In pursuit of an African queen

Linda Vergnani goes on safari to find a legendary leopard and her cubs.

Perched in the branches, the vervet monkey stares across the forest and chatters a constant bark of alarm: "Agh, agh, agh." The reason for his gibbered warning is imprinted below me on the sandy track: the fresh paw prints of a mother leopard and two almost full-grown cubs.

"The gabo gabo [monkey] can see the leopards," says guide Lebo Ithuteng, talking into the Land Rover's radio transmitter. Then he powers into the bush, crashing over dead tree trunks felled by elephants and wending between spiky thorn bushes.

My search for a legend has begun.

I have come to Little Mombo camp, on an isolated island in the 15,000-square-kilometre Okavango Delta, to find Legadema, the world's best-known leopard. She was made famous in Eye Of The Leopard, a documentary about the first three years of her life by Emmy-award-winning film producers Dereck and Beverly Joubert.

For avid wildlife watchers the images of Legadema, whose name means lightning, are seared into their minds. Few can forget the drama of the cub's narrow escapes from marauding hyenas and lions or the delight of her balletic leaps through branches as she learns to catchAfrican squirrels.

Most touching was the extraordinary scene of the lithe young leopard tenderly grooming a spindly day-old baboon whose mother she has killed. The leopard and the puzzled, pink-faced baby sleep cuddled together until the foundling dies from exposure.

The two National Geographic explorers in residence filmed the documentary near Little Mombo camp in the Moremi National Park in Botswana. Run by Wilderness Safaris, Little Mombo consists of three tented suites on the banks of a seasonal wetland. With the highest floods in the Okavango Delta since 1968, this wetland now throbs with frog calls and the honks of hippos.

The luxurious tents are linked by raised walkways to an open-air African lounge decorated with woven baskets and wooden artefacts. Lions, elephants and other game sometimes wander through the camp, so after dark guests have to be escorted to their suites.

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Little Mombo and the adjoining Mombo camp were rated the best camps in Africa in the 2007 Conde Nast Traveller Awards. From these remote camps, guests set out with guides in search of a huge variety of wildlife.

But Legadema is the star of this wilderness. Since the film was released she has attracted visitors from across the world. With the Jouberts' book on Legadema about to be released, she will become even more of a magnet.

Legadema is now five years old and has two 15-month-old cubs. She was last seen three days ago but sometimes disappears for weeks. Ithu- teng says one of her cubs killed a monkey and ate it in a tree two days previously.

I am tantalisingly close but have just 24 hours in Mombo to find her. It is like visiting Los Angeles and expecting to spot Angelina Jolie.

Yet I have already had excellent luck spotting other celebrity cats on this trip to the Okavango. I have spent the past three days at Duba Plains, another Wilderness Safari tented camp, where I witness stunning clashes between buffalo and the resident Tsaro pride of lions.

The titanic battles between the Tsaro pride and the thousand-strong herd of buffalo are the focus of the Jouberts' thrilling documentary Relentless Enemies.

The Tsaro females are probably the world's largest lionesses, with massive chests and powerful legs. They are specialist buffalo hunters and swim through the swamps in pursuit of their prey. They constantly attack the buffalo but in turn are chased and gored by the bold beasts.

The Duba Plains guides know the surviving Tsaro pride members intimately and I find myself heart-stoppingly close to these ferocious felines. The guides do not carry guns in the vehicles and avoid interfering with the animals. "We use our brains, not our weapons, so we are very safety conscious," explains one guide.

Suddenly I spot Silver Eye, perhaps the most famous of the lionesses. Despite being blind in one eye, she leads many of the attacks on the buffalo. Today she and a companion capture a buffalo in a dense thicket.

Our guide rams the vehicle through the bushes and I glimpse Silver Eye expertly strangling the yearling. The lioness licks her prey's throat before joining her companion ripping into the cow's abdomen.

The highlight comes on a drive with veteran guide James "007" Hambukusha Pisetu, who helped the Jouberts find their way through the swamps when they first arrived at Duba Plains. He drives right up to a terrifying fight between five lionesses and a cowering female.

Pisetu explains that she is the "worst cub killer" and is trying to rejoin the pride. In the film, the Jouberts reveal that this loner may have killed as many as 31 cubs in two years. Yet today the pride's magnificent male intervenes with cuffs and snarls to subdue the attackers and protect the grovelling outcast.

Later, the cub killer follows the pride as they repeatedly try to separate and ambush buffalo from a milling herd. Each time the buffalo wheel around and drive the attacking lionesses off. I watch for hours, getting a grandstand view as rampant bulls crash through the swamp and finally rout the retreating Tsaro lions.

After taking the 15-minute flight across the swamp to Mombo, I find a gentler scene. It is easier to track the herds of game on the silvery flood plains and there is the chance of seeing cheetah and recently reintroduced white rhino.

We find no sign of Legadema on the first afternoon. Instead we follow a small breeding herd of elephants and watch amused as a minute, two-week-old calf tries to figure out what to do with its floppy trunk. The calf flares its ears and they glow pink against the sky.

Ithuteng shows us more babies, including a nursery of young giraffes and two endearing lion cubs, exploring a grassy knoll. Just before sunset, a hyena lopes past and we head for camp and a candlelit dinner.

On our last morning at Mombo, Ithuteng finds the fresh leopard tracks. He scours the area methodically, following clues that include alarm calls of squirrels and the direction in which tense impala are gazing.

Our vehicle startles a small African wild cat. A spectacular eagle owl, with bright pink eyelids, blinks down from the branches above. But Legadema and her offspring evade us.

After 90 minutes we give up. On the plains plump lions dream and twitch, their manes resting on pillows of grass. Rare ground hornbills, as large as turkeys, strut by hunting insects and a tsessebe playfully charges a hamerkop.

An hour before our plane is due to depart for Maun, I implore Ithuteng to take us back via the route where we are most likely to see Legadema. "Don't you ever give up?" says my husband.

Passing the area we combed, we suddenly spot a magnificent leopard sprawled at the foot of an anthill. Her coat is burnished gold, her spots complex black rosettes and she looks me straight in the eye.

Ithuteng identifies this languid princess as one of Legadema's daughters. We watch entranced until the leopard snarls in irritation and walks off down the road. She strolls along confidently, tail curling aloft.

Two other vehicles from Mombo arrive and the guests photograph the agile leopard. This gleaming youngster is so exquisite I am stunned. Then suddenly she disappears into the bushes.

The Little Mombo manager meets us at the airstrip where he provides a delectable lunch of salad and succulent pork loin.

I am reluctant to leave this Eden but I am utterly elated. I have seen Legadema's legacy and even her snarl seems the sweetest gift.

Linda Vergnani stayed at Little Mombo and Duba Plains camps courtesy of Wilderness Safaris.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The nearest major gateway is Johannesburg. South African Airways has return flights from Sydney to Johannesburg for $1727, including taxes. The only way to get to Mombo and Duba Plains is to to fly to their private airstrip from Maun. The Air Botswana return flight from Johannesburg to Maun costs about $600 a person. Flights from Maun to the island camps are by small plane and arranged by Wilderness Safaris as part of a package deal.

Staying there

The only camp from which you can view the Tsaro lions is Duba Plains. Legadema and her cubs live near Mombo and the adjoining Little Mombo. Duba Plains and Little Mombo or Mombo have spacious tented accommodation, good food and guides. A four-night package, with two nights each at Duba Plains and the Mombo or Little Mombo camps costs $8091 a person for twin accommodation ($9884 single). Additional nights cost $1268 at Duba and $2179 at Mombo or Little Mombo. The cost includes return air fares from Maun plus food, drinks and game drives.

More information

African Wildlife Safaris, see aws.travel, phone (03)92493777 or 1300363302.

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