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THE LEOPARDS OF TIMBAVATI

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

 

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African leopard Panthera pardus, Timbavati Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa
African leopard Panthera pardus, Timbavati Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa Image #: 123466

PRELUDE
Timbavati Nature Reserve, 7.15 am

“They got him!”. Patrick’s wide grin and tense blue eyes reveal the thrill of it all – our tracker Albert has finally spotted the big male leopard we’ve been trying to locate in the dense bush of Timbavati Nature Reserve, South Africa, for the past two hours. Faintly hearing the rasping, coughing call of the big cat on the prowl at the first light of dawn, Patrick had snatched us from our luxurious breakfast to jump on the big green Land Rover, cameras and binoculars ready for the sighting of a lifetime. Fresh pugmarks in the wet sandy soil and bent tall grass were unmistakable tell-tale signs for the 50-year old but still amazingly strapping Albert, who soon got off the big vehicle’s front fender foldable chair (which is so worringly exposed it’s been dubbed the “suicide chair”) to slither alone and unseen among the bushes, intensely intent in following the roving leopard’s track. Reading faint markings no one among us could ever hope to detect, guided in equal parts by both raw primeval instinct and lifelong experience, he has radioed directions to pinpoint accuracy – when the throaty roar of the Land Rover’s engine goes suddenly silent and the big car slides to a halt, the tall grass in front of us silently parts open, a wild primeval curtain revealing the cat’s grey-green gaze upon us. He’s a spectacularly handsome specimen, its richly coloured golden-honey black-rosetted coat unmarred by scars or wounds, the big arrogant white-whiskered head aloft, its long, white-tipped tail gracefully curling upwards as he unconcernedly strides towards us in soft blurred motion, paws making no sound on the soft ground.

ROYAL HOSPITALITY

Welcome to King’s Camp, a spectacularly luxurious and yet gracefully elegant retreat in the heart of Timbavati Nature Reserve, a private, huge stretch of pristine African bush now fully integrated in the larger Kruger National Park. After a disappointing dive trip to poverty-ridden, malaria-infested Mozambique, this is a most welcome haven for us – silverware and fine porcelains at the dinner table, soft four-poster beds and steaming hot bathtubs after the long game drives, white linens and chilled champagne in the bush for a mid-morning break, tea and scones in front of the fireplace in the evening...this is world-class pampering for the lucky selected few, and a welcome change for once after so many years of non-stop worldwide diving. Service is spotless, discreet and impeccable, and the decor of the place is just lovely. It’s all a piece of great fiction of course – living for a few days in a make-believe world which harks back to the long-gone, romantic, colonial days of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa – but then again, why not? This is a retreat where one would only want to wear khaki shorts or riding breeches, white silk scarves and wide-brimmed felt hats - nothing wrong in living out a dream for a short while, after all. King’s Camp, however, is not only about elegance, charm and atmosphere – for those interested in visiting the South African bush, it also offers unsurpassed opportunities for encountering and eventually photographing the spectacular wildlife which inhabits it. Once famous for its white lions – a freak genetic strain which is still present in at least one lioness whose range falls within Timbavati’s current borders – this untouched wilderness offers a spectacular variety of biotopes, from dry riverbeds to dense riverine thickets and from open grasslands to mopani forest – all hosting large numbers of the local game. Private camps such as this offer – admittedly at a price – the best available opportunities to serious wildlife photographers, since all game viewing is done from open vehicles, which are not allowed in the Kruger itself. These will easily negotiate rough, dangerous off-road terrain when needed, while circulation in the Kruger N.P. proper is strictly limited to the network of tarred roads criss-crossing it. Moreover, game viewing in the Kruger itself is more or less a matter of chance and good luck – due to the strict rules regarding driving – being limited to wildlife which happens to be in the immediate vicinity of the roads, while private operations such as King’s Camp employ highly skilled and experienced guides and trackers who will spare no effort whatsoever to secure guests the sighting they’ve been looking for. Fully-fledged biologists, well-versed in bush ecology and ethology, professional wildlife guides such as Patrick are a veritable mine of fascinating information, often working side by side with researchers in the field, assessing population status, contributing to conservation and management programs and gaining precious insight in the hidden workings of the African wilderness. Since the fences once separating Timbavati from the greater Kruger National Park have long been taken down, wildlife has been able to freely range between the two, and whatever is found in the latter can be expected to show up in the former. This is African game viewing at its absolute best – in a matter of days we see and photograph at exceptionally close range the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo), while other common, daily sightings include Burchell’s zebra, hippo, common giraffe, blue wildebeest, impala, nyala, kudu and waterbuck. Common primates are chacma baboons and vervet monkeys, while the exceptionally prolific birdlife regales us with excellent sightings of several species of bee-eaters, rollers and starlings, numerous vultures and raptors, helmeted guinea-fowl, goliath heron and saddlebill stork, hamerkop, marabu storks and even ostrich and Kori bustard. Among reptiles, we encounter the strikingly camouflaged and deadly venomous puff adder, many skins and lizards, quite a few terrapins and tortoises, several Nile crocodiles basking on riverbanks and even a lovely Flap-necked chameleon gingerly crossing the road. If you’re into wildlife photography, this place is pure, unadulterated heaven!

A GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH
Timbavati Nature Reserve, 7.23 am

The Land Rover’s engine roars to life again and the big vehicle starts rolling with a sudden jolt, as our leopard stealthily disappears once more in the grass. Patrick and Albert are beating it to the waterhole it’s going to visit, to offer us the chance of a frontal shot as it will reappear from the bush. We speed among the thorny bushes, rainwater from the previous’night downpour exploding in muddy splashes around us. In perfect timing and at exactly the expected spot, the big cat emerges once more from the dense thickets, slowly and softly strolling directly towards us, as the silence is broken only by the frantic, simultaneous clicking of our camera shutters. The cat stops for a second, only a few meters from the vehicle, its rounded ears suddenly pointing forward. It hunches, its icy jade-green glare now transfixing us, spanning the grass expanse beyond us. I can see its pupils contracting, its muscles stiffening, the tip of its tail twitching convulsively. It has spotted a small group of bachelor impala rams grazing in the background. We can feel the tension rise. The impalas have not seen him yet, the wind is perfect for an ambush. Silence is everywhere. Suddenly, the leopard literally collapses in a pool of golden, black-spotted liquid muscle, flattening itself to the ground, slinking rapidly towards the closest impala ram, craftily using every nook in the cracked, uneven terrain to disguise its stealthy, fast approach. It slithers rapidly forward, muscles ripping on its hunched shoulder blades, carefully keeping one small thick bush between himself and his intended prey, still unaware, still quietly grazing. Four meters, three, two...The leopard explodes in a convulsive jump across the bush, its front legs spread apart, claws unsheated, as the ram bolts, its hind legs kicking high a cloud of dust and leaves.

THE WAY TO GO

What happened afterwards? Ah, my friends, you’ll have to go there and find out yourselves. Chances are you’ll witness something like this yourself – Timbavati Nature Reserve and King’s Camp are famous for their leopards. The staff even insist on seeing guests to their rooms, as the big cats have been visiting the camp on several occasions. Despite all the comforts, this still is Africa after all. But do trust our advice: King’s Camp offers the absolute best to the discerning visitor – an extremely high standard in service, ultimate comfort and luxury, and some of the best options for serious wildlife photography in the South African bush. Most of us will also find it quite expensive, of course – but if one can afford it, it is the way to go.