For the first three days of our safari tour, she has eluded us. Our host, Corbis, offers a simple explanation: as one of Africa's stealthiest animals, the leopard can choose whether she'll be seen. He cautions us not to get discouraged, insisting she's always around you, sitting in the tall grass along the road, or high in a tree, lazing on a branch. He urges us to keep looking, saying that at any moment, without warning, you could find yourself facing her.
With Corbis's assurances, my wife Christa and I are entering our final day on game safari. We are optimistic that we'll round out our sightings of the "Big Five,” those animals the big-game hunters regard as the most deadly: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard. We learned to list them the moment we arrived in the Greater Kruger Park Area three days ago.
Returning from our initial game drive that day, we adopted our mantra: "We've seen four." We've repeated that mantra for nearly 72 hours now, setting out each day, confident we'd return with our chests puffed out, proclaiming, "We've seen all five!"
Not yet, however. We're stuck at four. Hearing Corbis talk about the Big Five, we begin to understand why. "Lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalos – they rely on size and strength," he explains. "But the leopard," he says, his eyes twinkling with admiration, "She's a stalker, and a real efficient killer."
Our final day begins with an early morning walk. Our guide is Abel, a Shangaani man from a nearby village. "This area is fenced-in," says Abel. "But no problem for da leopahd. She climb over or dig under." Christa's head swivels toward me. Uh-oh, I'd seen that face before. Like the moment we arrived at our guesthouse in Johannesburg, one of Africa’s largest and most crime-ridden cities. I spent that evening begging her to understand that the guesthouse's website photos were taken from inside the compound. How could I have known the place was actually a mini-fortress with an imposing system of barricades? "And it's not that bad," I insisted. "Look at how the barbed wire forms a garden trellis. That's a nice touch." I was desperate.
Luckily, we only booked one night, so she started breathing the next day when the safari van took us more than six hours away to the lodge. I thought a reminder might calm this morning's anxieties. "Hey, we're survivors! We survived Jo'burg, didn't we?" She didn't seem convinced.