Up Close and Personal with a Leopard in Zambia

Wander With Wonder – Discovering Wow Moments Around the World or Across the Street

One amazing night in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, I listened to the sound of a leopard outside my tent. Read on for more about my Zambia safari or listen to the Wander Stories podcast.

Welcome to Wander Stories, a podcast bringing you stories from destinations around the world or across the street.

In Wander Stories, we go behind the scenes to share some of the wow moments we discover as we travel. My husband and I sometimes find the best stories as we travel the US in our fifth-wheel trailer. Other times, we might discover stories as we jet off to other locales. No matter the source or where we go, we love bringing you Wander Stories to help inspire your own travels. Pull up a chair, grab a glass of bubbles or your favorite beverage, and listen to this episode of Wander Stories.

Listen online here or on your favorite podcast app, or read the full script below.

Where is Susan Today?

Welcome back to Wander Stories. Today, I’m coming to you from Budapest, Hungary. I’m here for a cruise on the Danube River with Viking River Cruises. We’re setting out from Budapest to sail through Austria and Germany as we explore Christmas Markets.

Before we jump into today’s episode, let me share some things about Budapest and Christmas markets.

Exploring Budapest

This is my fourth visit to Budapest, and the city intrigues me. It’s a large city—Europe’s 9th largest—divided into two sections by the Danube. The flat and largely commercial and residential side is Pest, home to the magnificent County Hall on the banks of the Danube, as well as fashionable shopping areas. The modern government is in Pest and most of the residential areas.

I love sailing out of Budapest at night, see the lights of the city divided by the Danube. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Exploring Buda

The hilly district on the opposite bank of the Danube is Buda. The magnificent Chain Bridge connects the two sections.

Chain Bridge over the Danube in Budapest. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Once you’ve crossed the bridge and arrived on the Buda side, I recommend taking the funicular up the hill to Trinity Square. Buda covers only 203 square miles but is filled with medieval architecture. The Square is home to the 13th-century Matthias Church and Castle Hill, which holds the restored Buda Castle, once home to a 13th-century fortress but replaced by an opulent Baroque palace during the reign of Maria Theresa in the late 1700s.

Matthias Church in Budapest. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Buda is also home to one of my all-time favorite wine experiences. At the base of Buda Castle, now located under the Hilton Hotel, is Faust Wine Cellar. This is a tiny wine cellar built into the labyrinth system that runs under Castle Hills. It was created in the Middle Ages as an escape route. We happened upon the place one night a few years ago and enjoyed a tasting at one of the half-dozen tables because they had a no-show that night. I love those magical, rare finds on a trip.

The point of this trip is to see the Christmas Markets. These markets pop up throughout Europe in November and last until the first week of January. They are magical. Music, food, twinkling lights, mulled wine… all in little booths set up in medieval town squares. I’ll share some of the sights on our trip this week on Instagram. Be sure to follow along on WanderWithWonder. In a future episode, I’ll discuss Christmas markets in more detail.

But for today’s episode, we’re heading to a completely different part of the world…Zambia.

Up Close and Personal with a Leopard in Zambia

Zambia is in the southern part of the African continent. Once known as Northern Rhodesia under British rule, Zambia gained independence in 1964 and changed its name to honor the grand Zambezi River. After many years of one-party control, Zambia elected a new leader, and the country began a multi-party democracy in 1991.

Baobab tree in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

A decade ago, I had the opportunity to visit Zambia and go on several wildlife safaris throughout the country. The entire experience was almost surreal. As I prepared for the trip, I was unsure if I would enjoy it. I’m not too fond of camping. I don’t like bugs. I definitely don’t like roughing it. I was so surprised and delighted. I discovered a land and people who were comfortable and welcoming.

In an environment that can be harsh, I discovered the most incredible tenderness–from the tiny blooms on trees to baby animals to birds barely bigger than my hand. I also felt the power of a magnificent land of vast plains, massive baobab trees, lions and leopards with muscles quivering as they breathe, elephants that shake the ground when they walk, and a river that stretches as far as you can see.

Elephants in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

My trip to Zambia was mostly about freedom. It was a sense of individual freedom as I rode in the back of an open Land Cruiser, air blowing through my hair. I felt that sense of freedom watching animals running unfettered across the open plains. I sensed the excitement of freedom for a people still in their country’s infancy. It was a rare experience and, in many ways, a raw experience to feel nature.

Visiting the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia

I was lucky enough to visit several areas of the country—the South Luangwa National Park, Victoria Falls near Livingstone, and the Lower Zambezi National Park. We flew in and out of the capital city of Lusaka multiple times, heading out in tiny bush planes with six or eight seats, landing on strips of dirt cutting a swath through the dry plains. We would transfer between plane and camp via jeeps, Land Cruisers, and even boats.

We took tiny planes to outposts across Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

But my most memorable moment came during my stay at what was then Luwi Bush Camp. At the time, it was part of Normal Carr Safari Camps—now Time + Tide—in the South Luangwa National Park.

Luwi camp is under a grove of mahogany trees on the seasonal Luwi River. Nearby is a year-round lagoon filled with hippos and crocodiles. This is the most remote of all the camps I visited, and the accommodations were the most traditional, consisting of natural materials constructed each year under the trees.

Hut under the trees at Luwi Camp. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

A Typical Safari Day in Zambia

We walked and drove early each morning to see wildlife, with glimpses of male lions—the roar of a male lion from about six feet away literally makes the ground shake—elephants, zebras, hippos, water buffalo, baboons galore, and sleek leopards.

I loved driving out to watch the animals as I explored Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

For me, even spotting the plentiful puku (which I think resemble antelope and a local told me was the McDonald’s of the food chain) was a thrill.

Puku in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

After midday rest during the heat, we would head back out each afternoon to explore and experience the traditional sundowner—watching the sun set across the plains as the African animals grazed nearby. A night safari was my day’s highlight, watching animals you would never spot during the sunlight hours. Evenings were spent having dinner under the stars and sharing stories of the day’s adventures.

Setting up for a traditional sundowner in Zambia. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Sleeping with the Leopards

My most amazing memory came late one night. The lodgings are individual and spacious huts constructed in traditional style with natural materials—reeds, local wood, canvas. The bed was quite comfortable, piled high with down pillows, tucked under the three branches running through the hut, and surrounded by mosquito netting. At night, each room is completely enclosed. During the day, the front opens so you can sit and look out at the surrounding area.

View from my bed to the outdoors during the day. The wall closed at night. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I was quite comfortable and had my own en-suite bathroom, accessible from a door next to my bed. The bathroom had all the amenities—shower, toilet, sink—all enclosed by straw walls but with no cover. It was invigorating to take an open-air shower each day.

Each evening was the most magical time. I would go to bed and lay there in the dark, smelling the air—an unforgettable smell of burning wood, grasses, and trees—and listening to the sounds of the wild. No cars. No airplanes overhead. No sirens in the distance. No whirring of appliances or computers. But definitely not quiet. The jungle sounds are amazing at night. I could hear the chomp-chomp of hippos. The heavy footsteps of elephants as they moved during the cooler nights. There was an occasional scream of monkeys. The chirp of frogs was my nightly lullaby.

A Wildlife Lullaby

On my first night in Luwi, I listened to stories from the guides about animals that visit the camp during the night. We were told to never leave our huts alone after dark. If you need anything, you must call for an escort because the camp is in the wild, and animals roam freely. Someone was always on duty in camp, and I never felt unsafe. I showered before bed, admiring the stars twinkling overhead, and then tucked myself into the big bed and pulled the mosquito netting.

I awoke about 2 am to a leopard’s low, grinding sound—the big cat’s version of a purr. It’s an unmistakable guttural sound, similar to someone sawing wood. The guides had described it earlier, so I knew exactly what it was when I awoke.

I lay there listening to the sound. It was close. Not on my patio, but perhaps in the trees just outside. I felt a thrill as I lay there in the dark, listening to the sound and knowing it was a leopard just past my door. Then, I realized I needed to visit my en-suite bathroom. However, I quickly assessed the situation. Leopard close by. Leopards climb trees. The bathroom is open-air. Tree branches extend over the bathroom. I could turn on the light, which might scare the leopard away. But what if it doesn’t? I quickly pulled the covers up and decided to stay safely tucked inside my bed and await dawn.

I listened for a long time. It was probably an hour before I drifted off to the symphony of the leopard and the monkeys squealing in protest while the hippos continued to chomp-chomp their way around the camp.

Seeing the Leopards in the Wild

The next morning, I went to breakfast and asked if I’d really heard a leopard the night before. Our guide explained that, yes, the leopard had been roaming through camp that night and had taken a position in a nearby tree for a couple of hours. I was glad I’d stayed in bed but thrilled I’d had the chance to hear that spectacular moment.

That night, we drove out on a night safari, and I spotted three leopards nearby—a mother and her nearly-adult male sons. Regal animals who were very aware they had little to fear from their fellow beasts.

A pair of leopards at night. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Articles Related to Visiting Zambia

On Safari in Zambia: The Bush in Photos
Top Travel Experience: Wow Moments with Leopards on Safari in Zambia
What You Need to Know for Planning a Hot Air Balloon Safari in Kenya

Discovering Wow Moments in Zambia

I often think back to that night and how amazing it was to experience the world that way. I felt very small and vulnerable in a big world—but blessed. It gave me an amazing sense of being alive.

Michael Douglas commented, “There is something about seeing rhinos and lions running free that excites you. It’s not that you feel afraid; it’s more like you’re liberated by seeing them.”

I loved seeing all the animals roaming free, especially the lions. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Yes, this trip to Zambia, my first on the African continent, had been all about freedom.

I loved experiencing Zambia.

That night in Zambia, listening to the leopard, I realized how lucky I am to see and experience the world I only dreamt of as a child. We welcome you to explore more stories on Wander With Wonder about exploring the African continent.

Until next time on Wander Stories, I hope you find the wonder of your childhood dreams when you travel. If you love this episode, please subscribe and leave us your feedback.


Up Close and Personal with a Leopard in Zambia