Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

From sleeping to leaping, leopards fight over a kill at Sabi Sabi’s Selati Camp

It’s late afternoon. We’re peering into the branches of a large acacia where a leopard stretches out, eyes closed, sweetly dreaming. On the bough above, his glamour puss girlfriend snoozes fitfully, using her fresh kill as a pillow.  Their legs and tail dangle over the branches, the rosettes of their hooker-chic coats rippling with the rise and fall of their replete bellies.

Three hyenas circle the tree peering up periodically in the hopes of a meaty morsel falling their way.  “Hyenas give new meaning to window shopping,” says our ranger. Opportunistic feeders, they’ll eat almost anything. Like some humans I know. To enable them to hoist their dinner into their arboreal pantries, leopards first disembowel their kill, removing offal to lighten the load. Being solitary hunters, they avoid fighting.

A leopard’s urine smells like buttered popcorn, apparently. Glamour Puss has a full bladder but even if the male does appear to be asleep, she’s loath to take a bathroom break. She snarls a warning in case he’s planning to muscle in on her trophy but Leopardo Di Caprio doesn’t bat an eyelid. Glamour Puss isn’t convinced, but what’s a girl to do? She begins piddling from the branch, an expression of relief playing across her feline features, as the hyenas skip nimbly out the way.

Our ranger edges the vehicle closer.  I have an inkling of how a Peeping Tom lurking near a ladies lavatory must feel – dry mouth, thumping heart – so many what ifs. Hang on, I do smell something. Popcorn? Actually, it’s fear. In one fluid movement, the male has yawned, stretched, and leapt onto the female’s branch where he grabs her kill. Never underestimate a sleeping cat.

The hyenas surge forward as the leopards tussle with the carcass but the male snatches it from her and hoists the kill a few branches higher, hooking the horns into a fork to balance his meal. Like a broken marionette, the hapless impala’s limbs jerk in a macabre dance every time he rips off a hunk of flesh. The furious female bounds down the tree and into the bush, her evening ruined. Now and then slivers of meat and bone tumble into expectant hyena jaws. In the bush, one creature’s loss is another’s gain.

Later, my husband and I repair to Selati’s Ivory Suite where antique furniture, Persian rugs, and sepia shots of James Stevenson-Hamilton and Harry Wolhuter, early Kruger rangers, conjure up the late 1800s, but with all the 21st century trimmings. Burrowing into our king-sized bed, I spare a thought for the bush-bashers of yesteryear – Harry Wolhuter, who fought off two lions with just a hunting knife, and the ordinary folk using the old Selati Railway Line. One evening, close to Selati Camp, waiting passengers had to climb trees to evade a pride of hungry lion. The driver peered into the darkness but seeing nobody, steamed on towards Komatipoort. Eventually railway management provided ladders and train drivers were told to look for passengers in the branches.

In the soft light before sunrise, I hear a harmony of hyena celebrating the hunt. Joyous as a tabernacle choir on laughing gas, high-pitched chortle announce: “A scrub hare for me!” Hee! Hee! The hyenas laughing loudest are boasting about their venison that fell from a tree. Well, maybe …