On the spoor of the leopard

Words: Sam Bradley ǀ Photos: Leopard Mountain Game Lodge

It is not yet seven in the morning but already the heat is noticeable. The watering holes are few and far between and the vegetation is dry and sparse, eagerly awaiting the first summer rains. Not far away two helmeted guineafowl notice our presence and let off an ungainly squawk of alarm. Moving slowly forward, I take care to tread as lightly as possible, knowing that stealth is crucial on this particular adventure.

Photos by: Leopard Mountain Game Lodge

We are on a guided walk at Leopard Mountain Game Lodge in the Zululand Rhino Reserve, and I am warily keeping a lookout not just for rhino but for all manner of beasts that could view me as a tasty morning snack (lion and buffalo probably topping my ‘let’s stay out of their way’ list). Our guide Ivor, armed not only with eyes like a hawk but also a pretty nifty looking rifle, gives us some manner of confidence, although we are acutely aware that we are the intruders in the animal kingdom here. At some point, we come across a buffalo quietly grazing: on foot, with not much protection, this experience takes on a whole new dimension. Creeping quietly and submissively away, we soon find ourselves in a valley where a female leopard was spotted not two hours earlier. We continue to move through the area slowly, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of movement, but she is too clever for us and slips away unnoticed.

Experiences like these are part of the daily routine at Leopard Mountain, a family-owned lodge set in the National Protected Area that is Zululand Rhino Reserve, a 23,000 hectare reserve in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Being a relatively small establishment, with chalet accommodation for 18 guests, staff can ensure that every visitor experiences a truly memorable stay. With tables set up around a campfire, dinners are intimate occasions and guests can enjoy a scrumptious four-course dinner and an award-winning wine selection with nothing but the sound of the bush in the background and the twinkling of the starry night sky overhead.

Guest’s comfort comes first at the lodge and lunch is a picnic basket packed with delicacies for guests to enjoy in the comfort of their chalet. And the beautiful stone and thatch accommodation really is worth spending some time in. Each unit is secluded enough for privacy and comes equipped with everything needed for a comfortable stay (thankfully not with a TV or any other electronic devices to spoil the serenity of the surroundings). Best of all is the private plunge pool in front of each chalet (the perfect way to escape the heat of the day) and the hammock strung across the porch, with beautiful views out over the bushveld and Lebombo Mountains.

Not that you will have too much time for lazing in a hammock. Early morning game drives are an education of life in the bush. The reserve has all of the big five, as well as numerous smaller animals and more than 520 bird species, and the guides seem to know them all. Tucked up snug with blankets and hot water bottles to keep out the cold, we come across all manner of flora and fauna (the highlight of the drive was seeingtwo lions mating).

Photos by: Leopard Mountain Game Lodge

After returning to the lodge for a full breakfast, guests have the option of a mid-morning trip to the hide. Well camouflaged on the banks of one of the all-year-round watering holes, visitors can sit back and admire whatever arrives for a drink. Our photo opportunities (and moments of amusement) were provided by a family of warthogs enthusiastically splashing about in the mud not five metres in front of us. The afternoon game drive was dedicated to finding one of the leopards after which the lodge takes its name, and while we did come across plenty of other game, as well as a spectacular sunset, the most elusive of the big five animals once again evaded us.

Albert Einstein wisely advised, ‘Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.’ Leopard Mountain Game Lodge definitely provides a memorable and detailed look at nature at its finest. In fact, 80% of guests to the lodge are return visitors and after our weekend at the lodge, we could see why. I know I need a return visit and another attempt at finding one of those leopards. As an added bonus, I know that if I wait four or five months there will also be some cute little lion cubs waiting for me. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back.”

What you need to know:

Rating: Leopard Mountain is a 4-star lodge.

Directions: When northbound on the N2 Highway, take the D464 District Road / Leopard Mountain Lodge turnoff to your left, 32 km after Hluhluwe. Proceed to the main gate of the Zululand Rhino Reserve where you will be asked to sign in, and then continue for 13 km to the lodge.

Rates: R1,895 per person per night sharing, including dinner, bed and breakfast, lunch, high tea and three daily game drive activities. (Rates per the time of publication)

Other activities: The guided walks are good for game and bird spotting (R300 per person), and the ‘Touch an Elephant’ experience (R350 per person) is also available.

More information: www.leopardmountain.co.za