Big Cat Hunting

“Elephants in the distance,” I say from the back of the game truck, but either the ranger doesn’t hear me or he chooses to ignore the first animals we’ve come across in the grey morning light just before dawn. A few minutes earlier his walkie-talkie had crackled and hissed in broken Tswana, a message he had translated as leopard spotted a few kilometres away. Which is why we now found ourselves speeding along the dust-choked paths of the Chobe National Park at a pace that would make me nervous had we been in a luxury vehicle zipping along one of Germany’s well-maintained autobahns.

I sit back and contemplate the scenery. It’s early August and it’s clear that the park hasn’t had any rain in a long time. Dust hangs in the air and the landscape is littered with dead trees and brittle underbrush. Good for animal sightings, when you’re not hot on the heels of an elusive leopard.

 
 

The vehicle slows down and the driver points to the ground next to us. I lean out and look at the tracks imprinted in the soft sand. My heart skips a beat. A big cat has recently been past here. Could today be the day I finally see a leopard in the wild?

We reach the spot of the alleged sighting, but there’s no one around. No big cat, no other game trucks carrying tourists with satisfied smirks. We had missed it.

As if on cue, the walkie-talkie crackles again. The only word I recognise is tau, but that’s all we need. The engine roars to life and we’re flying through the bush, if hitting every bump in the road while choking on dust can be described as flying.

And suddenly we’re not alone. Game trucks are swarming from all around us. We’re racing to see who gets there first, pushing past each other and vying to get the best spot. The truck lurches to an abrupt stop behind a bush, then reverses a few paces. All around us other vehicles congregate and an army of lenses the length of my arm are now aiming at a spot to the right. The zoom-and-click of a multitude of cameras are the only sounds we hear.

I grab my tiny pair of binoculars, twirling the wheel for better focus. “Can you see anything?” Gareth asks. I nod and hand over the binoculars so he can have a look too. In the distance, barely more than a tan-coloured blur against the greyish-brown sand, a lioness and her cubs are playing, oblivious to the hordes of paparazzi competing to walk away with the best trophy today.

Click here for more posts in the African Adventure 2011 series.

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