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The day I spotted the un-spottable spotted animal

Rare leopard sightings in Africa

They say that when you go on safari you need three vital qualities.


Patience, good luck and the ability to accept disappointment.


Fortunately, during our afternoon game drive at MalaMala private game reserve in South Africa, we only need two.

After more than three painstakingly intense hours, our expert tracker Bens has picked up the trail of a female leopard, one of the most elusive wild animals in the world.


“She’s close,” he says, circling a fresh paw print in the dirt with his bamboo cane. It's deathly quiet as we watch a master at his work... 


Suddenly, I catch a flash of movement to my right and before I even know it, I’m yelling “there, there, there!” like an excited schoolkid.


Some 20 metres away is the elusive cat we’ve been tracking for so long, making her way up the grassy bank of the dry riverbed we’ve followed her into. Bens guns the big green Land Cruiser up the bank and off we go in pursuit.

For the next 30 minutes, we follow the two-year-old as she crawls, sprints and bounces through the African bush. At one point, she heads straight for us, walks around the front of the vehicle and passes so close I could reach out and pat her (I choose not to!).


It’s hard to put into words the emotions you feel when you are this close to one of nature’s true wonders. When you’ve only seen such beautiful creatures in TV documentaries, pictures and the occasional zoo visit, this is an almost surreal experience. No fences, no bars – just nature as she always intended it to be.


I really should go out and buy a lottery ticket because during our two-day stay at MalaMala we were blessed with three separate leopard interactions.


It’s why this place is so renowned for the quantity of its wildlife and the quality of the interactions. Being a private game reserve, trackers are able to go off-road (and by off-road, I mean off bush) and that gets you even closer to the animal attractions.

Here, they don’t do the “Ferrari Safari” experience where you race around to try and tick off the ‘Big Five’ in a day. Guides like Bens and Mike take their time to give guests a genuine feeling of what it’s like to track big game…and the euphoria you feel when it finally happens is remarkable.


The previous morning we’d only been out about 10 minutes when we came across a basking pride of lionesses. They’d killed a zebra during the night and were totally satiated. I ask tracker Mike what would happen if, even in this docile state, one of us was foolish enough to exit the vehicle.


“They’d kill you instantly,” he says. Ask a stupid question…

Animals aside, MalaMala is the place to stay if you want to do Africa in luxury. The rooms are massive, the food is five-star and the staff are an absolute delight. Yes, you will need to save your pennies to stay here but trust me, the leopard sightings alone are just priceless.

A room at MalaMala

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Written by: Jon Underwood
Published: 9 May 2022

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