Description of memorable encounters with animals
I have never seen a leopard in the wild. Although I lived in Africa for 27 years and saw lions, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, elephant and any number of other large and impressive animals, I never saw a leopard. And it is not as if they are rare; in Africa, most rocky hills of decent size will have a resident leopard. Sightings are extremely uncommon, however.
Part of the reason for this is that they are nocturnal, of course. They do occasionally move about during the day but you won't see them even then. They are experts at remaining hidden.
I had one encounter with a leopard in which I was no more than a couple of yards from the animal yet did not see it. There was a wall between us admittedly, but there was also an open window in that wall. It was late at night and I was asleep in a cottage in the Inyanga Mountains of Zimbabwe. What awoke me was the sound of a cough, a human cough it seemed to my dazed mind. But, when it came again, I knew instantly that it came from a leopard; there is something just a little too throaty and deep about a leopard's cough for it to be mistaken long for a sound that a human could make. Several times it coughed and I could tell that it was just outside the window. I lay still and listened, not afraid, for I knew it would not attempt to enter through the window. After perhaps four or five coughs, silence ensued and it became clear that the leopard had moved on.
That encounter has heightened the already-considerable mystique of the leopard for me. Their elusiveness and the beauty of their spotted coats combine to create an animal of much greater allure than the other great cats of Africa, the somnolent and flea-bitten lion or frequently-seen cheetah.
There are other animals that have an attraction in similar fashion; it is not a matter of the animal's rarity but rather of its ability to stay hidden from humans that creates this effect. The hyena, for instance, is common in Africa but very rarely seen, once again because it is nocturnal. I have only ever seen one and that occasion is etched into my memory.
It was early in the morning and we were driving along a dirt road in some game park or another (they all merge into one after a while). Up ahead we saw an animal slouching along the road, unhurried and unconcerned by our arrival. As we came nearer, we recognized the hunch-shouldered and rolling gait that is so characteristic of the hyena. We drove up right behind it but it did not move out of the way or increase its pace. Instead, it stopped and turned around to look at us over its shoulder.
That is the moment that my mind holds like a still photograph: the dawn light, golden with the dry dust of the road, the gold and black creature before us, its powerful shoulders and massive head, and the dark assessment in its eyes as it looked at us. For two or three seconds we were all frozen in mutual contemplation; and then the hyena turned and sloped off into the grass at the side of the road.
One would not expect that an animal of as evil repute as the hyena should be one of the most vivid of my memories of Africa. It was perhaps the fact that this was my only encounter with the animal that gives the moment its extra significance, similar to the sighting of a waterbuck recounted in Whistler.
There are other lone sightings that I can remember, the water monitor, for instance. But this is not quite so magical to my mind as the experiences I have mentioned already. The monitor is a reptile, after all, and amounts to little more than a very big lizard.
Just one more instance occurs to me, perhaps the most memorable of all; the sable antelope. It is a large antelope, second in size to the placid and rather bovine eland, and is so noble in looks that it was inevitably chosen as Zimbabwe's national emblem. The irony lies in the fact that you could spend your entire life in that country and never see a sable in the wild.
They are there, of course, but keep to thickly-wooded country and stay in small family groups of no more than five or six. Like the leopard, they are experts at camouflage and wary of humans. The males are black with white bellies and splashes of white upon their faces, and their horns are long and curved like scimitars. The females are less spectacular, being brown and with shorter horns, but they are still impressive animals.
The sable that I saw was a male and the setting in which he chose to present himself is a perfect example of how these animals have a knack for displaying themselves in regal mode. I was driving back home from Harare to Bulawayo, a distance of 300 miles, and had about 70 miles still to go. It was late evening, the sun dipping below the horizon and dusk gathering quickly, as it does in Africa. The road at that point cuts through a hillside and the land rises above in a steep cliff on one side. Trees crown this rise except for the highest point, where they have left a small clearing at the edge of the cliff. And this was where he had chosen to stand, in classic sable pose, upright, impassive, shoulders and neck held high above the sloping back, head raised to survey his domain and horns sweeping back in a perfect curve. He stood unmoving, silhouetted against the deepening blue of the evening sky.
It was only for two or three seconds that I was able to see him. Then the car had shot through the cutting and I lost sight of him. But that picture is stored like a photograph in my memory, a timeless reminder of all that was good about Africa. It is fitting, too, that it should be the national animal of Zimbabwe that I remember thus; times have changed for that country now but my sable remains as an emblem of things that never decay.
And that is Africa as I remember it; with so many animals of all kinds that one becomes blasé about them, only to be awoken suddenly by some unexpected encounter with the real thing. I am grateful that I lived there at a time when much of the wild remained and I prefer not to think about the devastation that has taken place since those days. Life goes on, times change, but memory preserves what matters.
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