When Big Cats Attack-A roof top tent camping nightmare

When Big Cats Attack-A roof top tent camping nightmare

We were camped at Bosobogolo pan, the closest campers 20km away. It was our second night in Mabua; we had heard lions at the far side of the pan the previous evening but generally had seen very little game – a few springbok, ostriches, and birds. It had been a mild overcast day, and it was a beautiful evening. At about 10 pm I was in the rooftop tent, Gavin was still below having just finished showering when he called up to say there was a leopard in camp.

She was a shadowy figure on a moonless night – I could clearly see her outline but the spots weren’t visible in that light. She was about 15-20m away and from that silhouette, she looked long, thin, and sleek, and we thought she must rather be a cheetah. Gav felt more comfortable as they were timid and not believed to be a threat to humans. Gav stood observing her for a while as she moved very slowly, sniffing at areas on the ground. We then noticed how thin she was – hip bones sticking out, and realized she was in terrible condition, possibly sick.

Gav got into the tent. We watched as she came to lie down in the A-frame, just below us. She seemed so lethargic, we thought she may have lain down to die that night and we’d find her corpse in the morning. We read for a while, and then Gav heard her move and saw her tail sticking out from under the bakkie just below us. He shouted and banged to get her out. In my naivety, I thought she was a feline seeking to hide away whilst awaiting death! Gav was imagining her eating the wires and rendering us stranded!!

She did retreat and went to lie in the A-frame again. We read a bit longer and eventually went to sleep- all quiet. We think it was around 1.30 when Gav heard it… And we can be ever thankful that he is so alert in the bush as it is that to which we owe our lives— She was climbing up the ladder towards us!!

The gauze was zipped up but the plastic door was rolled down about 2/3. He was shouting, screaming at her, banging on the gauze but she kept coming up, claws in the gauze, face parallel to us. Gav was punching at her face, and when she drew her face back, he was punching at her paws. We had no weapons with us, so I was shouting and hitting at her paws with a pillow which was the biggest thing at hand! We knew we were fighting for our lives…

She was undeterred… and so was Gav who kept at it, both of us shouting, me changing the pillow for my book (a paperback). Suddenly there was a lot of blood flying around and we realised Gav’s right hand had been injured. There was so much blood dripping and I was so worried as to how badly he was injured and I guess how long we’d be able to carry on fighting if he was compromised.

We don’t know at what point it was- we estimate the fight realistically lasted about a minute, it seemed more like 5- but suddenly she was on the ground again. I also don’t know at what point I took a pillowslip off to wrap up his hand, but it must have been only after she was on the ground as Gav hadn’t stopped hitting her until that moment.

We didn’t believe that was the end. We had to get her away. We got the spray water bottle and started spraying at her like a pistol. We were roaring – like beasts- to try and scare her- she was unfazed by it but it was a mild distraction. I said ‘get the ladder’ meaning pull it up; Gav unhooked it and then started using it to lunge at her. She did withdraw a few paces, but we still didn’t know the damage to his hand so that didn’t seem sustainable, but it bought us a little time.

We sat up there, blood dripping out the pillow slip, soaking the bedding, but unable to look at the injuries. We knew we had to get into the cab of the bakkie but couldn’t think how with her right there, on the driver’s side. Gav was saying he must perhaps go down and fight her !! There was absolutely no way I was going to let him do that!!!

Suddenly we heard what Gav thought was her jumping onto the vehicle to get onto the rooftop. We still don’t know what she did as we haven’t found any obvious marks on the car, but it did make us realize she wasn’t giving up – and had of course smelt the blood and probably had it on her claws.

She went to lie just outside the A-frame, closer to the bakkie’s back. We now had the ladder in the tent and I thought I could get down through the opposite tent door and get into the cab on the driver’s side. I suggested the plan and asked Gav where the keys were. There was no way he would let me go and obviously, he’d be the more capable but I didn’t know the extent of his injuries.

She lay there quietly, and while I kept the spotlight shining as directly onto her eyes as I could, telling Gav continually what she was doing. She became alert at the zip opening and the ladder being placed, but Gav did it so quickly and silently, and when I saw the car lights on, I knew he was safely inside.

It was such a sense of relief but there was no time to even enjoy that sensation. I hauled the ladder into the tent and Gav started reversing – he wanted to chase her off with the vehicle but I just wanted to get out of there! He couldn’t reverse far because the overhead branches were in the way, so we drove off slowly – me in the tent holding the ladder which didn’t quite fit in as I couldn’t collapse it, and Gav dripping blood as we drove to the empty campsite 3km away. Gav was calling to me to keep the spotlight on the road behind as he was sure she would be following us.

We washed the wounds – which were less severe than it had seemed they would be. We disinfected and dressed them while watching the road to see if she was on our trail. We needed to know where she was, so we drove slowly back towards our campsite and found her about 300m on the road. Having read up more on leopard behavior, we do believe she was coming to look for her ‘injured’ prey.

We sat watching her, reversing as she advanced, and saw her sit down at one point and lick her paw – did we injure her, or was she still tasting Gav’s blood? We took photos of her sitting in the road, and as we looked at them, we realized this WAS a leopard, not a cheetah… just so thin and wasted. It’s sad to see any animal in that condition, but we weren’t feeling much sympathy. We knew she had had every intention to eat us. We made a rush at her – something the park animals can’t be used to – and she disappeared off the road.

Back at the campsite, we kept a nervous watch for her as we got together what we needed – whiskey inclusive – to spend the rest of the night in the car. By now it was about 3.30 am. We sat taking swigs of neat whiskey, reliving the nightmare, realizing how incredibly lucky we were to have survived.


By: Jill Sheard and Gavin Alderman
Contributor: @Khaki Bush magazine
Images Credit: Jill Sheard and Gavin Alderman
Featured Photo: FUTURE KIIID on Pexels

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