Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The leopardess

If you have never ventured into the South African bush, or visited what is still soberingly referred to as a “game reserve,” it is difficult to grasp just how rich an experience it can be, even how transformative.

Sabi Sand in the Limpopo Province comprises 44,000 acres of high bushveld savannah, gently rolling country at either side of the Sand River, which rises in the Drakensberg Mountains, a distant but beautiful presence. The property is contiguous with the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, not so far from the border with Mozambique, and scores of wild animals move freely back and forth. At this time of year, the southern winter, the land is dry, brown, and crackly, very much like Australia Felix—the days are warm and sunny, the nights cold.

In the absence of lush foliage, you can often see across long distances, which is handy for encounters with especially reticent creatures, but animals big and small are so numerous, and so familiar with the careful movement of land rovers, that all you really have to do is sit there with your binoculars and before long pretty much everything ambles, trots, stomps, skitters, flaps, or slinks casually by. It is simply amazing—a place teeming with every conceivable form of life. The best analogy is Eden. Indeed whoever drafted Genesis must surely have known a landscape like Sabi Sand, all set about with fever trees.

During my visit of four days, comprising three-hour dawn and dusk expeditions led by Shelley, our expert guide, a young New Zealand expatriate equipped with a loaded rifle, and Emmanuel, our dependable tracker, we met with a dazzle of well-fed zebra and a journey of giraffes, the latter with incomparable eyelashes; a crash of dogged white rhinoceros, who evidently double as a taxi service for meticulous side-stepping red-billed oxpeckers; herds of sensitive nyala, graceful impala, swaggering kudu, and big shaggy blue wildebeest; cheerful waterbuck, bushbuck, nimble grey duiker, and watchful rock-dwelling klipspringer. There were four busy warthog piglets, trotting along behind big-bosomed mother warthog, their tails pointing straight up. She reminded me of late-career Melba.

There were lissome tree squirrels, cheeky vervet monkeys, and a troop of unscrupulous chacma baboons. A herd of massive Cape buffalo ambled by, restively—the only creatures at length I found truly frightening. Unstoppable elephants patiently carried forward their project of deforestation, in particular a large bull without tusks who with the tip of his trunk gingerly sampled a waterhole with absolutely disarming fastidiousness, while at the same time producing an enormous erection.

There were crested barbets, forked-tailed drongos, helmeted guinea-fowl, grey go-away birds, a stately goliath heron, a black-winged stilt, sacred ibis (scooping and sifting through the mucky reed-beds), primevil red- and yellow-billed and trumpeter hornbills, Cape turtle-doves, sumptuous lilac-breasted rollers, a little exhibitionist bee-eater, and a clan of spotted hyenas with two suckling pups. We had seen the mother a day earlier, standing motionless upon a rise, the epitome of statuesque, her broad forequarters the equal of any carved in alabaster with wings on the gates to the citadel of Sargon II.

For two nights fleet-footed hippopotamus, including the baby hippo with a very hairy nose, munched determinedly right beneath my window, tossing confident grunts to relations up and down the river.

I saw a scrub hare, a woodland dormouse (enchanting), an African civet, a hefty marsh terrapin, a pair of hyperactive dwarf mongooses, a coy side-striped jackal, several single-striped mice, bats, ostriches, rainbow skinks, and the distinctive tracks of an especially reclusive aardvark.

After some considerable searching, we caught up with two young male lions, yet to grow their manes, one comforting the other, who had lately been badly hurt in a scuffle maybe with a hyena. However, I suppose it is the leopardess who will stay with me long after the whole spectacle recedes.

She was stalking something, and stole out from behind a termite mound—just like that. Silent as the grave, and as smooth as plush silk velvet, she proceeded without the slightest hint of urgency, actually hugging the three sides of our vehicle that stood between her and some intriguing fragrance farther distant. Her paws were as big as my head, her shoulder-blades undulating with metronomic precision. Her coat was paler than I had imagined it might be, and her gait was indescribably beautiful. The rear pads trod exactly into the rustle-free spots carefully discerned by the fore. She then reclined for a few minutes with the effortless authority of a queen-empress, and that was when I took this photograph. She has a seven or eight-month-old cub back near the lodge. Evidently leopards live with constant hunger, but you would never know. It is especially odd, therefore, that she can maintain such superb disdain for the assortment of human amuses gueules perching fussily in our (open) truck, but maybe we hoist too many olfactory question marks over the subtle mind of Panthera pardus.

As if to amplify an already intense experience up to the point of dizzying sensuality, a full moon rose on the second night and shed its cold light over the Drakensberg Mountains, the river flats, the gentle slopes, creek beds, copses of leadwood and marula and thickets of spiky acacia.

The Italians talk about mal d’Africa, literally Africa-sickness, and now I know exactly what they mean. I’m going back.

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