You will not see a leopard!
It was the year 2002 and we were on a Safari in Kenya. We had arrived at the famous Maasai Mara Reserve the night before and we were about to embark on our morning drive.
Getting to the Maasai Mara was quite the adventure by itself. We had gotten on quite an old looking plane from a little airport in Mombassa. The airport was really just a small dusty building and an airstrip with some security including a woman who was waving around an Uzi. I remember looking it quite surprised as I could not see how an Uzi was a good weapon in lets say a hostage situation, It did however probably work as a good deterrent.
We had flown very close by Mount Kilimanjaro which unbeknownst to myself at the time wen would climb in the summer of 2006. What an amazing giant mountain it was that just stood there in the Africa plains. The plane if I recall correctly was about a 30 seater and a few hours later we arrived in the Maasai Mara where we would drop off guests at several lodges. I believe in the last 15 minutes of the flight we landed and took off about 4 times. On occasion we barely would fly higher then the treetops and land again at the next lodge all the while we could see elephants, giraffes and some of the other larger animals. It was quite nerve-wracking not knowing how safe the old looking plane was but the animals kept me distracted.
The morning after we met our guide Peter, the son of a Maasai Chief and probably one of the best guides we ever had. We had a great conversation while getting to the 4x4 and by the time we were setting off we had discussed what animals we had seen so far in Kenya and what we were still hoping to see. I remembering telling Peter that we would love to see a leopard but that it was just a hope and no pressure. He replied that he just had a group of tourists from Switzerland that necessarily wanted to see a leopard during their long 10 day safari trip in the Mara but that they did not encounter any. So with that he said, he thought our chances on our 4 days safari were very small.
Now we stayed at a lodge right at the Mara river. The River itself is surrounded by a forest which then gives way to the Savannahs once you drive about 100 meters/yards away in the opposite direction. As peter was still telling us that our chances would be very small to see a leopard we drove around the first bent from the lodge and there... in the middle of the road... right in front us... stood a leopard.
It stared at us and we stared at the leopard. We were all flabbergasted and so surprised that we were all just speechless. I am not sure for how long we were staring but it then dawned that none of us had their camera ready and everything was still in our bags. What ensued was a bit of a panic to get our camera's out which the leopard took as his que to jump in the nearest bush, all the while still staring at us. At this point we had gotten the video camera ready but all we got was the leopard's head in a dense bush for less then a second.
The Leopard disappeared in the forest and in my mind I said farewell to this beautiful animal. It took us by quite the surprise when our guide then raced after the leopard off track in to the forest. Apparently at least back then the Maasai Mara was one of the few parks that allow guides to drive off road. What ensued felt like a high speed chase through the forest following the leopard which had started running towards the Mara River. What happened next was unbelievable. The Mara river was running low and there were about 4 meter/12 feet high cliffs on both sides of the river. The leopard with no effort at all jumped down the river, over the river and on top of the cliff in all but 3 or 4 strides. It was absolutely amazing, the agility and speed, It was mind-blowing. We all stood there in the open roof 4x4 with mouths probably wide open like almost in trance when suddenly a very loud trumpeting woke us all up, we had been so focused on the leopard that we had missed the large bull elephant in the forest right behind our car. The large bull started to take a charging position growling and trumpeting and our guide got us out of there as fast as we could.
The rest of the 4 days were amazing, Peter was a great guide who showed us many amazing animals and taught us a lot about his interesting culture. The camp itself was also beautiful and was visited every afternoon almost precisely at noon by a group of elephants. What would ensue after was always quite entertaining as the guards and staff would try to chase out the elephants while the elephants would then chase the staff in return. This would go on for quite awhile until the elephants probably wanted to eat in peace and would move on. One of these afternoons we were about to leave on our afternoon game drive when one of the elephants had parked itself in front of my parents tent. Several of our group were not able to get out of our tent which was firstly quite amusing to myself knowing that they were probably sweating in there. I could see them sit in his tent about 2 meters/2 yards away from the elephant intently staring at how the behemoth was using its tusks to dig out the roots of a nearby tree. Eventually I had to call the guards who after a few back and forth were able to chase away the elephant. We were late for the afternoon drive but we had a heck of an excuse!
What an amazing experiences we had which unfortunately we got very little off on camera and no pictures. We did learn that day however to always be ready, Whether you are in the camp or about to leave on your trip or just in transit... Always have your camera ready!
Luckily it was not going to be the last leopard I would see and in the last 20 years I have see a dozen or more leopards on 9 different occasions including one on walking safaris and a leopard eating a fresh kudu kill which we nicely caught on film!