We missed him the first time. As we doubled back, we discovered why.
The male leopard was lying in the undergrowth, camouflaged among dry leaves and twigs.
This meant our local guide, Moses, only saw the elusive big cat at the last possible second. He slammed on the brakes just as we drew up next to it.
“Oh, f***!” the Australian in front of me gasped before she could stop herself, our open-sided Land Rover jarring to a halt at the same moment most of us locked eyes on the black spots just metres away.
“Shhh,” Moses said. “Please be quiet.”
The leopard’s head was resting on his right leg, but his eyes were looking straight at us.
His whole body, stretched out and rippling with muscles, was now visible, and aside from twitching white whiskers, swivelling ears and a few blinks against the late afternoon sun, he made no sudden movements. He would soon.
South Luangwa National Park in Zambia has an exceptionally high density of leopards, making it one of the best national parks in Africa to see these secretive creatures.
There are no man-made boundaries, so the animals can move in and out of the park freely.
In 9050sq/km of wild bush, however, visitors to The Valley of the Leopard – as South Luangwa is sometimes called – are not guaranteed to see one, especially a few metres away, during daylight hours.
So, there was plenty of excitement less than an hour into our evening game drive when we were told by a passing vehicle that a leopard had been spotted not far away.
Our necks craned as we bumped along towards where it had been seen, searching for a hanging tail in the trees.
The leopard must have watched us drive past the first time, our eager eyes scanning over him.
Minutes later, as we retraced our route down the dirt track, we found ourselves beside him. Close enough for the next four minutes to play out in tension-sharpened detail.
My 27-day journey through east and southern Africa had many of these unforeseen, unprompted and unforgettable encounters, despite following a day-to-day itinerary.
There was the lost tuk tuk ride and the two helpful security guards armed with a shotgun and nunchucks in Tanzania, the late-night elephant visitor to our campsite in Zambia, the group of kids and teens in Malawi who could perform the haka better than the Kiwis trying to do it with them, and the three white rhino that let us get within metres of them in Zimbabwe.
The overland expedition, during which we travelled for more than 6000km through six countries with 21 other tourists aged 18 to 39, was run by travel company G Adventures and started in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, with a game of chicken.
At least that’s what it felt like to me, a jet-lagged newcomer in a city of more than three million people.
The skilled driver taking me and two others from the airport to the hotel was grinning at my wide-eyed expression as he comfortably wove and merged his way through lanes of hooting cars.
“This traffic is fun, eh?” he said, before spotting a gap in the blur of an upcoming roundabout and quickly but carefully inserting us into it.
The next morning, having met my group and our two Kenyan tour leaders, Masivu and Antony, we were back in Nairobi traffic, this time crawling out of the city in a big purple bus named Lando.
From the excessive but welcome comfort of G Adventures’ purpose built “overland adventure vehicle” – with in-seat USB chargers, air conditioning, two fridges and, sometimes, onboard Wi-Fi – I watched as the colourful and lively urban landscape slowly changed.
One of the great rewards of overland travel is being able to see that transformation at ground level, consciously and subconsciously taking in details as you pass by.
You begin to recognise the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in environment and people working and living there when driving through a country and continent rather than flying over.
Although our safari was not all about African wildlife, for many of us it was the main attraction and reason for coming. We were not disappointed.
On day five we descended through thick early morning fog to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, famed for its high density of wildlife.
“There are so many animals down there, you can’t believe,” our guide Sadiki said over the rattling and vibrating of the Land Rover as we slowly made our way to the bottom.
“Big herds of zebra, wildebeest, buffalo,” he continued, before adding, “lions here are numbering about 70”.
Ngorongoro Crater, technically an oval-shaped volcanic caldera, is so full of life it is regularly referred to as the “Garden of Eden” and, as we broke through the fog, it was easy to see why.
The night before we had camped on the rim under a large tree and were visited by buffalo, our flickering torch lights catching their eyes and shiny wet noses as they wandered around the tents.
As we drove down to the floor of the caldera the next morning, we could see large numbers of them grazing in green open grassland.
With the previous two days spent at Serengeti National Park, with its dry, endless savannah and hazy horizon, the colours and lushness of Ngorongoro were striking.
Lake Magadi – known by the local Maasai as Lake Makat, meaning salt – sat to our right as we bounced along, flamingos painting it pink. To our left the sun was breaking through low-hanging cloud, rays spilling down on to the plains below.
We saw hippos, gazelles, a couple of male lions, jackals, a hyena, and an abundance of zebra and wildebeest.
From a distance, we witnessed two lionesses slowly stalk a small group of buffalo, only for the cats to come inches short after spooking their breakfast.
The caldera was also rich with birdlife, a diverse and colourful collection of species in the air and on the ground.
We were spoilt here, as we were during our time at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and Kruger National Park in South Africa.
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