In Search of the Leopard

Cheetah, pateintly waiting for its prey
A cheetah waiting for its prey

It brought to my mind, visions of a beautiful country, of sunsets over vast savannahs covered with wild animals, of tall proud Masai warriors watching over their land. Of a world where only the fittest survive. Full of singing lions. At least that is the impression I had after seeing the Lion King. In reality, it is everything I had imagined, sans the chorus line.

As a child, visiting the zoo had always been a highlight and I’d always dreamed of visiting Africa — which would be one big zoo with no bars. Free-range animals. And so as the plane approached the runway to signal the start of my African safari adventure, I felt my dream about to be realised.

We landed in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Sometimes harshly referred to as Nairobbery due to the high incidence of theft we were heading straight out of the city and into the national parks. Less chance of being robbed by a wildebeest I assumed. (I must add that we did spend some time in Nairobi at the end of our trip and had no problems). Waiting for us in his trusty 4WD was our guide for the week, Alphonse. “The Fonz” as I dubbed him looked to be around fifty. As seemed to be the case with many of the guides we met, we later found out he was actually much older than he looked. Sixty-eight in fact. I guess not living in a big city full of pollution, hunched over a computer and trapped in a daily rat race does wonders for your skin. Either that or he had a great moisturizer.

Leaving Nairobi the numbers of dwellings and people rapidly thinned out. The hustle and bustle of the capital soon made way for the “real” Africa. The first thing I noticed was not a herd of elephants nor a pride of lions but the abundance of Coca Cola signs. Every second billboard was an ad for Coke and every restaurant, stall, shop or small hotel had a Coke sign out the front. Even on safari, you can’t escape globalisation. It was with great relief that when we did spot our first wildlife, a group of zebra, that they did not have the Coke logo branded on their rumps.

The excitement of spotting our first animals was overwhelming. We had the Fonz stop the car and pull to the side of the road. I was determined to get one of them crossing a road (look guys Zebra Crossing!) but they weren’t very accommodating models. As we snapped away, the Fonz leant against his car with a knowing smile on his face. No doubt he was thinking of us as over-excited rookies. “Save your phone storage. There is far better to come,” he told us.

Zebras by the side of the road- not a Zebra Crossing though

The aim of many visitors to Africa is to spot the Big Five. Rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo. Buffalo? Seemed the odd one out to me. A fairly plain animal when there were so many more exotic beats to choose from. Personally I would have included the giraffe, the hippo or the cheetah. After seeing thousands of buffalo on our first day I was thinking they included the buffalo just to make sure everyone could tick one of the Big Five off their list.

It didn’t take too long before we had placed ticks next to the buffalo and the elephants. They were everywhere along with impalas, gazelle, giraffe and wildebeest. So many animals. So many photos.

We soon stopped for lunch (I had a sudden urge for a Coke. Damn those billboards.) As we pulled over to a lovely roadside eatery out of nowhere appeared a group of school children. Having travelled extensively, whenever I saw large groups of children I have become accustomed to being swamped with offers of tacky souvenirs. So it was a pleasant surprise when they came up to us and just wanted to talk. When they found out we were Australian they asked many questions about Australia.

“Do you have a pet kangaroo?”

“No I don’t”

“Why don't you have a pet kangaroo?”

(I have been asked so many times I feel like I should publish a book “Why Australians don't own pet kangaroos. Or ride kangaroos. )

Not once did they try and sell us any items. Such a rarity in my travels it was truly appreciated.

I asked the Fonz if they usually ask for money. “No,” he replied. “They usually want pens. If they have a pen they can go to school.” It was a snap back to reality. Here we were enjoying a great holiday and all these children want for is a pen, so they can write. I vowed to buy some pens to give out at the next opportunity. My thoughts soon turned back to our safari. “Would we get to see all the Big Five?” I asked The Fonz. It was important to me. The goal of the trip. He paused and took a sip of his drink as if for effect. “I can never promise,” he said and got back into the car.

One thing we did spot many of were the local tribesmen- the mighty Masai. We would be miles from the nearest town and would pass a Masai striding purposefully through the plains. They seemed to appear out of nowhere. Very tall and proud they strolled with purpose seemingly oblivious to the dangerous animals around them. These Masai would often spend up to a day walking from one village to the next. ”The animals have learnt to fear them and never approach,” stated Fonz as if reading my mind.

By late afternoon we had been up close to some rhinos and a pride of lion. As kings of the jungle, I had expected lions to be prowling menacingly, scaring off other animals but the ones we saw were lying down sun baking in the sun. Just like big cats. They looked very tame and very cute. “Many people think that,” advised the Fonz, “but when they get close or try to touch them, they learn that looks are deceiving.” Heeding his advice I remained securely in the car. Apparently a number of tourists get up close for a great photo. The things people do for Instagram

Soon the sun was beginning to set and we headed towards our accommodation for the night. At our lodge over a dinner menu that included warthog and zebra (apparently they both taste just like chicken), we discussed with other travellers our safari viewings. It seemed that all of them had already seen the Big Five and were now looking for more obscure birds and animals. The way they were gloating over their days it wouldn’t have surprised to hear them talk of seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As I lay in bed that night listening to the sounds of Africa I began to wonder if I was cursed. Surely a leopard couldn’t be that hard to see. If everyone else could see one, then I could.

With a renewed will we rose early the next day, hours before sunrise to try and see the animals in their pre-dawn activity. Over the day we saw hyenas, meerkats, cheetahs, hippos, wild dogs, baboons and more but no leopards. We were starting to get despondent. Would we never complete the list? In all my years at school not once had I scored 100%. This could be my big chance. Five out of five. Finally, something for my mother to be proud of and stick on the fridge.

We headed back to the lodge for dinner. Suddenly The Fonz let out a cry. “Leo-pard,” he said. I looked in the direction he was pointing and could see nothing. “Take these, look in the trees,” said the Fonz as he passed me some binoculars. I grabbed them and looked into the distance. There I could barely make out a tree, let alone anything in the tree. Surely he wouldn’t be so cruel so as to pull my leg on such a serious matter. “Leo-pard” repeated the Fonz and drove towards the distant tree. Sure enough when we got within 50 metres of the tree, high up lying on a branch, very well camouflaged was a leopard. I was amazed. Either the Fonz had planted the leopard there or he had the most amazing eyesight.

As he put the car into park his face broke into a big smile. “Now you can take photos.”

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