Leadwood Lodge: Searching for Leopards
Rain was predicted during my entire trip to Leadwood Lodge in the Sabi Sands (a private concession adjacent to the Kruger National Park). Normally this would elicit a bit of dread, but given that South Africa is gripped by the worst drought in over 100 years, rain was a welcome prediction. Whilst I didn’t end up having to wear a poncho every moment of my holiday, there were several wet drives, but few drops of rain in no way impacted our leopard sightings. And, leopards were the reason why I was here.
Leopards are the bush’s elusive creatures and often safari goers only catch a glimpse through dense brush. They say that leopards only show themselves if they want to be seen and their ability to disappear if they don’t want to be seen is uncanny. But, the leopards in Sabi Sands have grown accustomed to vehicles and behave as if the vehicles and their camera toting passengers are not even there. This allows safari goers to observe leopards doing what leopards do – scanning, grooming, sleeping, or gnawing on a kill. This is what makes the Sabi Sands one of the best places to see leopards in Africa.
I was lucky enough to see six different leopards – one on each drive. I have visited Sabi Sands on several occasions, but this particular one provided the best leopard sightings. We were also treated to an amazing leopard interaction between two territorial males that were facing off. They were calling to one another across the river and at one point they even moved closer to one another and our entire vehicle wondered if a fight was imminent. Eventually, the younger male retreated. Males risk serious injury if they fight and if sparring can be avoided, it generally will be.
Perhaps the most notable leopard was the one that we didn’t see. I was on foot with my ranger watching some birds at a waterhole when we heard the distinctive noise of an animal meeting its end. It was only slightly terrifying given that the noise seemed to emanate from a spot we had passed five minutes prior. I had the distinct feeling that the leopard saw us before making a kill. Our ranger and tracker attempted to locate the leopard on our evening game drive, but there were no signs. Clearly, this leopard didn’t want to be seen.
Whilst leopards were the highlight of the trip, the most ferocious killer we observed was a toad. A male lion had been spotted by another vehicle. He was part of a coalition of four males and our ranger was hopeful that as night fell he would start calling to his brothers in an attempt to relocate them. Alas, this lion decided to do what lions do best and lie flat on the ground. As our tracker shone the spotlight on the lion, I saw a small movement and the spotlight shifted to the small toad. Because of the rains winged termites were out in full force and this small creature made no less than 15 kills. The other guests on our vehicle were safari veterans and we were more than happy to watch the toad who was a mere 10 feet away from the king of the bush.
I had two different rangers and both of them were keen birders. For many safari enthusiasts observing birds and the bush’s smaller creatures is as enjoyable as the big cats. I have a nascent (but growing) interest in birds and Africa has some of the most colorful, beautiful birds. I suggest buying a bird book and checking off the birds you come across. One of the birds we caught a clear view of a rufous-bellied heron – an uncommon summer resident.
Leadwood Lodge is currently managed by &Beyond and is a phenomenal lodge. The suites are large with a separate living area, dressing area, large king bed, pool, and bathroom with one of the most dramatic bathtubs looking out over the river. There are only four rooms and groups can book out all four, otherwise only three rooms are available. Since vehicles are allocated in accordance with how many hectares are in the property, only letting three rooms ensures that six guests are on a vehicle and no one is relegated to the middle seat.
The staff went beyond to make my stay memorable – from baking a mini birthday cake. A highlight was the surprise bush brekkie. On our last drive we stopped next to the river only to find a full buffet of breakfast treats. Our ranger and tracker cooked up some eggs, bacon, and sausage for a delicious breakfast sandwich, although we did have to wrap things up rather quickly when an elephant bull crashed the party. It was a fitting end to a phenomenal few days in the bush.