Tourists went off road, stranded overnight in Kruger park encounter Leopards

Newspaper Article

Here is a true story about our safari trip in South Africa and our harrowing encounter with leopards and hyenas, as we narrowly escaped death in the long grass.

It was 2016, and we were on a 2-week safari. Linda's father joined in a separate car. We got our camping gear sorted and drove to Kruger National Park for our camping safari. This was our second tour, it is a great trip, and I can't wait to return and bring the kids. During one of our road trips we drove out for the morning. We droveq quite far, about 2.5 hours from camp and did not see much until we found this quiet, secluded side road that nobody else had got to yet. We were outside of mobile coverage, many kilometers away from camp, we spotted a trio of lions, and across a dry riverbed, there was a leopard, and not far ahead, a massive elephant with her children was giving itself a scratch on a tree. It felt like we had struck gold. We hung out and watched for a while, but he had arranged to meet the inlaw for lunch so we had to leave.

We drove to Olephants Park for lunch and on the way, didn’t see much else. The view at Olephants is really nice, the restaurant is perched, looking over the river with lots to see even in the middle of the day.

After lunch we decided to go back and check if our friends from the riverbed were still in the area. When we got back, they were right where we left them. There was another car in the dirt cul-de-sac we stopped at. We stopped nearby, and I wound down my window. The people in the other car opened theirs, motioning quietly with fear in their eyes, whispering, “There is a leopard.” I was thinking, bemused, “Yes, I can see it! its on the other side of the river!” Looking across the riverbed, the people in the other car motioned me to look right at my door. I stuck my head out the window, and I heard them start whispering as violently but silently as they could, repeating, “Don’t get out! Don’t get out.” I quickly stuck my head back inside, trying my best to look for what it was they were so alarmed about. Slowly, I realized I had pulled right up next to another leopard who was looking right at me, no more than 2 meters away from my open window. Their camouflage is so good; I spent what felt like 5 minutes searching for him, while our neighbors in the other car watched on in shock, fright, and fear for our lives.

I slowly wound the window up and backed off a few meters to unblock their view and give the leopard some space.

We decided that this was probably the best sighting we would get on the trip, and we should stay put and enjoy it. Over time, word spread of the presence of the lions, leopards, and elephants so close together. Over the next few hours, more and more cars and big Safari trucks packed with tourists slowly arrived. Our car was kind of sandwiched in the middle of this ocean of cars. Not that we minded, everyone was amazed.

Since we had to be back at camp before sundown, we thought we could stretch our sighting as long as we could and that we would make it in time if we followed the Safari trucks back in to camp before the gates are locked at sundown. The 4 or 5 game tour trucks did the same and stuck around till the last second. Suddenly they all simultaneously decided it was time to go, there was a mad rush to pull U-turns and get back to camp stirring up a dust cloud that lingered in the low sun on that windless day. We were sandwiched amidst the chaos, so we were last to leave.

I attempted a three-point turn and ended up with the front wheels about two inches off the edge of the dirt road. I put the car into reverse and tried to move, but nothing happened. I pressed the throttle harder, but still no luck. I checked the handbrake, and it was fine. That’s when it dawned on me that we were beached, just as the last tour truck disappeared from sight. I gave it a few more goes of reversing out but to no avail. I decided I might be able to drive forwards and slowly turn the car to get back on the road since there was a small down hill off the side of the road I gently steered the wheel to the right and drove forwards. The car barely turned and just went slowly down the hill when I realized the back 2 wheels were at risk of coming off I decided to give up. Not that it mattered, the car was front wheel drive.

I realized that we are going likely going to spend the night in the car before we see another human the next day. A multitude of terrifying thoughts raced through my mind: being eaten by a snake, crushed by an elephant sitting on the car, asphyxiation from sleeping with the windows closed, getting shot by poachers, encountering spiders and scorpions, being devoured alive by thousands of ants, or stepping out of the car during a fight and becoming prey for lions, leopards, or hyenas.

Realizing that a lot could go wrong and recalling a news paper article I had read a few months ago about an American couple that had a similar incident of breaking down in the middle of Kruger who both were killed by the wildlife after they left their vehicle and walked off in different directions, I realized the importance of keeping my cool to avoid a similar fate. I turned to my wife, trying to remain calm and confident as I could, and explained that there was a good chance we would be sleeping in the car that night, so we should prepare ourselves.

It worked, we had a calm, relaxed conversation about our options and decided we should just chill in the car, despite our remoteness we were confident we would not have to spend much time waiting for people since everyone that was just here will surely return back for more as soon as they could, first thing the next day. Fortunately, we had all our camping gear in the car—sleeping bags, food, and water since we were changing camps that day, so we didn’t have to worry about sustenance.

The leopard was still within 10 meters of the car but had decided to venture off, and I was fairly certain the lions were still within 200 meters. As the sun set, I realized the window for a last ditch effort to try and get the car unstuck before darkness fell was closing quickly.

Once it seemed like the leopard had settled about 200 meters across the riverbed, we carefully scanned the surroundings to check if the lions were nearby. I decided to have one last go at salvaging the situation. Linda remained on lookout whilst I quickly scuttled out of the car got on all fours and and inspected the front wheels, desperately searching for any opportunity that simply brushing aside a bit of sand would free us. The heat was intense, and the stress and rush caused instant perspiration. The sand beneath my fingers was the finest I had ever felt, as I brushed it aside, I thought about how old the sand was and how it had endured the scorching sun and the trampling of animals and the circle of life for so thousands of years, I then noticed all types of critters and strange-looking ants emerging from the disturbed sand and started to worry the next thing might be a scorpion.

In a panic, I tried to free the car from the other side (the side visible to the leopard). Then, Linda yelled that the leopard was starting to unsettle!

Realizing this was a foolish idea. I rushed back inside the car before I became leopard or scorpion dinner. Hot and sweaty from a mere 30 seconds of activity I smashed a bottle of water to cool down, and gathered my thoughts.

Looking back, I never considered deflating the tires, which likely would have allowed us to reverse out.

We watched the Leopard move slowly towards us, almost tired but to our relief, the leopard seemed to recognized that I would not be trying that stunt again and turned back to his perch to settle down.

Time went by as the sun began to set the last light of the sun lingered, we decided this is our last chance to take any type of bathroom break. We took turns throwing one leg out the side of the open door while the other remained on vigilant lookout for any wild creatures.

Despite the dire situation, I shared one last glimmer of hope. I knew the night safari sends a few cars every night, and given the activity in the area, there was a chance they might come our way. However, I also suspected we were just too far out of range for the 1.5-hour tour to make the round trip worth it for them. Still, I shared this hope for a potential rescue with Linda that it might only be a few hours after all before we are rescued.

To calm Linda down and keep her mind busy, I got her to write down some notes we could pass to a passer by with information on who we are, where we are and how to contact her Father so that they could then drive back into radio range and read out the information to her Father. She made many revisions of the note using up a lot of paper and ink refining the message. We spent some time discussing what might be going though her fathers mind and the worries ho would be having about our fate.

As the sun rapidly disappeared from the sky, a strange silence came over the jungle the noise of birds, flies, roaring lions, disappeared. Not even a whisper of wind. the silence became deafening until eventually all that was left was the sound of our own heartbeats, which now sounded like drums.

I knew we were going to spend the night here. I quietly pondered the mistakes that led us to this situation. Linda was worried about what her father might be thinking we had agreed to meet back at the camp for dinner and were now hours late and he has no word from us on what is going on. being even a minute late is highly uncharacteristic of Linda’s Swiss upbringing not showing up without a word for dinner must have had Alan worried sick!

Then, suddenly, the jungle came alive again. Crickets chirped, birds sang, monkeys chattered, and the roars of lions and trumpeting of elephants filled the air. The animals were celebrating the fact darkness had settled and the jungle belonged to them now. It was now their party.

It was a moonless night, cloaked in pitch-black darkness. I had anticipated spending time watching downloaded Netflix shows, reading a book, or playing chess. However, the darkness was so overwhelming that it caused anxiety. Any attempt to use an electronic device would illuminate the surroundings and carried the risk of attracting unwanted attention. Movement caused noise, conversation was off the table. So we just sat in silence, still trying to avoid being discovered by the jungle.

With the temperature dropping, we retrieved the sleeping bags from the back of our Toyota Avanza. Each movement seemed amplified as the sound of the sleeping bag material echoed through the car like a car alarm that was alerting all the jungle’s inhabitants to our presence.

Not much sleep was had, mostly trying to stay as still and silent as possible stressing about all the different way we could die, and what our parents must be thinking. My two biggest concerns were elephants not used to cars out a night getting interested and squashing us alive. I remember reading about a German zoo keeper that slept with her elephant in its enclosure for many years then one night the elephant snapped, and squashed her to death until there was nothing but powdered bones left of her. And of course this is Africa, life is cheap - tourists get murdered here all the time, the more realistic worry is being kidnapped by poachers in our sleep and sold for parts to the highest bidder. That would probably be the best outcome that could happen if we were kidnapped.

The sun came up, I looked at Linda, we smiled happy to have survived the night, just then her face froze. She went silent and motioned to look up, we were under a tree, I leaned over the look up at what shocked to see there was a leopard in the tree . The leopard had caught a baby kudu and taken it up into tree right above our car to feast on it, I then looked around and saw another leopard behind the car creeping up stalking the leopard in the tree!

I started recoding on my phone just as it sprinted up the tree to steal the prize from the other Leopard we could hear them roaring and struggling briefly until the leopard that was already in the tree fell out and ran off into the bushes!

The other leopard remained in the tree eating the kudu, blood dripping down in front of us not long after Hyenas arrived circling below, waiting for scraps to fall. This leopard was a tidy eater, not letting any scraps fall to the ground.

The Hyenas circled the car waiting for something to fall, but they seem comfortable with this leopard, they seemed to know they would not be getting a scrap until the leopard allowed them.

As we watched the show we heard a car slowly roll up along side, a dutch farmer rolled his window down pulled out his ipad and started taking photos of the leopard. we told him “we are stuck” he calmly replied “yes, I can see that” smiled and continued to take photos.

He was a very soft spoken nice gentleman and eventually explained that the leopard is likely going to be there for a few hours and until then he was not going to get out of his car to help. Which was fair enough. So we watched the feast together.

Eventually some more farmers rolled up in rugged 4WD’s exactly the type of cars we needed to get us out of this mess. The leopard left with the head of the kudu in its mouth and the hyenas followed. The first farmer left with Linda’s note to get into radio range and tell her father what had happened and that we will be home for breakfast.

We hatched a plan to tow the car out, one of the farmers seemed so excited for an excuse to leave his car whilst in the park (which is strictly not allowed) he had had a giant belt buckle with a huge knife holstered to the belt, almost comical. The farmers wife recorded everything on her camera.

We all worked together as quickly as we could knowing how good the lions and leopards are camouflage and surprise attacks they could spring up and take one or more of us out at any moment.

We popped out the tow cover got the tow screwed into that hard point, but we couldn’t manage to attach the hook onto the tow point. It was the wrong size! so we used some rope to tie the clip to the tow point, the farmer used the butt of his knife to keep the knot closed whilst the other car slowed reversed to tension on the knot and lock it in place.

Everyone took cover in case the knife popped out as the farmers 4WD easily pulled us out of the ditch back on the road.

We were free! everyone was so happy but at the same time worried to be out of the cars. We all shook hands and thanked each other very quickly and headed back into our cars. As we drove off the lady holding the camera said with a bright smile “enjoy the rest of your trip and try to stay on the road!”

We got back to camp to meet up with Alan, all the staff at the camp were concerned for us, all the housekeeping staff were hanging around our rondavel to hear the updates from Alan. When we arrived everyone was celebrating and very happy to see us safe.

We stunk of stress, sweat and fear. We washed up and told our story to Alan over breakfast. he told us what he was up to whilst we were missing.

He had phoned the police the night before to inform them we were missing, the police simply replied “we will look into it” when he called them back in the morning and requested to speak to the same officer from last night, they informed him that officer is “on holiday” and to kindly call back when he returns in about a week.

After the park we decided to splurge and spend 2 nights in a nice hotel outside of Johannesburg, once we got there we overheard people at the bar talking about a couple got trapped in their car and stayed overnight in Kruger, we told them it was and they couldn’t believe it, they even took pictures. We asked how they knew about this, one of the guests went gave us a news paper. The front page was a photo of our car with the title “Tourists venture off road have close encounter with Leopard and hyenas circling” The photo had a zoomed in part showing the leopard in the tree. We kept the paper as a souvenir hoping the car rental company does not take notice of our off road adventure.

Here is the online. version of the news paper article.

And a very poor video that does capture the fight between the leopards.


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