Wild traveller Gillian Leigh Soames is known as Kruger’s leopard queen with good reason. With more than 8,000 leopard pictures in the bag, she argues sightings have nothing to do with luck. By Arnold Ras

She’s wild at heart, besotted with the Kruger National Park and addicted to sighting spotted cats. Wild chats to Gillian Leigh Soames about her infectious passion for leopards, the hours spent on the Kruger National Park’s roads and her many superstitions when it comes to spotting these predators.

You’re a self-proclaimed Krugerholic. When and how did the wild bug bite?

I grew up in Kimberley in the Northern Cape where birding is exceptional, but wildlife is largely restricted to plains game. My exposure to antelope and ungulates was enough to get me hooked on wildlife in general. We moved to Johannesburg in 1997 and in July 1998, at the age of 24, I saw my very first leopard at a private game reserve next to the Kruger National Park. This marked the start of my leopard addiction.

What is it about leopards that captured your heart?

Leopards are, unequivocally, the most exquisite animals on our planet and I am terminally obsessed with them. Mystical, magical, elusive, intelligent and highly adaptable are words that come to mind when I think about leopards. I am convinced that their every decision is based on a highly complex network of genius matrix coding that seldom appears to be off-the-cuff decision making. If I could have one wish granted, it would be to peek inside and fully understand the inner workings of a leopard’s mind – just for one day.

An enduring connection

It seems as if you know every Kruger leopard by name…

I wish. I do, however, spend all my free time investigating, questioning and learning about their habits, territories and individual spots for identification. I study their movements, bloodlines and make it my life’s work to stay up to date with the latest news and reports that are posted on various social media platforms and blogs. I practically agonise about each and every leopard out there to such a degree that it feels like I am maternally connected to them.

Tell us about that one unforgettable leopard sighting.

I once almost French kissed a leopard! Let me explain…

Upon spotting a dominant male sitting at the very top of a massive termite mound, our guide parked the open safari vehicle on the opposite side of the mound as to keep a respectable distance and not invade the animal’s space. Ethical behaviour is of paramount importance: the animal comes first, beautiful photographs are just a bonus. I proceeded to take some lovely photos with both human and cat comfortable. Next thing the cat stood up and moved to our side of the termite mound and perched himself right on the edge of it. The hunter was now less than a meter from my face.

I couldn’t take any photos with my 600mm-lens; the lens would have been right up his nose and I had absolutely no desire to make any sudden movements. Our field guide advised to do a quick lens change as quietly as possible and all would be ok. Without letting an inch of my arm move beyond the rail of my seat, I managed to get about five shots. Looking at that cat’s face from behind a lens [pictured below] made it feel like he was on my lap. I put my camera down and just enjoyed looking at him instead. We were so close together that we shared flies – from his mouth straight into mine!

If I could have one wish granted, it would be to peek inside and fully understand the inner workings of a leopard’s mind – just for one day.

Strategies for leopard spotting

A typical day in Kruger for Gillian?

We’re up very early – before the birds. Then a cup of strong coffee and a moment’s quiet reflection on the dawn of a beautiful new Kruger day. I have a brief discussion with my driver, husband Jono, on the general direction for the day. Lastly, we pack the vehicle with all necessary supplies. Routes are always decided whilst on the road. Some days we agree that it would be nice to go back to camp for a siesta during the scorching midday hours, but we always find ourselves getting back to camp only as the gate closes.

By day five or six we take some time out from driving and spend time at a waterhole or dam – usually a few hours to recharge and take it all in. But FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) soon kicks in. We simply cannot stop moving in the Kruger. We work incredibly hard every single day and in summer we do some 11-hour game drives, non-stop, every single day.

You don’t travel to the Kruger without…  

This is where it gets ridiculous and I’m sure many readers will be saying: This woman needs to be institutionalised. There are two critical items that I never go to Kruger without. Firstly, Jono. No other human being has his endless amount of patience, persistence and perseverance. I bark instructions at him ad nauseum from the back seat: “Forwards, no backwards, turn sideways. No, left, not right. Another 15 centimetres forward, now go back five centimetres. Stop! Go forward! Now stop!” He obliges with grace and dignity every single time.

Secondly, a bottle of Zoerdoef [a passion fruit liqueur]. Without Zoerdoef, you will simply not see a leopard. Leopard sightings are only celebrated at night, around the braai fire, and the rule is one shot per sighting. We sometimes run out of Zoerdoef on day three.

We also have a diet that exclusively applies in the Kruger and is essential to spotting leopards. This includes my homemade egg and mayonnaise sandwiches, cheese scones with extra cheese and Bovril, Original Fisherman’s Friend lozenges (heaven forbid I give my driver a cherry flavoured one), Wilson’s Cream Caramels, koeksisters and Stoney ginger beer.

A home away from home

Your favourite parts of Kruger?

The Skukuza area: Kruger’s ‘Grand Old Dame’. The game, predators included, is plentiful and the views and vistas along the Sabi River are breathtaking. I also adore Biyamiti Bushveld Camp and surrounds – the private S39 road to camp is just exceptional and the iconic weir always has something delightful to observe. I could sit there for hours and just breathe it all in. That said, my favourite camp is undoubtedly Orpen.

Over the past year or so I’ve been gravitating from southern Kruger more to the park’s central and northern parts. Sightings down south may be more, but in my opinion the quality of central and northern sightings is far superior. Regrettably, human behaviour at southern sightings has deteriorated due to intrusive visitors. Peace and solitude are important aspects for me when spending time in Kruger.

What about Kruger makes you tick?

The smell of the bush, especially fresh elephant dung in the morning. The park’s fresh, crisp air in the mornings, the sweltering yet unpolluted heat at midday in the middle of summer, and the highly hypnotic nocturnal sounds during evening braais are unparalleled. Quite simply, it’s paradise on Earth. Two days are never the same in Kruger and no one knows what the next day might have in store.

The simple comfort offered by all the camps in the park has made Kruger our happy place, essentially our home away from home. The friendliness and helpfulness of SANParks employees always impress.

Pictures by Gillian Leigh Soames