You can always tell when I’m uninspired, or bored, or blocked, because it’s only then that I turn from basic story-telling mode to research mode, which usually then jogs me back into story mode. Today’s dabbling was to Quack the term “Leopard name etymology” because I’ve always been curious that “leo” is a lion, and part of a leopard’s name is “leo.” I figured it had something to do with the early naming of a leopard, maybe mistaking it for a lion. I was half correct. It turns out that when the leopard was originally named, it was because, “In antiquity, a leopard was believed to be a hybrid of a lion and a panther, as is reflected in its name, which is a Greek compound of λέων leōn (lion) and πάρδος pardos (male panther).“

View of the opposite side of the river from our table on the restaurant deck at Lower Sabie Rest Camp. As you can see, binoculars and/or a telephoto lens are a must for action on the far side of the river.

And the other thing I learned is that a “black panther” is actually either a leopard or a jaguar, just a melanistic one (melanism is the opposite of albinism, so just think “all black” vs “all white”.)

Today’s final installment of the “Baby Big Five” is leopard!

[Cue story.]


Previously I shared a photo with you of a mother leopard and her cub, focusing on how well camouflaged those spots made it in the African bush, and in trees. (You can reference that post and see those leopards by clicking here.)

Thank goodness for zoom.

Today’s leopard cubs were part of our very fortunate “Big Five in a Day” journey in Kruger. And I mean fortunate, because we tripped, stumbled, and fumbled our way across each one of these, not finding any without the cues of other, much more better-sighted, tourists.

We drove from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie in a morning, taking back roads, whispering back and forth “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we saw a leopard?” and stopping at every fifth tree with a hanging branch that looked suspiciously like a leopard tail (apparently I don’t know a leopard’s tail from my tailbone.) But we still had fun jarring along the ribbed dirt roads, finally arriving at Lower Sabie just before lunchtime, and nabbing a table on the edge of the deck overlooking the Lower Sabie River.

We knew it was a magical spot from the moment we arrived. We ordered lunch and watched blissfully as hippos and crocodile lazily moved about on the opposite bank, enjoyed a herd of impala and kudu moving to the river for a drink, and a water buffalo buck graze in and out of the marshes below the deck.

“You owe me money.”

We even thought a NatGeo moment might occur as a baby hippo would not stop investigating a large, sleeping croc.

Baby hippo investigating a large crocodile on the Sabie River.

Our food had only just arrived when a man who had been standing nearby enjoying the view tapped my shoulder and pointed directly across to the far side of the river. “Leopard” he said quietly, as though any sound might make the silhouette disappear back into the brush.

“Kurt!” I practically squealed. But he already had his binoculars out. I fumbled with the camera, trying to find through the zoom lens what I could barely see with my naked eye.

This leopard is difficult to see, even with a zoom lens.

And there she was: a sleek, beautiful leopard, walking gently along the edge of the water, south along the shoreline.

Leopard on the Sabie River

And then…there was another.

Soon after mama walked south along the shore, this guy showed up on the path where she had appeared.

My shutter was continuous clicking as I aimed back and forth between the two, willing my meager 18-200 zoom to turn itself into a 500. The river is so wide. It makes for beautiful panoramic views of game, but frustration for those of us with the less-than-compensating zoom lenses on our cameras.

Leopard cub approaching the river tentatively.

Soon, both leopards disappeared into the bush again, and the deck was filled with stunned murmuring. We started eating again, and I started snapping photos of the variety of birds on the deck, which had begun trying to steal our fries (“chips”) while we were watching leopard.

Thieving birds nabbed half my fries while I was watching leopards on the far bank

I thought we might even have all big five while at Lower Sabie, because in only a few moments, a herd of elephant appeared on our side of the bank, less than a kilometer north of where we sat. We watched as they crossed the river and headed up the bank on the other side.

Elephant herd crossing the river as we sat on the restaurant deck of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp

I was beaming! What an experience! What a moment! What an adventure!


“More leopards!”

Both the female leopard and her cub reappeared on the far shore.

Someone at a nearby table alerted the restaurant and we all turned our attention directly across the river again, where the mother leopard reappeared from her southerly crop of brush, this time with the youngster at her side. It nipped at her, ran alongside her, and even disappeared briefly into the bushes only to reappear on the far side to mock-ambush her.

Leopard and cub playing on Sabie River in Kruger National Park

She laid down for a few photo ops for the tourists with the ten-meter-long lenses, and “Oohs!” and “Aahs!” from the rest of us who knew our best lenses wouldn’t quite get the gold-green of her eyes or the white of her teeth.

Leopard and cub on the Sabie River.

Before long she was up again, heading north toward the brush from which she had originally appeared. Her cub pranced along beside her and then disappeared into the bush. She lay down once again on the sand.

Leopard and cub Kruger National Park

Her cub reappeared.

And another!

Leopard cubs playing near mother Kruger National Park

Leopard and cubs on the sand across from Lower Sabie Rest Camp.


Two cubs! They stayed briefly, before all three disappeared again into the bush.

Mama leopard leading her cubs into the bush again.

We saw them briefly as they reappeared halfway up the far bank, before disappearing into the bush for good.

Leopards disappearing into the bush on the far bank of the Sabie River

As we relaxed again, I began to take in more of the surroundings on our side of the bank. The bank was lined with little huts and benches, where campers were sitting in the comfort of their own bungalow, as a week’s worth of action played out before them in a single day. We realized then just why Lower Sabie Rest Camp is nearly impossible to reserve. Bookings are done far in advance, and tourists who don’t want the drives and the crowded roads can sit on their front porch and, with a good pair of binos, see as much action as those of us scrambling to peek between other cars and safari trucks.

Marla rarely put down her camera but Kurt insisted she watch for a few minutes through the binoculars. They were superior to the camera, but she just couldn’t stop clicking that shutter to relax and watch in real time.

It might take me a year to get reservations, but I’m going to book one week in Lower Sabie and just go for a writing retreat in one of those little bungalows on the river, returning for more of the magic.

Love, Marla

Leopard and cub nuzzling = happiness on the Sabie River.

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