The Night of the Leopard

One of the many things I love about Africa, is its stories. There is not one person that goes to Africa that shares a story that is the same as someone else. There are similarities in many yes, but every story is as unique as every form of life on the continent.

I recall one special, and frightening, venture during one of my numerous trips in South Africa.

I had become accustomed to sleeping outside in the Bush, beneath the light of the stars of the southern skies. Mind you, I did have the option to sleep in a canvas tent, but since the first time I slept beneath those stars, I never wanted to be ‘indoors’ again.

Left to right: Dave, an amazing tracker and a good friend, Toko, Head Ranger and phenomenal Zulu tracker and friend, Abby, who is now Dave’s wife, me, and Callum, another friend from the UK.

So in this particular camp, aptly named Bush Camp, there was a ‘kitchen tent’, and then there were about three large canvas tents, big enough to room two people each, then there was a smaller ranger tent up the hill, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would one day become my ranger tent for a time several years later, then there was a very small stone building a little further beyond that, this was the Head Ranger’s quarters.

The Head Ranger at that time was my friend Toko, a Zulu tribesman, a tracker of legend, and certainly a character with many fantastic stories, and I am pleased to say this was my first friend in Africa, and we shared quite a few adventures together, and he bestowed in me my love of tracking, and taught me the majority of what I know.

Away from the tents, overlooking the dried up river bed, was a observatory deck. It was open, no roof, with only the branches of a boerbean tree as cover, and maybe about six plus feet off the ground. This had become my bedroom every night, with Toko’s permission.

So every evening, I set up my sleeping bag on top of the ‘sleep out deck’, readied my flashlight and headlamp, my hunting knife, and my travel Bible, and an extra jacket, as it was winter time and could get a bit chilly some nights, and thus got ready for the approaching night.

Oh how glorious it was.

Bush Camp was already fantastic, no electricity, tents, only the light of fire lit lanterns, (me and other volunteers always brought our own flashlights for personal use, but we generally only used the lanterns to save batteries), and we would cook dinner over the fire or use the stove in the kitchen, which was a gas light stove, and then around a roaring fire, all of us and Toko, would enjoy meals by firelight, telling stories, and enjoying the waking sounds of nocturnal life in the surrounding bush. This was my paradise. But I took it one step further, to be as out in the Bush as possible by sleeping on the observatory deck every night.

On this particular night, I remember  returning from a night drive with Toko, and a little ways off from Bush Camp was a waterhole, and as we passed this I noted a herd of impala, a common but lovely species of antelope, meandering around the water, and then getting back to camp, I noted another herd of impala, near the sleep out deck. None of this was cause for concern, only it was later to be a vital part of the story.

I went up onto the sleep out deck, got comfortable in my downy sleeping bag, and took a deep breath of the wonderful air. I read my Bible, I have always brought my small Bible with me, it has been through every experience with me, across the world. And if I recall correctly, that night, I read the verse, which is now my favorite verse, Daniel 6:27, “GOD sets people free and saves them, HE does miraculous signs and wonders, HE does them in the heavens and on the earth, HE has saved Daniel from the power of lions.” 

Little did I know how much this verse would illustrate my life, more than one occasion.

The night was clear and cool, alive with the gentle chorus of crickets, whilst far and wide came the songs of the Fiery Necked Nightjars, a kind of nocturnal bird reminiscent perhaps to the Whip-poor-will we have in the United States. The lively ‘whoooo-oop’ call of the Spotted Hyena would echo out of the darkness every so often, answered by its brethren from some place even further, but they were not very near camp this night. There was a clan of these hyenas that sometimes visited the camp, but tonight, their song was far away.

Turn volume all the way up, but you can hear the sound of a Fiery Necked Nightjar in the recording I took.

One could say, this was a peaceful, if not lonely night in this part of the bush, only the stars and the shadows to keep me company, and then the occasional chirping of a bat zooming by in the sky above me…yet in me, I felt the primal tapping of something approaching. The more time spent in the outdoors, the more this type of feeling becomes known, and can used. And this night I felt it strongly, that the peace was merely a peace found in the quiet of the moment, it was a fickle peace, which to the untrained, would surely give confidence in relaxing in the presence of this calm. But I had come to know the bush by this point, and the life it held, and now with this feeling, or perhaps, warning, that seemed to be tapping from inside me, I knew the night held more in store for me.

Closing my eyes, I rested, but I did not sleep…and then came the call.

It was a rasping sort of sound, a coughing almost, comparable to the sound of sawing wood. And it was far away. A mere whisper in the crisp boundless air.

It was a call I knew well, a sound which my ears had strained to hear often, yet it was the sound I had dreaded to hear the most, considering my position.

It was the song of the leopard.

Leopard call recording, I did not take this recording, but it is to show what I was hearing.

Now in the Bush Camp area, there were two leopards that I had come to know as the resident leopards. One small female, and one big male. One rarely saw either of them. Only Toko claimed to see them in their territorial wanderings sometimes, and he had warned, that every so often, they would jump on the observatory deck to get a better view of things. When it came to leopards, the general warning was to NEVER look them in the eye, they like to remain unseen, the like the idea of always being hidden. So if you where to see one, you did not look at it, try to pretend you don’t see it, but never turn your back on it. Leopards are stellar hunters, and they are highly opportunistic, and very clever, and VERY sneaky.

Leopards I can honestly say are one of my favorite mammals, I respect them greatly. But I had very little experience with them. We just never saw them, and if we did see them, it was very brief. And my feeling had been that year, that I would have an experience with a leopard. And when the rasping call filled the night, though far away, my heart turned cold. This would be the night of the leopard.

At this point it was quite late in the night. But I was wide awake and listening. It was very cold. I had my headlamp and flashlight ready, I turned on my headlamp just to take a look around…it was barely a light at all…to my dismay the batteries must have been affected by the cold, and so the light was just about dead. Only a shuddering blink of pale light, hardly brighter than the light from which the stars cast on the earth. Well, no matter, I had my back up flashlight. It still seemed to work fine. The leopard began to call again. It seemed closer now, but moving at an angle, perhaps it would not come here. Never the less, I stayed ready.

The calls came and went a couple more times, at one point I thought maybe it was moving away, until it began to sound closer.

I waited in the cold darkness, trying to use my other senses, fearful to use my flashlight and risk killing the battery when I knew I would need it.

So on into the night I waited.

And then came the call again. This time I knew for sure it was heading this way. But still, maybe…maybe he will not come this far.

I waited.

And then, there came a flurry of alarm barks from the impala group that I had seen at the waterhole. Something had upset them.

The rasping call began again. The leopard was at the waterhole.

If I had not been on high alert before, boy was I now!

The voice of the big cat chilled me as he began to call yet again, now he was just up the road.

Still I waited in the silent darkness. Do not waste the light. Keep waiting.

The impalas that had been camping near me, sharing the impending dread along side me, began to bark their alarm call. He was here.

I did not move, I was standing, my knife in one hand, and my flashlight, not on yet, in the other. I was ready. My ears strained for any sound of movement. Anything. Anything. God please let me hear it.

The very slightest sound. A quiet touch of a soft pad on a dry leaf.

I turned my light on…

Up out of the darkness came the leopard, he walked with confident certainty, straight towards me. And oh what a big leopard this was. I thought maybe it was a lioness, he was so big. But those wicked, beautiful rosettes on his pelt, the crescent curve of his tail…there was no mistaking the magnificent leopard.

His eyes gleamed like glowing embers as he came up to the deck. He turned and walked along side of it, my light remained transfixed on the great cat. He went to the boerbean tree that was next to the deck, and marked it carelessly. And in one swift movement looked up at me suddenly. It was hardly even a split second. But it was to late. Our eyes met.  Anyone who has ever had a cat, knows that certain gleam of want in its eyes. When you leave something delicious on the table. And the cat watches yearningly. With slight curiosity. You can see the thought that passes like a shadow through its mind, ‘That could be an option.’ this is when you realize you had better put what it wants away, because soon as your not looking, your cat is going to swipe it off the table.

This was the look in the leopard’s eyes, as he stared into mine.

I knew the feeling then, of what it feels like to be prey, and how it feels to be near the end of your life, to question and consider your entire life in a single instant, and wonder if it really is the end, to wonder how your family and friends will react when they hear the news…and in that same instant I sure I gained my faith in God. I felt empowered. I was given the courage to stand and face the jaws of death.

And then the leopard looked down. He broke the stare. I’ve never known any cat to break a stare. But this leopard did. And he went down in the riverbed, and cross into the shadows beyond, and his call filled the night, echoing throughout the world, declaring his pride, his fearful presence, and a warning…the warning I did not miss. The night was not over yet.

I did not sleep. Nor did I risk trying to return to my tent, it was to far away, and the leopard could still be close. I fully expected him to come back. And I had to wait until he did. Or at least until daylight touched the horizon.

So there I waited. I was getting cold, and to have had such an encounter, I felt slightly shaky, but I had to put my trust in God now, to save me from ‘the power of the lions.’ Or in my case, leopard.

The leopard continued to call throughout the seemingly endless night. He was moving away, but how could I risk going to my tent? What if he came back during those intervals of quiet? And then as he would move further away, suddenly, his call would come closer, as if he was going back and forth, taunting me.

And the all while, I did not risk using my light. Because it was dying. I only turned it on when I thought I heard something. I was so exhausted, that my mind had gone into the state in which it was going to sleep, while I was still awake. I was seeing things that were not there.

I turned on my light, and there was the leopard! Peaking out of the bushes by the tree, eyes gleaming, whiskers twitching…or was it? The leopard dissolved into leaves and shadows, it was only a dream entering the waking world. Somehow I had to keep going. I looked at the eastern horizon, begging the sun to rise earlier than usual. But it remained black, and glittering with the ever watching stars.

When dawn began to draw near, I heard a rustling near the sleep out deck. Quick as lightening I had my flashlight turned on. I was standing with my knife in hand…a Spotted Hyena jumped with fright, funny enough the reason he jumped was because as my light came on, he caught a glimpse of his own shadow and it surprised him. But he quickly regained his composure. He was sniffing the ground, and following a trail. It was the leopard’s trail, the hyena smelt along the same route by the sleep out deck the leopard had taken, carefully smelling the tree that had been sprayed, and then following the trail downward into the riverbed.

This hyena was my savior.

Predators do not like other predators. And leopard in particular will not generally risk injury, and will be more likely to avoid other predators like hyenas. So this was my chance to get back to my tent, and maybe catch a few hours sleep before everyone would have to be up in the morning for work.

It had been quite some time since I heard the leopard’s call, and the last one I heard had been a good ways off. And now with hyenas in the vicinity, it would be an ideal time to escape. So I clambered down the sleep out deck, I could hear other hyenas moving around the camp and around me, and I could feel those intelligent black eyes watching me from the safety of the shadows.

As I made my way towards my tent, I could hear a growl and snarl here and there from the hyenas, and I kept shining my light back and forth, see the glowing red eyes gleam as light touched them, they were so close. Sometimes the eyes would bob up and down, trying to remain unseen, sometimes they would retreat in the gloom, and then others would just stare, motionless at me. But a hyena will not come when it knows you can see it. Its the ones behind you that you have to watch out for. I continued to check behind me, until I made it to my tent. And oh, how the relief swept over me. Thank you Lord! God bless those hyenas…

Another leopard, not the same one I saw during the night.

the leopard’s rasping call filled the night air, and my heart skipped a beat, I felt a cold chill run through me. The leopard had been in one of the surrounding trees. He had been there the whole time. He had come for me after all. Whether I had stayed on the sleep out deck, or had gone to my tent, if it had not been for those hyenas, I see no reason why that leopard did not kill me that night. He certainly had the chance either way.

When I returned to South Africa the next year, this story had become all the more dark. Within a few months of me leaving, another volunteer around my age had gone up onto the sleep out deck to spend the night, she was supposed to have gone with her friends, and that was the only exception the game ranger in charge would make to allow her to go up there. They had to sleep out as a group. And that had been the plan. But that night, everyone decided against it, unbeknownst to head ranger, who had already retired for the night, but the girl went up anyway.

The next morning she was found dead. Eaten alive by the leopard during the night. No one had heard a thing.

The leopard was shot, having become a man-eater, and though I don’t know for sure if it was the same one that came to me that one night, I do know that I have never seen that male leopard again, yet I have seen the small female leopard that was always in the area also. There was always a small female leopard, and the big male. And since that night, I never saw him again…one can only wonder if this leopard that was shot, was the same who had come to me.

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