eagle hovering over the nearby river and there are about eight red hornbills scratching around in the dirt right in front of me.

If you were here for dinner yesterday, you’d have seen a giraffe nonchalantly munching the trees about 20 metres away. Big and small, the animals and birds of the South African bush are an absolute delight to behold.

Red Hornbills in  on the sandy ground at Klaserie
Red Hornbills feeding just beside us in Klaserie

Like clockwork, every afternoon around 4 pm, the Francolin family arrive. Mum, dad and two chicks. I say chicks, but they are growing up very fast and look more like teenagers.

They strut in amongst the Hornbills scratching around and looking for seeds and insects. Though I’m sure they are getting thin pickings because the Hornbills have been busy on the same piece of ground all day. The Francolins soon make their way to the stone water basin, take a few sips and then mum and her brood head off, leaving dad to hunt for scraps.

Francolin and baby
Mumma Francolin and one of her brood

Most afternoons, the local troop of baboons saunter by, watching us watching them. A few often come into camp but again, they make for a speedy retreat if encountered. When you’re out for a drive, if they hear you coming, they’ll exit en masse from the trees.

It constantly astounds me how many baboons can fit in a tree. It reminds me of the children’s story of the ‘Never-ending Porridge Pot’ – the baboons just keep spilling out from the tree, seemingly hundreds and they keep coming and coming …

male baboob sitting and looking over his shoulder
A nonchalant look from a male baboon

The baboons are one of my favourite animals to watch. Luckily, as they travel in large troops, they aren’t too difficult to spot. Unlike some of the more solitary animals, such as leopards who we often hear grunting on the other side of the river bank, but rarely catch a glimpse of.

Until the other day.

Leopard Encounter

The other afternoon, just a few metres from our hut (or rondavel), I was watching a herd of buffalo on the opposite side of the river through binoculars, when I heard a low growl. Now, to understand why I wasn’t too perturbed by this, I need to explain that sound travels easily through the valley. The landscape funnels sound up from the river and what may seem like a branch snapping just five metres away, is actually 300 metres away.

So, I wasn’t immediately concerned about the snarling. I was more intrigued as to what was making the sound and where it might be on the other side of the river.

Keen to catch a glimpse, I moved the binoculars in the direction of the persisting sound, and as I refocused, there, way too large for comfort in the viewfinder, was a leopard, looking right at me, and seemingly far from pleased.

You can perhaps imagine, that I wasn’t too ecstatic about this scenario either.

Leopard snarling
(Canva Photo) This is what I saw through the binoculars… Obviously, not my photo, but this image is certainly imprinted on my memory

Every muscle in my body screamed flee— flee fast.

Thankfully, however, every functioning brain cell, not frozen to the spot, screamed louder pleading with me to not run. I knew that was the worst thing to do.

At each painfully slow backward step, my heart pounded faster. The leopard, a mere 30 metres away, continued to grumble about my presence.

Time stood still as I retreated. My sole focus was on reaching the rondavel door, somewhere behind me.

Distance suddenly becomes very relative when you are beyond fear. A few metres become an almost impossible distance to cross.

But cross them I did. And then … I remembered to breathe.

My legs shook for hours that day.

male leopard on a dirt mound
Male leopard near the camp, but photographed from the safety of the car

I’ve since learnt that the leopard had no dinner plans for me. If it had, I doubt very much I would be here telling this tale. You see, they are animals of silent stealth. In fact, even their growl is more like a grunt-like cough.

No, this leopard was simply politely telling me to back the hell off …or else.

Luckily, — and I always suspected I was similar to Elisa Doolittle — I got the message. In African bush terms, this was simply a blunt conversation between me and the leopard. No big deal.

My encounter with a leopard, although rather too close for comfort, will stay with me forever. That beautifully patterned face and piercing yellow eyes fixated solely on me. What a privilege. Rarely, do you get the undivided attention of such a magnificent creature.

As the days went by and we continued to explore Klaserie, I found myself falling back into the beat of the bush. Tuning into my surroundings. Putting fear aside, and getting on with things.

And isn’t that just the nature of the beast? We overcome, adapt and move forward in life.

As I look back on the life hurdles I’ve faced, I wonder if I’d have preferred them all to be as sudden and primal as this one. So much at stake, but over in a flash. Rather than days, weeks, or months of a brain in turmoil, emotions stretched to their limits. And I wonder, will future hurdles seem less difficult when my life isn’t on the line?

Night cloaked its darkness around us, and as we primates retired, the predators prowled. Our slumber was occasionally interrupted by the distant roars of lions, grunts of leopards and eerie, ghost-like whoops of hyenas as they all proudly staked ownership over their African land.

lady behind a car photographing an elephant
Life in Klaserie Bush Camp
lady looking at a giraffe
Where are you hiding? …. a bush camp garden visitor

Final Parting Words – How to Deal with a Leopard Encounter

If you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, face to face with a leopard, you may like to use these tips:

  • Do not make eye contact — leopards like to think you can’t see them and if you catch their eye they will feel more obliged to attack.
  • Make yourself look as large as possible — small children and crouching adults are more susceptible to attack
  • If the leopard does decide to charge, clap your hands, shout and make yourself appear large by waving your arms around
  • Never ever run — the leopard’s chase instinct will kick in

READ MORE: For an Australian Take on Life in the African Bush have a read of Lars’ article here.

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