Leopards are elusive, mysterious and the ultimate loners, now imagine such a hard-to-find animal in the rainy season of the Okavango Delta. That means very tall grass, flooded roads and extremely difficult overall conditions. But while on Moremi Game Reserve, that was exactly my mission; find the leopard.
After three days filled with “matala”, which means tracks in Setswana, there was no leopard to be found and I was nervous. Time was passing by and my complete schedule depended on me sticking to it and getting the images in the time frame assigned to each one. Now, trackers are incredibly amazing at following tracks and even going so far as telling what gender and age the Nkwe (Setswana for leopard) in question was, but for three days… no leopard! I was getting frustrated. I had no shots and nobody to blame for it except the leopard himself… or bad planning on my part. But I had an assignment and there was no way I was coming home without all the images I was sent to get. This particular leopard, the one we had been following was called Mr. Nose by the locals. The curious name had been given due to half his nose missing from a fight with another large male.
My previous encounters with leopards, both in Maasai Mara and Serengeti, had been spontaneous and relatively easy, so I was not fully aware of how hard it was to get one of these amazing felines in front of the lens. But I was determined and by the the morning of the fourth and last day, extremely stressed out. My time was almost over and all I got was images of tracks and some birds. I did have another full week ahead both in Okavango and Central Kalahari, but in my plans that week was assigned to achieve other shots I needed for the project. Now, here, all I needed was my leopard.
That morning Banda and I headed to Victoria Island, very near camp, where fresh tracks led. We drove slowly, listening very carefully for every alarm call from francolins and baboons with hopes they could point us in the right direction. We looked in every branch in every tree and followed every track… the result was the same: nothing. Four hours had passed since we left camp at 5:30am and again my hands were empty. We kept driving and I started to imagine Mr. Nose on every tree. I started to see him in every monkey that moved in a branch or in any creature that moved at all for that matter. My mind was playing tricks on me and I saw him everywhere. I saw him just lying around in a big, perfect tree. Calmly taking his nap, looking magnificent and almost royal, but this time it was not a vision, it was the real thing. A beautiful and amazing big cat, my favourite animal in Africa, just posing there and looking directly at me. I could not contain my self and just hoped with all my strength he would keep still for a few minutes, and he did.
I started to get my safety shots first, the moving in closer and trying more experimental shots with different lenses. But then Mr. Nose stood up and came down the tree, slowly and with the same elegance that he had shown so far. The grass was extremely tall in the ground, so once he entered the maze it was very hard to keep up. We followed, slowly and carefully, trying to get some more shots in the process while he gracefully moved along. But the grass seemed to have swallowed the cat and I could only tell where he was by the movement of some reeds and the alarm call of the birds nearby. It was very hard to keep up, but I did managed to get some shots that pleased me and that communicate exactly how hard it was to keep up.
It is amazing how such a big animal can just disappear in the grass, and that realization bombarded me with questions: How many times had we passed by him in these 4 days? Had he been watching us all along from his hiding place? How close had we been? Was he stalking us while we stopped for a bathroom break? Was I ever in imminent danger? I guess we’ll never know.. but I’m sure Mr. Nose does.
For more images of the complete adventure in the Botswana Green Season visit my website.