Tips and Tricks for Spotting Leopards in the Wild in Kenya
Chui, that’s what leopards are called in Swahili. A dear friend of mine was so enamored by them that he even named his Dalmatian dog Chui. Apart from the spots, there was no resemblance… This friend had spent fourteen years of his life in Africa without having had a single good “chui” sighting. The desire to see them and photograph them was real.
My husband and I, in contrast, had excellent “leopard luck”. We had had a leopard run right in front of our car and stay with us for hundreds of meters on a vacant road in Lake Nakuru National Park on our first weekend outing after moving to Nairobi, Kenya. It set our leopard luck for the duration of our stay. We just knew we would always see them. In total during our three years in Africa and dozens of safari weekends, we had over eighteen great sightings. That may not sound like a lot, but if you know there are people who have spent fourteen years living in Africa, spent thousands of dollars on safaris and had still never seen one, you know it was unusual.
Our Leopard Hunting Luck
Apart from that first leopard who ran out in front of our car and then blatantly ignored us as she sashayed down the sand road, we’d been led to moms with tiny cubs by our Samburu trackers and we had a leopard mark our car when we took my mother on safari. Her eyesight is not good, and she was very nervous she would not be able to see one even if we spotted one. In the end, all she had to do was look down from her car window while it peed on the tire beneath her. It scared the living daylights out of her.
Leopards are incredibly quiet, so it takes all the senses from sound to sight to smell to actually find one.
We had on our own found the great granddaughters of Penny, of Joy Adamson fame, and we found a mom and almost fully grown cub lounging in a lone tree hours removed from Joy’s Camp in Shaba. We were totally familiar with the vervet monkey call for “leopard”. And often found them when we would hear the alarming chitter, pause, sit still and observe until there was a slight rustling of the grass somewhere or different animal behavior that could show us the path. Leopards are incredibly quiet, so it takes all the senses from sound to sight to smell to actually find one.
We saw leopards climbing trees with their kills, we saw them at night. We lavished in multiple stays in Saruni Samburu, an amazingly gorgeous resort where a leopard called Ugali (called for the porridge she kept on stealing from the kitchen during her pregnancy) was known to come and roam in one of the villas.
Unfortunately, during our stay, Ugali only visited in our absence. We could see her stroll away when returning to our home on the rocks. We could see where she had pushed her way into the tent-like closure of our home while we were at dinner. She was known to come and drink out of the outdoor shower at this villa, but she never visited while we were there.
Instead, we had a genet cat steal our salmon rolls, which had been served to us with cocktails by a gorgeously decked out Samburu. The genet cat stealthily removed them one by one, while we sipped our gin and tonics and enjoyed the sun set over Mt Kenya. And laughed over the cat’s antics.
In Lake Nakuru National Park
Anyway, when our friend found out we had seen so many leopards versus his total lack of sightings, he almost had a coronary. Eager to share our luck, we took him on a weekend safari to Lake Nakuru National Park, a gorgeous park filled with fairytale-like yellow fever trees just a few hours drive from Nairobi.
We had only been in the park for a few hours when we found a leopard sitting on a V in a yellow fever tree, guarding her fresh gazelle kill. Over the next two days, we returned to her tree regularly. The kill had been moved to different positions and started diminishing in size.
This is another trick: leopards have territories. They have a limited number of trees they will routinely use. Know those trees and check them out regularly. We were in parks like Lake Nakuru, Samburu and the Mara frequently enough that we got to know several of these territories. If you go with an experienced guide and tracker, they likely know them all.
Best Parks for Leopard Sightings
Lake Nakuru National Park
One of the best parks for leopard sightings is in my opinion indeed Lake Nakuru National Park. It is often skipped by tour groups and you will mainly see people driving around in their own or rented jeeps, not the typical canvas topped safari jeeps.
They have a traditional hotel there, the Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge. While we lived in Kenya, this national park did not have any boutique safari camps inside the park. This makes it more accessible price-wise as well. It is close to Lake Naivasha, known for its hippos and colobus monkeys and can easily be combined in a weekend or three day trip.
Some people will take a day trip from Nairobi, but remember that the best times for safaris are right around sun up and sun down. I can not recommend driving Kenyan roads in the dark, even with an experienced driver. I highly recommend staying in a hotel or lodge inside the park. Losing 30 minutes driving to the park, checking in through the gates, then having to find the right places for sightings, makes you lose all of the miraculous morning. Remember that Kenya is on the equator. It is light at 6AM, it is dark at 6PM, and dawn and dusk each last about 5 minutes… It always felt to me like someone was just flipping a light switch.
Samburu National Park
Samburu National Reserve is another much less visited park than the Mara, but in our view is, just as if not more, worthwhile. This is where the northern desert starts. And it is home to the nomadic lifestyle of the very amicable and colorful Samburu tribe. They are “cousins” of the Masai, and are equally donned out in their colorful beads and cloth. But in our experience, they were friendlier and more welcoming. The Masai have possibly just seen too many tourists…
There was a larger hotel here right on the Ewaso Ng’iro River, but it was washed away a number of years ago in a flash flood. I am sure it has been re-built by now. The genet cats and hornbills will come and take the food right out of your hand here if you are not careful.
But after a visit during which we fell head over heels in love with this park, we discovered Saruni Samburu, an absolutely magical resort build by a charming Italian author named Riccardo Orizio. This place is as close as one comes to paradise on earth in our view. Built on and around giant boulders, the resort offers luxury open villas built in Moroccon style, a cuisine to die for, and the best trackers we ever got to know.
Sumaro was a Samburu elder who became one of only five guides in Kenya with the highest safari guide qualifications during our residence in Kenya. James was his trusty side kick. The two of them taught us everything we know about reading spoor and elephants.
Sumaro had been an elephant researcher for many years and knew each of the 300 something elephants in that park by name. And by temperament. He let one sniff my mom with its trunk, but steered us far clear of Brutus, who was known to turn over cars who stopped in front of him to take a picture of his magnificent tusks.
I truly never felt more free than out in the wilds of Africa.
Given its exclusiveness (there are only four double villas), this resort is rather more pricey and the road there is not for the faint of heart. But we found the place to be absolutely priceless.
We just loved the wild. We loved getting close to animals. I truly never felt more free than out in the wilds of Africa. Being a terrible insomniac, nothing compares to the lullaby of a lion’s deep throated calls while I lay my head down. Counter intuitive perhaps. Yet many people feel about Africa this way. It’s called “Mal d’Afrique”, this continued deep longing for the ochre earth of the continent we all emerged from. I have been told it’s because our DNA knows it is home…
How to Safari in Kenya
When to go:
Inland Kenya, away from the Swahili coast, is largely at altitude, and therefore has one of the best climates in the world. It is hot in the sun during the day, but dry and arid, and cools off significantly at night. Airco and heating is not needed. June is the coldest and dreariest month, when Kenyans run around in blankets. Most other months of the year are perfect.
Where to stay:
Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge can be booked online, but you will need a car, or car and driver to get there. You want a jeep that is higher off the ground, and not a sedan. There are sand roads and after a rain storm they become a slippery slope. Four wheel drive is highly recommended.
Saruni Samburu can be reached by plane or rental car (the final jaunt over the rocks to reach this magnificent place is completely impassable by sedan car, but they will come and pick you up in their jeep). Once there, you will get around in their safari vehicle and assigned a driver and tracker. They are magnificent in finding the right spots in this vast park and a wealth of knowledge about culture, game and frankly speaking, life. We always booked either through Ricardo, the owner, directly, or via Phoenix Travel, a small travel agency in Nairobi.
Certain vaccinations are mandatory to enter Kenya. There are COVID-19 restrictions to Kenya at the moment, so please check carefully before booking any travel. The Saruni lodges were all open at the time of writing.
Apart from your car rental and hotel price, make sure you factor in the reserve and national park daily entrance fees, which are pricey (40-80$US per adult per day).
I found safaris to be one of the best travel styles for single women, as you are put together with a guide and driver and other guests and have breakfast, lunch and dinner with them. So while traveling alone, you never have to be alone while on safari.
Going on safari is not like a relaxing beach holiday. You will be up early every morning. There may be time for a siesta in the afternoon and the nights come early. But if you are not a morning person, take into account that game drives start at 5 or 6AM in most cases. You will be rattled around in open safari vehicles which can easily lead to muscle soreness. The Kenyans called it “African road massage”, my father called it “African road massacre”. Enough said.
About the Author
Kristien Van Hecke is Belgian, but knew at age 15 that she wanted to live in the world, and not just visit. She left Belgium at age 19 on a scholarship, has lived in 11 countries to date and has visited close to 100 countries and territories.
Photo Credits by the Author