“What would you like to see?” Lazarus Mmutlane asks the group as we sit on the Buffalo Ridge game vehicle.
“A leopard!” we chorus, laughing, knowing it is notoriously difficult to find these elusive creatures. “Nothing is guaranteed in the bush” Lazarus sagaciously responds, “but I will do my best”. He is a member of the Balete people from Lekgophung, who own and run the Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve.
I am delighted to be in malaria-free Madikwe accompanied by James, my teenage son. We are relaxed after an easy flight on Fedair from OR Tambo to the airstrip nearest to Buffalo Ridge. While we were being driven to the lodge from the airfield, I had realised that my hat was still on the plane. Lazarus had turned back cheerfully, with nary a recriminating word, so I was already fond of him.
Now it is late afternoon, and we drive from the high ridge, where the lodge is sited, down into the valley below. It is a particularly beautiful landscape, with high inselbergs - the dramatic volcanic intrusions famous in the area- dotted on the plain.
Surely this is leopard country?
Birds are moving and we spot a black-breasted snake eagle, a purple roller and some tiny blue waxbills. Next to a dam, we see two male lions and are able to drive right up to them. A guest from Sweden is particularly thrilled as he is a keen photographer and has never been so close to lions before. One of the big five ticked off the list and chatter on the vehicle is animated, after seeing these brothers doing what lions do best: resting.
Before the drive, I had sat on the veranda of our chalet, gazing at the spectacular view of the plains, where five elephants were peacefully foraging. Right next to me, a pair of klipspringers had been grazing. It was so quiet and appealing, I had considered eschewing the game drive for a laze in the comfortable suite, situated so carefully that it is totally private.
I had strolled around the lodge and seen that every one of the eight suites has the same great view and privacy. The swimming pool was also drawing me to stay, as it is open to the expansive view and backed by magnificent trees, including Mountain Lavender. But the lure of the bush proved too great. As I was walking to the game vehicle, I saw baboons happily eating figs from the Rock-Fig tree next to reception.
We are enjoying watching a dazzle of zebra and taking photos in the fast fading light when Lazarus says, “We need to go. Trust me” and he drives off at speed.
There is a heightened sense of anticipation and discussion ensues as to what our guide knows that we don’t. Suddenly the vehicle slows and we turn off-road into the bush. There it is! A magnificent young male leopard, sitting on a low branch, not too far above eye level. Another vehicle is there and we are all smiling at one another with abject joy.
Back at the lodge, we are all so excited after our sighting; we chat and share our experience with the other guests, who are clearly envious. Dinner is served at individual tables. James and I enjoy our meal and the chef agrees to give us the recipe for the white chocolate panacotta. After dinner we flop onto one of the comfy couches in the homely lounge area and peruse some of the coffee table books.
Taking off from the airfield near Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge is an enchanting experience. Giraffes are here to bid us farewell as we look down on the veld and recognise the roads we had explored on our game drives.
It is always a treat to see any of the big five and James and I are gratified to have seen them all. We are particularly pleased and grateful that Lazarus found us a leopard, and we hug the memory to ourselves.