Lucky leopard kicks off our photography year

A distant silhouette on the far ridge. The distinctive outline of a cat, walking. Heading north. It’s not yet light. Instinctively we both feel it could be a leopard. We’re cautious in calling it though. It’s ‘far, far’, very small even through binoculars. Most likely a cheetah,’ we agree. ‘Could be on the way to the water for a drink, it’s hot already this morning’.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The early dawn palette flatters our special subject especially when she turns briefly to look at us

There’s a waterpoint back north in the direction we’ve just travelled, about three k’s back up the sandy track. It will be a while before the sun’s up and the best photographic light is with us, so we drive on south for another seven or so kilometres to check out the next waterhole along the dry riverbed. Satisfying ourselves we’re not missing anything further down the valley we turn around and slowly drive back north again.

It’s been a quiet few days photographically. Conditions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a vast semi desert wilderness that straddles the borders of South Africa and Botswana, are very dry at the moment. We’re expecting rain anytime soon. The temperatures have been building, but not the clouds. We’re seeing big cats, and ticking over in terms of shots, but there’s not a whole lot of game around yet and we’re missing the raptors and smaller stuff. It’s like hanging around waiting for the grass to grow – literally.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
We’re close enough to count her spots as our lucky leopard walks right by us

So we’re not really expecting to set eyes on that hint of a cat from up on the top of the dunes. It’s just that on quiet morning drives like this you have to have some sort of plan for when the photographic golden hour arrives – even if it’s just to keep your head up. We continue heading back in the direction we came, to the next waterhole north, on the off-chance we’ll pick up our shadowy feline again. You’ve got to stay positive in this game. If nothing else the waterhole will make a nice spot for morning coffee and a rusk, but, in truth, the idea we’ll get nada once again in the sweet light is killing us.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Cat among the ‘pigeons’ – the doves make way for this thirsty feline just as the golden light arrives

Turning into the approach road to the waterhole we notice there’s another vehicle parked under the landmark thorn tree that provides much needed shade to animals and humans alike. Another reason to feel hopeful? But it doesn’t appear there’s anything at the water. It’s then we both spot something approaching the water from the left side of our vehicle. Just as we’re pitching up at the water so too amazingly is our mystery cat. Serendipitous timing or what! Our hunch was right. It was indeed a leopard we saw in the half light earlier on. Up close we see it’s a stunning female with gorgeous markings. We should have trusted our instincts when we saw her up on the dune. She looks in good condition. Predators can do alright for themselves when it’s really dry like this and the summer rainfall is late.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Taking a leap so as not to get those big paws wet!

Immediately coffee mode is off, photography is mode on. We’re in position before you can say ‘cat’s whiskers’ with one of us in the back, one in the driving position, and both with cameras ready. It’s time for fast thinking. We need a banker image or two at least from this special sighting. We steady ourselves and begin reeling off shots in the last of the soft pre-dawn light. One of us has the 500mm with a 1.4 converter (700mm), the other the 100 to 400mm zoom. The important thing is for both of us to keep well braced and aim to cover all the bases in case she doesn’t hang around – which is the most likely scenario with a stealthy huntress like this.

Leopard female resting in tree, Kgalagadi
Our leopard takes to a shady thorn tree to rest a while providing more picture opportunities

The pastel colours and soft light just before dawn flatter her beautifully. In the low light her eyes are big; no need to squint as she will when it’s harsh later on. She really is very close to us now and we’re both holding our breath. She stops to look around and check the coast is clear, her long tail curling at her back; she’s making sure there are no lions to worry about before advancing to the water trough.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The cat’s whiskers – in the shady light it’s possible to frame softly-lit portraits 

Both of her ears pricked? Eyes both with nice catchlights? Exposure okay? Enough, but not too much depth of field? Composition looking good? Sufficient speed if she explodes into action all of a sudden? All split second decisions. Pretty much second nature, but when there’s a leopard in your viewfinder that’s a big pressure moment. You don’t want to screw up moments like these. Leopards love to keep a low profile. Blink and they’re gone.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Action! After each visit to the water this plucky young female bounds across the overflow 

The good light’s almost here and we’re nervous she’ll spook and turn tail before it does. In our mind’s eye we can imagine how it will burnish her coat and how her piercing yellow eyes will pop in our pictures.

Fortunately there’s one thing heavily weighted in our favour. We’re banking on the fact this is the same relaxed leopard, a young female known as Ikhaya, that caused quite a stir by hanging around here for a few days, several months ago, to the delight of everyone staying at the two nearest camps. We’d picked up the buzz on social media at the time, but never expected, hadn’t dared to hope, our visit would coincide with her routine visits here. From her chilled demeanour this morning there’s every reason to suspect this is the same beautiful girl. If so we should be in for a treat. But we still need some insurance shots first – just in case.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
As the sun gets harsh our subject saunters off to find a  secluded spot to hole up for the day

She’s at the water now and the light is combing its honeyed fingers across her coat. Already we can frame a few simple portraits as she sits on the rocks surveying her surroundings up and down the valley, proud of the background. We’re pretty happy with these first captures, but suddenly the scene is spray-painted gold. Now we’re in business. She dips her head to drink, lifts it, dips again and drinks some more. She’s thirsty and, thankfully, seems in no hurry to leave. We finally have the luxury of time to consider our picture-making. What a star. Her eyes burn into our lenses, we see she has tiny drops of water matting the fur on her lower jaw and two long silver strands of slobber that swing and glint in the low raking sun. We’re smitten.

We spend almost an hour and half with her that morning, and another two hours again 48 hours later. Up there with our best leopard sightings in the park, when we’re reliving it all later back at camp, and reviewing our pictures, we’re both astounded just how casual we were, driving on past her after that first glimpse up on the far bank of dunes.

How lucky that we’d turned back in time when most mornings we would have just carried on south – looking for something nice to photograph…