A leopard, blood smeared on its muzzle from a recent kill, stalks through the grass.
A leopard, blood smeared on its muzzle from a recent kill, stalks through the grass. Jill Worrall

Trailing leopards on a night safari

THREE young lions are lying in a sandy hollow the top of a bank overlooking the South Luangwa River in Zambia.

The sun has set, taking with it the heat of the day. One of the lions yawns, exposing a set of impressive canines and gets slowly to his feet. He is just four metres from us.

After a reflective glance at the river bed, where dozens of crocodiles are beached on the sand and where hippos are gurgling in deep pools, the lion begins to walk towards us.

He stops just a metre away, regards me, the Jeep, the driver and the other passengers with complete disinterest and with a flick of his tail strolls away.

He stops again, still just metres away, now illuminated by our headlights, squats and produces a large pile of evil smelling poo. They don't tell you about that in the safari brochures.

All of us, including our guide hold our noses, but at least this cameo of wildlife in action seems to indicate that the wildlife of South Luangwa doesn't seem unduly upset by our presence.

Zambia is not nearly as firmly on the African safari trail as some of its neighbours, especially Tanzania and Botswana. This means that, unlike in the Serengeti, you are unlikely to find yourself viewing the wildlife in the company of hundreds of other visitors or trying to elbow your way to the breakfast buffet through four-deep layers of Europeans or Americans compiling elaborate do-it-yourself muesli mixes.

We too, might have overlooked Zambia if my daughter Rachel had not been working there. She'd researched the safari possibilities, decided South Luangwa was ideal and booked the flights that are the best way to get there from Zambia's capital Lusaka.

South Luangwa is rated as Zambia's best national park and is ranked in the top few in Africa. It had a lot to live up to, and didn't disappoint.

It also offers walking safaris - which are a wonderful way to feel more in touch with Africa's animals, plants and landscapes - and night safaris. Which is why we were in South Luangwa after dark.

Lions were plentiful, day and night, but our real mission that night was to find a leopard.

Although we'd been fortunate enough to see several elsewhere in Africa, Rachel had not been so lucky.

Even though night safaris are permitted here (in many parks they are not because of concerns about damage to animals' eyes from spotlights and generally disturbance to their lives) there is a cut-off point when all vehicles have to be out of the park.

Our driver and our spotter, therefore, were on high alert as the minutes ticked by.

They concentrated our search in the thickly forested areas that fringe the river. This was ideal leopard country. We spotted mongoose, even a porcupine trotting up a path from the river, its quills rattling as he went, but no leopard.

Our spotter's eyesight was incredibly sharp and we paused for some time to watch a genet, (which despite sometimes being classified as a small cat is in fact in a distinct family of its own), its long striped tail betraying its presence as it stalked through the grass.

Suddenly our driver got a call on his radio. Telling us to hold on tight he accelerated along a winding, pot-holed track towards a stretch of meadow that flanked a deeply incised meandering dry stream bed. As we breasted the riverbank our headlights picked up a remarkable scene on the other bank.

A leopard was facing off against two snarling spotted hyenas. In between them lay the body of a small antelope, possibly an impala.

To us, used to fearing big cats the outcome seemed obvious - the leopard would get to eat its kill. But as the hyenas kept advancing the leopard turned tail and slunk away. Our guide told us that lion and hyena regularly stole leopards' kills, forcing the cats to start again.

We circled around behind the hyena and found the leopard down in the stream bed, his muzzle still smeared with blood. He was beautifully marked with his black-spotted hair and gloriously dappled body. His long tail with its white tip flicked behind him. We left him to resume his hunt.

Our lodge was separated from the national park by a river which, unlike many in Africa, almost never runs dry. We went to sleep that night listening to the sounds of hippos guffawing and snorting as they left the water to browse on the river flats.

At night hippos can roam up to 15km from their water holes so we'd been warned not to step outside our thatched cottage after dark. It was a sensible precaution as the night before I'd got up to go to the loo, looked out the window and seen a hippo grazing across the lawn outside.

Sometime on our second night in camp I was woken by a sound just outside our window.

I knelt up on the bed and lifted the curtain. A mother elephant and her youngster were standing about two metres away systematically ripping branches from a tree and stuffing them in their mouths.

As we watched the pair moved to the front of our cottage; despite their size the only sound was a light scuffle of dry leaves underfoot.

We tiptoed to our main window and peered out. There were three elephants out there now... all with trunks raised, dragging branches down off the tree that shaded our veranda.

We stood there watching in the cool of the night until the trio lurched down the bank and out onto the riverbed.

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