We knew the leopard was close before we actually saw her.
We were on our first game drive at Lion Sands, one of a collection of private game reserves of varying degrees of opulence strung all along the west bank of the Sabi River that forms one boundary of South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park. Our tracker, perched on a seat high on the front of the oversize Land Rover game drive vehicle ubiquitous across the continent, knew she had to be in the vicinity because the meat from her recent hunt was hanging in a tree in front of us.
It took the sharp, young eyes of a Belgian lad in the truck to spot her, crouched within, and almost camouflaged by, tall, sand-coloured grasses. We waited, patiently, and, fortunately for my brand new digital camera and long, fast lens, she got up and paced about and, with the light very much golden-hour perfect, I captured two images of her that were easily the best shots I took over three nights and six game drives at Lion Sands.
The leopard is the most elusive of the so-called big five game animals — lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant — that big game hunters used to chase for trophies and that photographers like me now want to tick off their bucket list, and here we found a gorgeous specimen barely minutes into our first safari.
But that was Lion Sands in a nutshell — an astonishingly luxurious oasis of comfort, close personal attention and the very best safari experience imaginable that brought all the animals of the African veld so close we could almost touch them. I had a 70-200mm fast telephoto zoom and a 2x convertor that gave me 400mm when I wanted it and yet, for many of my best shots, my lens was not even at full extension.
Linda and I had ended up at Lion Sands through a wonderful confluence of coincidental events that started with a random telephone call to my PR agency Ottawa and ended with the man, and now friend, on the other end of that call snagging us a media rate for our stay at a place with one lodge that had been rated as the best hotel in the world a couple of years before our 2010 trip. At a rack rate of USD2,500 per person per night, there was never any way we could ever afford such a luxury; the glorious accidents that brought us there delivered an experience that will be hard to duplicate.
We spent our first night in Lion Sands’ River Lodge, which was impressive enough, but were upgraded for our remaining two nights to its Ivory Lodge, a string of eight luxury suites spread so far apart along the banks of the Sabi River that we could not see our neighbours on either side. The person who brought us to the room opened the big wooden door and then just stepped aside so that we could, as she said every new guest always did, walk in and simply halt, gobsmacked by the unhindered view across a private plunge pool to the river and to Kruger beyond, before turning and taking in the lounge and dining room to our right, and the bedroom to our left.
A king bed was almost impossible to leave when our butler — yes, our butler — brought us tea and rusks before the sun came up in the morning so we could head out on an early-morning game drive to witness the nocturnal veld going to sleep and the diurnal veld waking up, all before breakfast. (Staff, knowing we were in South Africa to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, made up a beautiful display of flower petals and tea-light candles that greeted us when we returned to our room the second night. It was very special.) We could soak in a massive tub, which we did, or luxuriate in an outdoor shower. Although all our meals were served in the dining room we could have seated a dinner party of eight around the the table in the other half of the suite. This was definitely a glimpse into how some people live.
As out-of-this-world as the accommodations were, though, the animals were the real stars of the Lion Sands. We saw all of the big five, plus giraffes, warthogs, zebras, more varieties of bok that we could keep track of, and a host of smaller critters and birds of all description. On our last game drive, we got permission to cross into a neighbouring game reserve — all the fences between the reserves and between them and Kruger were long ago torn down to make one of the largest wildlife preserves anywhere — to finally see lions that had evaded us up until then. Sadly, the pride were somnolent from recent gorging on a kill and were lolling sleepily in the road, humourously, but not terribly photogenically.
We have been on other safari experiences since returning to live in South Africa nine years ago but none has come close to our first mind-boggling time at Lions Sands, and there are no pictures in my vast collection that I love more than the two images of the majestic lady I shot on my very first drive.