Leaving Consumerism Behind – Back to Basics in the Bush
“There is a language beyond human language, an elemental language- one that arises from the land itself.” (Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer)
Silence, solitude, serenity. Remoteness, peace, tranquility. The simplicity of nature. Even adventure and adrenalin. A list as long as the wilderness is timeless. But for me, the single most pervasive magnetism of the African Bush is the tugging anticipation of the unknown. What lies around the next turn, beyond the next bush or koppie. Or just over the next crest?
And every time I experience the beauty of the wild, become captivated by a new experience, a new adventure, and I think there’s nothing further to match, so just then along comes something new. Something unexpected – something beyond anticipation.
We made a jovial team as we rolled into the camp that evening, criss-crossed by a lattice of lengthening dusk shadows. Inside the flimsy meshing gate, Oupa our tracker, shut-off the engine and unlatched our doors. One by one we jumped down onto the dusty white soil – home for the next three weeks.
Our lead ranger Nick welcomes us, points to the perimeter fence: “To keep people in,” he smiled, “not to keep the animals out.” He was right. There were clods of dry elephant dung all about, and a slew of broken branches left behind by a recent visitor made it clear that local guests needed no invitation.
Then an oddity. Just inside the fence line at the back of the bush camp three or four men were grouped around a rectangular wire cage – a trap of sorts it seemed. One of the men, the tallest, was bent inquisitively across the sliding door, inspecting it closely as he triggered the release mechanism and it dropped into position. An awkward banter permeated amongst the men, equal parts uncertainty and expectation. Because a leopard had been seen in the camp late one night. Well perhaps a leopard, because it had been dark. Almost routine it seemed, and so we thought nothing more of it. Absolutely.
Dawn breaks. At first light, Nick and Oupa lead our group out from camp in search of lion, walking us through the dawn chill to where the lion were thought to be, and hopeful we might just find them. Sure enough, in the dew-damp morning sand, Oupa soon picked-up the definitive spoor, a large solitary male he explained, kneeling to circumscribe the prints with a twig; the shape, the spacing, the distinguishing features from other cat and predator tracks; the fine detail and direction of movement. Even the freshness of the impression – perhaps just an hour or so.
We followed the spoor for a kilometre or more, before they came to an abrupt halt, disappeared in fact, marking the spot where this King of the Jungle had paced off into the undergrowth. And for us at least, had slipped anonymously into the unknown – the end of his trail.
As we relaxed that night beneath the stars around the dinner table, the evening was still sharp-edged with winter chill, but the once unusual sounds of the night had become more comforting now – almost familiar friends in fact.
An awkward silence hung on the air as Nick sprung sharply to his feet and disappeared behind the slatted kitchen screens. Seconds later he was back, only now he wore a distinctly pained expression of concern. He stood at the end of the table and addressed us very directly, very precisely. “I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a leopard in the camp. He’s lying in the grass just beyond the kitchen hut”.
A preponderous disbelief gathered quickly and thickly, entangled with vacant glances of uncertainty. There was an immediate sense of caution, uneasy mumblings. I stepped away from the table and moved behind the kitchen screen to find Oupa standing with his rifle and wearing his ammunition belt; unusual in the camp. His face creased with concern when I caught his eye, not his usual smile I could sense. With one hand he trained a spotlight across a patch of short grass, carefully casting the peripheral light to frame the mottled outline of leopard but ensuring not to blind or antagonize him.
In the patchwork darkness of the night I could see the leopard resting on all fours in the grass, forepaws outstretched – if you could sensibly call them ‘paws’. His head was upright and he stared towards us, nonchalant and unpeturbed. And there he sat, this fierce hunter, unrelenting predator, just yards away – about the length of a cricket pitch I remember thinking and for all we knew he might have been lying close-by for hours. But there was no doubting it now, this leopard was very definitely in the camp!
The glint of his glassy golden eyes was chilling, even menacing as he stared. But in the darting light from the kerosene lamps and the dim aura from the spotlight, the leopard presented a magnificent sight. A proudly untroubled creature, bold and bristling with presence, he had quietly helped himself to our hospitality – a self-invited visitor to our camp. Or were we the visitors? I couldn’t help but loiter a while and stare at the unexpected dinner guest admiring his poise and imposing presence as he lay quietly at rest in the grass – almost peacefully at one with the night, with the camp.
But Nick was entertaining no such romantic illusions, and Oupa held his rifle close to hand – both hands in fact, as Albino took the spotlight. As I looked on, uncertain and somewhat in awe, Nick paced hurriedly across to the Land Cruiser and called-up the Ranger Station to explain our predicament. There was no disguising the obvious concern in his voice.
“Hello Rob, it’s Nick. We have a leopard in the camp here. He’s inside the fence – sitting about twenty yards away. He looks pretty calm at this stage.”
The pause hung like molten lead before the radio crackled back through the night.
“Hi Nick, that’s understood. We’ll get down there right away. It’s your call, but I’d get that leopard outta there,” came the reply.
“And get everyone inside quickly Nick. We’ll be there now.”
I sat in the feint yellow glow of the bedside lamp, silhouette flickering on the thatch. Beyond the shutters lay the blackest of African nights and an itinerant leopard. I felt somehow intoxicated by a naïve sense of adventure. Then came the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle. The engine noise grew louder, drew closer and then stopped, followed by the steely slam of heavy doors and muffled voices – assistance from the field station. Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes like hours. And the hours that followed seemed long indeed.
I kept the oil lamp burning throughout the night, for cold comfort really, like whistling in the dark. I lay and listened and thought about what the rangers were planning to do – or hoping to do ? Capture the leopard? Chase it away from the camp? Perhaps even shoot to kill? I tried dozing under my blanket, and drifted in and out of a false sleep – the same kind of interrupted slumber when mosquitoes whine around in thick summer humidity. But there were no such reassuring mosquitoes for company that night, just the repeating mind’s eye image of a leopard roaming about the camp – out there somewhere. And the familiar tug of anticipation.
Dawn arrived with the milky orange hue we had come to welcome each day. Just a feint wash through the canopy of winter branches – but dawn nonetheless. Then came a muffled knock at the door.
“It’s safe to come out of your hut,” said a voice. It was Nick. “We’ve caught the leopard.”
The placid pearly-eyed cat I had seen lying plaintively in the grass the previous night had long since vanished into memory. And just a few metres from that very same spot but now trapped inside the steel cage, was a ferocious animal, infuriated by his capture and heaving his might around like a crazed beast.
He could scarcely turn in the trap, but he thrashed savagely against the meshing, jarring the cage inch-by-inch across the sand. Roaring like thunder, he took swipes at the cage with his Herculean claws, and bit at the steelwork with a frenzied sabre-toothed ferocity. He snarled visciously in despise of his captivity, so my eyes too were centered very firmly on the cage and on the captive. The leopard contorted with an incontinent savagery and we kept our stare locked directly on him. Nick told us how the vet had been called from the field station, some sixty kilometers away.
The vet surveyed the cage from a distance, then approached a little closer with caution. Then he drew his rifle from the cab, loaded a single sedative dart and shot at the rosetted inmate through the meshing. The dart struck its target centre and square on the left forepaw. Pained or startled I wasn’t sure at the time, but it didn’t really matter because the leopard woke the dead that early winter’s morning as he thrashed his leg to and fro and tossed out the dart like a bothersome wasp.
The vet was little surprised. Working quickly, he reloaded and shot a second dart that spiked neatly into the leopard’s rump. This time Hell’s own fury knew no bounds as the animal roared and snarled, hissed and spat. But as seconds ticked to minutes and the sedative did its work, his violent protests quelled to spasmodic growls, then eventually to slumber.
Within minutes the monster was tamed and sleeping silently, and the rangers pulled the dozing patient from the cage. Straining with the sheer weight, together we heaved him onto the lowered tailgate of the bakkie, a large male we could see.
The vet drew blood and injected it into a glass phial for testing , and I spoke to him as he worked. The leopard was maturing well into old age he explained, his teeth and the battle scars showed that clearly. As he lay anaesthetized on the tailgate, I stroked the leopard’s shoulder, rubbed his ears like a kitten. Cautiously, for the fur can carry bacteria, transmit viruses and disease. But the first time I found myself stroking a fully grown leopard nonetheless – quite possibly the last.
Then respectfully – because the leopard had quickly come to command our respect – we slid him safely up against the cab of the bakkie, where he lay fast asleep, still motionless and silent but ever mighty and proud. I looked on in admiration, and as he lay like some sleeping beauty of the wilderness I realized that I’d come to understand this leopard as something much more than a wild marauding predator.
“How long will the sedative last?” I asked the vet.
“About an hour” he thought.
“How long is the drive to your camp?” I asked.
“About an hour” he said, with an exaggerated grin.
Years on, particularly when I’m walking in the Bush, I often think about the events of that night, and I always find myself asking the same question – ‘What if?’
‘What if’ the leopard had been waiting close to the huts when we retired to bed in the darkness? ‘What if’ the leopard had settled down outside the ablutions during the night, unseen and unheard? Or even inside? ‘What if’ the leopard hadn’t been spotted in the grass that night, just a few yards beyond the kitchen? Or if the leopard had ventured into the kitchen or the storeroom, lured by curiosity or the scent of our provisions?
In the hurried minutes that rushed past as the leopard lay in wait that night, there was no way of knowing how the animal might react. In those tense moments, perhaps intuitively, Nick had best marked the urgency of a tense and unpredictable situation;
“This is not good news I can assure you” he told me emphatically as we stared at the leopard in the grass.
“That animal will kill you. He’ll rip you to pieces like you wouldn’t believe.”
So I still ask myself ‘What if?’, and happily I can find no answer. And that’s the anticipation that forever brings me back to the wilderness.