I was visiting Kruger National Park in South Africa alone and had spent the hottest part of the day prior at the pool in camp. There happened to be another girl at the pool who was also alone. During our chat she told me she was doing ant research in the park which I found fascinating. She also told me the harrowing story of hearing a leopard bark while in the bush checking her ant traps that morning.
“A leopard bark?” I questioned. I never knew a leopard barked. My new friend made the noise best she could, and we discussed how dangerous leopards are to humans.
The night after that conversation I was in my chalet in Mopani camp where, from my veranda - while sipping delicious South African wine - I saw elephants, kudu and more. I thought about the ant researcher and how amazing her job must be and jotted her description of a leopard bark in my journal. I even practiced the sound aloud to remind myself what it sounded like, (the wine may have been kicking in at that point).
The next morning, I woke to my watch alarm beeping at 3:30. Groggily, I made coffee and filled my flip-top thermos then packed up to move on to my next camp. The African sky was filled with stars at 4:15 when I was ready to go; wanting to be the first out of the gate to see what was awaiting.
Once out of the chalet I turned back to lock the door with one of those skeleton keys you rarely see anymore; A key I always have a tough time figuring out which way to put into the lock and which way to turn it to lock or unlock the door. After successfully locking the chalet, I preceded on to the car park, which was a good distance away from the chalet.
I was rolling one bag and had a tote loaded with maps and animal guidebooks tossed on that shoulder; the other shoulder my camera bag was slung. In my free hand, I held car keys, the chalet keys and the thermos of coffee which had the lid open. I sipped coffee on my enthusiastic stroll to my car.
I was exactly halfway between the chalet and my car when I heard the very same bark that was described to me by the ant researcher. I froze on the sidewalk then heard it again. A leopard! My heart and breathing stopped as I tried to figure out where the predator was; inside camp or outside of camp. I didn’t ponder that thought long knowing I had to make a quick lifesaving decision. Do I make a mad dash back to the chalet or to my car? I remember thinking it would take me longer to figure out how to unlock the chalet than to unlock the car.
I ran for the car like an Olympic sprinter; my luggage flying in my breeze; my camera bag flapping onto my back and coffee spilling everywhere from the open lid of the thermos. When I got to the car, I flung open the door and literally dove into the front seat pulling all my bags in on top of me and shutting the door in a flurry, my heart visibly beating out of my chest.
There I sat in the passenger seat of the car, (because in my hurry I forgot which side of the car the steering wheel was on) peering over my rolling bag, tote and camera bag that were all piled on my lap, the thermos still in my hand but with little coffee left in it since the coffee was all over me including dripping from my hair.
Once I regained my composure I laughed until I cried. I may have even peed myself a bit!
It took me some time to gather my wits and get cleaned up from the situation. I realize I may never know if there was or was not a leopard in camp or if my imagination had again run wild while traveling solo in Africa.
If there was a leopard, he had the last laugh that morning!