We had found her on our first visit to the plain. At first glance the landscape seemed to be empty. Then in the distance a slight movement and the faintest flash of colour caught the eye.
As the sun reached the spot where she spent the night, we could only see her head at first. Eventually she sat up. To our utter surprise and joy we saw three tiny cubs waking up and moving about. After an hour she got up, stretched and gazed over the plain. Slowly she started moving, with the cubs following. We used a 600mm f4 to photograph the cheetah with her cubs. Because there was more than one subject in the frame, we closed down the aperture to f11 to get the cubs and the mother in focus. It was partly overcast, which was fortunate as it meant there were no harsh contrasts or shadows, only soft backlighting.
The ideal moments to photograph lasted only a few seconds and we had to be quick to capture the image. A few minutes later she crossed the road, followed by her cubs, and eventually vanished into the bushes at the edge of the plain.
Cheetah need space to run down their prey and this is why we suspected she would not go too far away. This was the only flat open terrain in the area. Day after day we scanned the veld to find her again. Then on the fifth day we saw her in the distance.
Once again we waited patiently. At the other end of the plain we could see impala. Soon it was clear that she had also seen them and was focusing attentively on their movements. She was sitting up and her cubs were close to her. It looked as if she was communicating something to them. Sure enough, they didn’t follow her as she vanished into the bushes fringing that edge of the plain. Slowly she made her way towards the group of impala. The ram of an impala breeding herd is the strongest and fittest of them all. His self-appointed task is to guard the ewes that are carrying his offspring. June is the month after the rutting season and the territorial rams are still in best shape. We could see this ram had already sensed danger. He was on high alert, but the rest of the herd were grazing peacefully.
The cheetah was stealthily approaching in a roundabout way. We positioned the vehicle as best we could to capture any forthcoming action. We had a 300mm f2.8 and a 600mm f4 ready for action. We pushed up our ISOs to 400 to make sure that we could freeze a running cheetah.
Then the unexpected happened. Out of nowhere, the territorial ram came running out of the bushes towards the crouching cheetah. He ran at full speed, head held high, daringly flouncing his magnificent horns and displaying his superb musculature. He was moving almost straight towards her, clearly challenging whatever lurking danger there was to come after him. We were taken completely by surprise.
As quick as lightning the cheetah took the bait and started the chase. Both were sprinting at full speed. Fifty metres, 100 metres, 400 metres, and still they continued down the vast plain. The cheetah was gaining on her quarry, getting closer and closer, when the ram unexpectedly swerved. The cheetah hesitated momentarily. She lost some ground and was tiring. The ram took advantage of this and with a final effort sailed away from death’s claws.
Strangely, we ourselves felt suddenly exhausted. What we had seen was almost too fascinating to be true. Some of us had captured the action on camera, but for all of us it was indelibly imprinted on our minds. The poor mother missed her meal and so did the jackals that were already closing in in the hope of sharing the spoils. Mission accomplished, the courageous impala father returned to his waiting herd. They were safe for yet another day.