On Safari in South Africa: Spotting African Cats

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I had heard the spotted cats were particularly difficult to see on a safari. After our luck with lions, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Surely we wouldn’t see all of your typical game park animals in just four days … or would we? Despite my concerns, on the first morning’s drive, we stumbled upon a leopard hiding in the brush.

Leopards are notoriously shy, and he never came out of the clearing, so we were stuck staring at his backside amidst a smattering of foliage. Then, someone from the lodge radioed our driver Dyke to let us know a cheetah was in the area. We sped off and, minutes later, came to find a lone cheetah shading herself beneath a tree.

Much like the lions, she (he?) seemed completely unconcerned about our presence. After some more zebras and giraffes, antelope and buzzards, we returned to the lodge for lunch and our afternoon rest. The afternoon drive started in the high heat of the afternoon, a time when many animals are sleeping or tucked away from the harsh African sun. That’s usually what happens at least. This time, we returned to the tree where we first spotted Mama Cheetah to find she was, indeed, a mother.

Two little cubs lounged in the grass, blinking calmly.

Mom and another half-grown cheetah (Dad perhaps? more likely the teenage son upon further inspection) scanned the perimeter for possible enemies.

While I thought the giraffes were my favorite, the cheetahs quickly jumped up to the top spot in my mind.

There’s just something about them that exudes grace and elegance: their carefully placed spots, their long, lean bodies. And they can run like the wind, catching speeds of 90 miles per hour. I could use a little of that speed in my next marathon! Much like the lions, I had to restrain myself from jumping out and giving them a squeeze.

Tell me you don’t want to give this little kitty a hug?

The fearsome foursome kept repositioning their bodies every few seconds in statuesque positions; I swear they were posing for me.

Then Mama spotted something not to her liking and got up and starting stalking over that way.

She paused to look me square in the eye, as if to say: “Don’t worry, I’ve got this covered.”

Got it, Mama. I’ll leave you to your own devices.

Teenage Kitty followed, then the babies got up and scampered off after them.

I was so sad to see the Cheetah Family leave, but it was for the best as I don’t think I would have moved from that spot all day long.

The afternoon drives would last from 3pm to 7pm, sometimes even longer. We were in South Africa in the fall, meaning it would fall dark around 5:30pm and the second half of our nightly drive would be under a veil of darkness. That night, after our cheetah-filled afternoon, we were radioed that a leopard was prowling the area. Our proactive driver took off in pursuit of the leopard. It wasn’t long until we spotted him.

As I mentioned before, leopards are shy and not as chill as the cheetahs. We chased him through a field, down into a dried-out stream bed, up a few sandy hills, and back into a field. This guy did not want to be seen.

I never did see his face. Maybe he was embarrassed, or maybe he likes to maintain an air of mystery. Whatever the case, we eventually gave up and drove back to the lodge, content from another satisfying drive.

**********

So many people have told me personally or commented on my South Africa posts that they didn’t see a lot of big game while in Kruger. I think it’s important to point out that we went on safari with &Beyond and stayed in their private game reserve, Ngala, on the fringe of Kruger. The area was vast, the animals were many, and very rarely did we cross paths with another safari vehicle. It’s my only safari experience to date so I’m not an expert, but seems to me if you go to South Africa and want a stellar safari experience, you should opt for one of the private companies with their own park.

On Safari in South Africa: In Search of Cheetahs and Other Cats
On Safari in South Africa: In Search of Cheetahs and Other Cats
On Safari in South Africa: In Search of Cheetahs and Other Cats
COMMENTS
  • March 23, 2011
    SVV

    I see a frame in the future for some of these. I love cats.

  • March 23, 2011

    Beautiful cats!

  • March 23, 2011

    WOW. So beautiful. I love the vertical black lines running down from mom’s eyes.

  • March 23, 2011

    Awesome that you got to see baby cheetahs! Our closest “wild” encounter with a cheetah was very far away – you got much luckier. We got a great view of a leopard but it was only on our night drive . . . it’s so hard to see them during the day.

    • March 23, 2011

      Oh – and your point on Kruger is right on. I’m getting ready to write a post about Kruger now and I’m going to link to your amazing experiences in a private game reserve because we didn’t see much at our private game reserve.

      • March 23, 2011
        Kristin

        Yes! You were one of the people I was referencing, as I remember you said you only saw, like, two lions in eight days. And you two are also my inspiration for *trying* to plan a safari in Namibia next spring!

  • March 23, 2011

    Ack, cheetahs!! And leopards! One of our colleagues got to see a leopard hunting and killing an impala (and pix to prove it). He’s darn lucky! But you got to see baby cheetahs — I’d do (almost) anything to see a cheetah family in the wild. That’s so cool!

    • March 23, 2011
      Kristin

      It’s funny: I’m not at all a fan of house cats, but cheetahs are very easily my new favorite land animal!

  • March 23, 2011

    I love cheetahs. I saw a National Geographic documentary showing how they hunt at night… fascinating.

  • March 23, 2011

    I actually went to a private reserve and to Kruger on the same trip. We saw a lot of cats – lions, leopards, cheetahs – at the private reserve where they track the animals. We saw plenty of leopard faces, too, as they were sort of used to the human traffic at that particular reserve. In Kruger, however, we saw a lot other animals – elephants, giraffes, zebras, hyenas, hippos, wart hog, etc etc. I also had hear when we were there that the south of Kruger has more cats, so your chances of seeing them there are greater. The private reserves are great largely because the guides are so great, but we also had a blast driving ourselves around Kruger and spotting animals on our own.

    • March 23, 2011
      Kristin

      I think I might be scared to drive around that area in a car by myself! Then again, I don’t think you can off-road in Kruger, can you? And you’re in a closed-top vehicle, so I guess that would make me feel a bit more secure. It sounds fun to go at it alone, but if you have just a couple days there, I’d probably get a guide anyway, as they know where every animal lives, how to find them and then you don’t waste too much time if time is an issue.

  • March 23, 2011

    Meow.

    xox

  • March 23, 2011

    We went to Kruger and not to a private game park, and we saw lions and rhinos (as well as elephants, hippos, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, wart hogs, crocodiles, a black mamba, and more). We did not, however, see cheetahs (but we saw lots in Etosha) or a leopard (never saw one). The lions and rhinos (white and black) we saw were in the south, where we also heard sightings were more common. We loved Kruger and the ability to do the safari on our own in our own car. We didn’t have the benefit of a guide with radio communication, but for us a lot of the thrill was spotting these animals on our own. One thing I wish we had done was sign up in advance for a night drive. The park rangers do run some organized game drives, and I think the night drive would have given us a better chance at spotting a leopard. You’re not allowed out at night in your own car, so your only opportunity to go out at Kruger at night is on a ranger tour.

    • March 23, 2011
      Kristin

      The night drives were pretty amazing–if not eerie at times! And since our drives all lasted four hours, our guide would always pull over in the pitch black and set up a food/coffee/liquor stand on the dirt road so we could have snack time in the middle of the drive, ha.

  • March 23, 2011

    I saw the Big 5 my first day. Wouldn’t have seen the leopard if another driver hadn’t said where to look. Didn’t get to see Cheetas. I thought Kruger was loaded with wildlife, just got to know how and where to look. But then I had my own private guide. The “Ranger” night drive was most disappointing as the guide just wasn’t well informed. My fave is still the elephants.

    • March 23, 2011
      Kristin

      I think that’s the key: having a guide who knows his stuff. A lot of people I know who do Kruger drive themselves around the whole time, and I doubt if you get as much out of it that way since you don’t really know the ins and outs of the park, where you’re sure to see this animal, what that animal’s sleeping/hunting patterns are, etc.

  • March 24, 2011
    Sid

    Yeah. Didn’t see any leopards, lions or cheetahs. Saw lots of elephants and giraffes.

    About a year ago I went to a private reserve in Limpopo, and we went on a horse ride through the reserve. It was one of the most awesome experiences ever. I couldn’t believe how close we were to the giraffes.

    • March 24, 2011
      Kristin

      I can’t imagine doing a safari in horseback! What if you’d run into lions?? Wouldn’t they want to eat the horses? Or am I just ignorant to the circle of life and its chain of command? =)

  • March 24, 2011

    I would love to get to see them in the wild someday. So far it’s only ever been in a wildlife park.

  • March 24, 2011

    So great that you were able to see that many. I don’t like cats but I think I would have to make an exception in here. They are so adorable.

    • March 25, 2011
      Kristin

      I’m with you, sista. I cannot stand (house) cats at all, which is why it’s ironic that the cheetahs and lions were my favorite safari animal!

  • March 25, 2011
    elizabeth

    I had never noticed those lovely markings on their face! Just exquisite. How I wish a safari was in my future. Sadly a trip to Africa is not in my budget for the forseeable future.But…I remember you did a blog post about a private safari park near Santa Rosa, CA. That is much more doable and is on my plans for later this year. Thanks Kristin for locating marvelous places for us to go visit

    • March 25, 2011
      Kristin

      I know two little kiddies who would LOVE Safari West in Santa Rosa…you should see if they’re available =)

  • March 27, 2011

    WOW! Those cheetahs were so amazing, but the leopard picture at the end, caught in the headlights…fantastic. He’s so beautiful!

  • March 27, 2011

    Incredible shots. These spotted cats are hard to find, and it looks like you got really pretty damn close. Thanks, also, for the proviso about safaris. We’ve only done Kenya and Sri Lanka, but the only leopard we saw was up a tree, a long way away. In general, I think, leopards are very solitary animals and they are easiest to find in less-visited parks.

  • March 29, 2011

    Omg the cheetahs!..They have always been my favorite and can only pray I get to see them when I take a safari in the future…Great post! And really nice pictures too 🙂

    TRAVEL DESIGNERY

  • March 29, 2011
    Jeje

    As beautiful as these pictures are… and they ARE fantastic… it doesn’t even remotely compare to being there! &BEYOND @ NGALA was the best trip I’ve ever taken in my 60 years. Second only to the birth of my two beautiful daughters! Everyone needs to save up and go before these wonderful animals have vanished forever in the wild.

  • March 29, 2011

    Great info. We are seriously considering an African wild safari for Aracely’s 30th birthday next year, so the company recommendation is important to us. Thanks for the info.

  • April 9, 2011

    Such regal looking creatures. #4 is my favorite with the staggered posing of the mom and cubs.
    You’re totally fueling my desire to go on safari now. We’re already thinking of going in June.
    Kruger seems to be the place to see a lot more wildlife.

  • January 8, 2013

    Lucky you.
    No Cheetahs for us in the last week, but one leopard. Most amazing animal 🙂

    Cheers

  • November 3, 2014

    A game drive is all about the pleasure of looking for and finding the animals. And when you see a cat close by that is a real treat. Even if you went with &Beyond, it was still awesome you saw this cheetah family from close by and you saw a leopard at night. Just great and nice photos 🙂

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