I saw a leopard the other day. I had taken the two younger members of the 23thorns household down to the bush for ten days at the end of their Christmas holidays. Sadly Mrs 23thorns couldn’t join us (she was starting a new job), but her absence notwithstanding, it was a perfect moment. At the end of a perfect day.
When my time comes, I hope to go quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss. I try my best to be considerate of the needs of others, and I would think it churlish to make anyone stand around while my whole life flashed before my eyes (they might have meetings to attend, or reading to catch up on…), but I do hope they will not begrudge me a minute or two to run through some sort of highlights package. This moment will be on it.
We had been called out at dawn to go and watch a pack of wild dogs flopping around in an open patch of dust at the side of a dried-out dam before rising at some unseen signal and flowing off into the bush like quicksilver, just as the sun broke the horizon.
We had bacon and eggs out on the stoep while a noisy flock of hornbills and go-away birds squawked and fidgeted in the trees above us and a scrum of mongooses snuffled around our feet until the heat got to be too much for them, and they passed out like tiny drunks in the shade nearby.
We went out for a drive and saw great frolicking gangs of baby impalas darting and soaring in wide and wild circles through stunted thorn-trees as they learned to use their legs. We slipped through the middle of a small group of elephants, surprising them as they surprised us, hearts beating as they swung towards us with an annoyed snap of their ears.
We sat in a hide and watched a broken old buffalo come down for a drink.
We saw kudus, and giraffes, and warthogs, and followed the fresh, crisp tracks of a rhino and her calf down a dusty road until they faded off into the bush. The girl child nearly put her hand down on a snake hidden along a railing at a lookout point.
The boy child somehow managed to open the door while we were driving and nearly fell out. Again. Sometimes I think he is just messing with us.
In the afternoon, we went up to the pool to escape the heat (it was 42 degrees in the shade). I nearly put my hand down on a snake.
The kids made some friends and splashed and shrieked and threw themselves off irresponsibly high walls into the water below as I lay back in the shallow end drinking an ice-cold beer and swapping stories with a couple of other grown-ups. And looking out over this.
As the sun went down we joined some friends for supper. Which was nice, since it gave me a chance to remind the kids what a vegetable looked like. (As I said, Mrs 23thorns wasn’t with us. It had been five days of cold cereal and charred red meat, and their gums were starting to bleed). We finished it all off with a cold glass of wine around a blazing fire whose flames turned the circle of sparse mopanes around us into a thin wall holding back the insect-buzzing dark.
On the short drive home we searched the night with hand-held spotlights, picking out the glowing red eyes of a pair of bushbabies up in the trees and the neon green ones of a genet slinking off into the undergrowth, before braving the terrifying walk from the car down to the house. At least it is terrifying for the small people. It’s a walk of about ten metres or so, but there are no fences around it, and the fitful glow of a hand-held torch doesn’t fight off much dark after the brilliance of the car-battery powered spotlights.
And that should have been it. It was, as I said before, a perfect day, and would have lasted in my memory if it had ended there. It didn’t. I bullied the kids into their pyjamas and pretended not to notice quite how unenthusiastically they brushed their teeth, and then we collapsed into bed, exhausted. That’s when we heard this.
That’s a pretty awe-inspiring sound on YouTube. It’s a little bit more so when you are lying in the dark and hear it less than a hundred metres away. And a little bit more when you are lying next to two small people you have just cajoled through that same dark with the promise that there was nothing out there. And a lot more when this is your “bedroom”.
Yup. We sleep on the outside of the house in what is essentially a cage made out of chicken-wire and mosquito netting. Which seems a little flimsy when the darkness outside is making that noise. We stopped being exhausted.
You may think you have done some listening in your time, but you haven’t really done it properly until you have sat in the night with two small hearts beating like drums on either side of you, and the silence hissing in your ears as you strain to pick up the sound of the world’s sneakiest animal tiptoeing through the dark. And pick it up we did.
Leopards don’t make a lot of noise. Their lives kinda depend on it. But they do make some. We heard the crunch of gritty sand as a paw sank into the dry river-bed in front of the house. Then silence. The crackle of a dried leaf crushed underfoot. Then silence. The quiet scrape of soft fur against undergrowth. Then silence. Each small sound was closer than the last.
And then, after a particularly pregnant pause, he was there. Right there. My mother has sunk a small stone birdbath into the sand about four metres from where we sleep. Whenever we visit, we fill it up for the birds and the lizards and the squirrels and the other small creatures that bustle around the house. And the leopards, apparently.
As we sat there straining to resolve the greys and blacks of surrounding dark into something vaguely feline, there was a short sigh below us, and then the sound of a cat lapping up water. A very, very big cat.
Mosquito netting acts rather a lot like a one-way mirror. If, in the dark, you take a step back and shine a torch on it, the darkness beyond it disappears and you are faced with an opaque wall of reflected light. If, however, you hold the torch up against it, the netting becomes all but invisible.
I held a torch up against the mosquito netting. It became all but invisible. And there we sat, the three of us perched motionless and unbreathing at the sharp end of a spreading cone of light, as one of the world’s most wild and beautiful creatures lapped away at tiny birdbath just a few short metres away from us.
The back of his body was hidden by an overhanging bush, but with his head bowed, his feet drawn up under his chest and his shoulders hunched up he might as well have been a domestic cat drinking a saucer of milk.
Until he stopped drinking for a second and turned to look up at us with piercing yellow eyes. He stopped being a domestic cat and we started being meat.
Then he broke cover and strolled across the open ground right in front of us, paused for a backward glance, and disappeared between two trees.
I was born without the soul of a poet, and even if I had one I don’t think I would have the words to explain what it’s like to see a leopard like this. A picture can show you its beauty, its burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums, but it cannot convey its lithe grace and brutal power, cannot show the utter self-assurance and belongingness of the thing as it slips back into the darkness it was built to haunt.
And that was that. We fell back down onto our pillows (yup. We hadn’t even needed to get out of bed for any of this), and I lay on my back for a moment staring up at the ceiling and listening to my children’s breathing settle. And wrestling with a question. What do you say?
What do you say to a six-year-old and an eleven-year-old when they have just done something profound? How do you make sure they get it? I wanted to turn on the lights and haul them out of bed by the scruffs of their necks and scream “LOVE THIS! LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”
I try my best to avoid being earnest and sincere with my children. This is because earnest and sincere people tend to think in straight lines, and often confuse their own view of the world with the immutable truth.
I want my children to be people who think around corners and who will fight for their opinions right up ’til the moment they realise they are wrong. And then change them. I want my children to be subversive and just a little bit cynical. I want them to surprise people, and make them ever so slightly nervous. I want vague acquaintances to stop and think “Oh!” when they start getting to know them better.
I want, in other words, for my children to be interesting. And God bless ’em, but sincere and earnest people struggle to be interesting (unless they are slightly unhinged, in which case they are fantastic company in short bursts.)
My motives for wanting them to be like this are entirely selfish. They moved into our house when we weren’t looking, and don’t look like they are going away any time soon. I am going to be stuck talking to these people for years. Decades! There’s no reason I can’t try my best to enjoy the situation.
Most of what I tell my children is a mosaic of highly plausible lies and unlikely truths. If they want to get anything like wisdom out of me, they are going to have to work for it. Truth be told, they are going to have to create it themselves. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and all that.
But the world is not made up of absolutes, and every now and then I feel compelled to tell my children something heartfelt and, for want of a better word, important.
The last time I remember doing so was on a trip down to the bush last year. When we saw a leopard.
Fear not! I’m not about to launch into another florid and overworked description of burnished golds and beating hearts. I exceeded my annual quota of florid and overworked at the beginning of this post and it has given me a headache. I’ll rush you through it and stab myself in the hand with a pen every time I use an adjective.
Mrs 23thorns was with us. As was my mother. Mrs 23thorns was, for her sins, driving.
We came around a corner onto a small open plain next to a dam, and there he was, sprawled out on a low anthill in the sun, all burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums. Ow! Stabbing yourself with a pen hurts.
He stood up, stretched, and ambled over towards us. He was one of those rare wild animals that have become so accustomed to people in vehicles that they act like we are simply not there. Since I have promised not to be florid and overworked anymore, instead of describing the scene I will show you a picture of my sister and her family doing the same thing with a lion earlier this year, in the same vehicle.
That is almost what we did with our leopard. But not quite. My sister and her family don’t really know how to do the bush properly.
First of all, you will notice that everyone in that picture is sitting calmly and quietly. This is incorrect. To be fair, by the time our leopard got that close, we were all quiet, if not calm, but before that, we had all taken the opportunity to really enjoy the moment by helping Mrs 23thorns drive, frantically whispering useful instructions like “REVERSE FORWARD TO THE LEFT SO YOU CAN PARK IN THE SHADE OF THAT TREE ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE THERE!”, and “TURN OFF THE CAR SO YOU CAN DRIVE MORE QUIETLY”. Nature is much more fun if you can give the person responsible for your safety a panic attack.
It is also important to remember that our kids are still quite small, and might find the approach of a large and fearsome predator a little unnerving, so we calmed them down with a few comforting words. “IF YOU DON’T STOP CRINKLING THAT DAMN CHIP PACKET, SO HELP ME GOD I WILL COME BACK THERE AND MAKE YOU EAT IT! THERE IS AN ENORMOUS BLOODY LEOPARD WALKING RIGHT TOWARDS YOU! OF ALL THE THINGS THAT THAT COULD POSSIBLY MAKE YOU FEEL, HOW THE HELL DID YOU SETTLE ON “PECKISH”?”
Secondly, you will notice that my brother-in-law is taking pictures with a rather large camera. Huge mistake. I myself had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me, but I refused to take it out and use it. To truly appreciate moments like these, you have to be there, living them.
The moment you lift a camera to your eye, you place a barrier between yourself and nature. You become an outsider: an observer, not a participant. Better to burn the pictures into your mind, to know that you will share them forever with those who were with you. That’s how truly special memories are made. Or at least that’s what I told Mrs 23thorns when she asked me why the hell I hadn’t taken any pictures. I am frightened of her and was too scared to admit that I had forgotten that I had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me.
Finally, you will notice that they have sent their very small daughter to the “naughty chair” three rows back while a 200 kg super-predator ambles past close enough to make a 2 ton Toyota Land Cruiser look a little dinky. While this might be very effective from a discipline point of view, it is, when all is said and done, pretty shocking parenting. (I might be being a little disingenuous here. When a wild animal sees a bunch of people sitting in an open vehicle, all it sees is a single enormous rumbling entity. If you stand up and break the silhouette, the wild animal sees a human being appear suddenly out of nowhere, and things can get a little dodgy. Wherever you are sitting when you spot a lion is where you will stay until the lion has gone away.)
I’m going on a bit here. We did this, just the five of us.
And it was awesome.
Awesome enough for me to try and be earnest and sincere with my children. I told them that in a world inhabited by seven billion people, there was a very good chance that, at that precise moment, no-one else was doing this, anywhere. I told them that, as far as a statistician would be concerned, no-one ever got to do this (this was a mistake, because being earnest and sincere loses a bit of shine when you have to pause to explain what a statistician is).
I wanted them to remember this. To get that this was a moment. That this was important.
Which was all very well, but things came unstuck a little three days later when we saw a unicorn.
Or as close as dammit to a unicorn as you can possibly get.
Because on the way home at the end of our holiday, we saw a white lion.
White lions are not a separate species, or even subspecies. They are not albinos. They are a very rare colour mutation, and occur naturally in only one place in the world. Which was where we happened to be.
If you Goolgle “white lion”, you will come up with hundreds of pictures of these beautiful creatures. Which is a little sad. Almost all of those pictures will be of the offspring of a couple of white lions that were taken out of the wild a few decades ago and bred up in captivity, for zoos, and circuses, and Siegfried and Roy. And, distressingly, the canned hunting trade. Yup. Some of the pictures you see will be of white lions with bullet holes in them, with men, and sometimes women, posing over them with rifles and the all-conquering expressions of those who have achieved dominion over nature.
Which must make them feel just super. Except that none of the white lions that are shot, anywhere, ever, are wild. Whatever you may think of hunting as a sport, these brave souls are not hunters. They have exerted their dominion over nature by shooting the equivalent of a domestic cow, an animal bred in a cage and let out into a small enclosure for a few weeks before being slaughtered, not hunted.
If you use Google to try and find out how many truly wild white lions there are in the world right now, you will find that there are fourteen of them. In the whole world. Which makes them pretty damn rare. Or at least it would if it were true. It isn’t.
Twelve of those fourteen are held in fairly small enclosures by a group of well-intentioned people who claim to be reintroducing them to the wild. Which is nice of them, but to call them “wild” is a bit of a stretch, because those animals are either inbred captive animals rescued from captivity, or their offspring, and most reputable scientists are dead set against their being released into the wild, because that is not how nature works.
There are, as far as anyone can tell, two genuinely wild white lions on the planet right now. And we saw one of them.
She was rather startlingly beautiful, with pale, almost blue eyes and a ghostly coat that stood out against the browns and greens of the surrounding bush. She emerged from a thicket and then walked along the road for a stretch before scrambling up the trunk of a large tree that had been knocked over by an elephant. And there she sat, as we tussled over binoculars and tried to get a few shots on an iPad because some fool had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot. Me. I had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot I suspect I am in little danger of winning any “wildlife photographer of the year” prizes.
Now, if you’re going to get all dewy eyed and earnest about a common or garden leopard, you have to do the same thing about a unicorn. And we tried.
Mrs 23thorns and I waxed lyrical about how incredibly rare an experience this was, and how we ourselves had never seen one, and how they needed to remember this forever because it was unlikely they would ever see one again. We cooed about how this was the most awesome moment of an awesome holiday, and about how it was lucky we saw her on our way out since there would be no topping this.
Thing is, I think our children are smart enough to know when we are lying.
So what was it like to see a white lion for the first time? Well…
We were driving along a tarred access road that cuts through the middle of a huge area of bush filled with private game lodges. Usually, it is used purely to get in and out, but that morning we noticed that it was being used by a number of game vehicles, driven by khaki clad rangers and packed with tourists bundled up against the morning cold. We must have passed about ten of them, enough for us to start wondering what could be going on.
We didn’t have to wonder for long. We rounded a corner to find ourselves in the middle of a scrum of game vehicles, all grinding gears and revving engines as they jockeyed for positions along one side of the road. One of them kindly waved us into an open space next to him, and leaned over to explain that there was a white lion there. We searched around desperately for a minute or two, but saw nothing.
And then she emerged from her thicket. Followed by a Land Cruiser. Which might not sound that unusual, except that there wasn’t a road there. The vehicle was powering over bushes and flattening small trees to get as close as possible to her.
She stopped. Not to sniff the air or search around search for her companions, but because there were two more vehicles growling through the virgin bush towards her from the front. She didn’t climb the tree to get a better view of her surroundings or to have a bit of a rest. She was trying to get away. She sat there flicking her tail and glaring down in annoyance at the three vehicles which had come to rest virtually below her as the morning erupted with an angry clatter as thirty camera shutters went into overdrive.
We took our pictures and left. As we reversed out of our spot in the scrum, a jaded local on his way past wound down his window and asked “Is she still there? Shame. They’ve been on her like this since four o’clock this morning. If she’s got any sense, she’ll disappear deep into the bush for the next few months”. And that was that. Our white lion.
I’m making this sound awful. It wasn’t. I’ve always wanted to see a white lion, and now I have. Those rangers driving through the bush weren’t being awful people, either. Most of those tourists were from overseas, people who have three days to pack in the sights and experiences that I have had the privilege of collecting over a lifetime. And the rangers are there to provide those. In exchange for the money that allows this wonderful place to exist.
Don’t feel too badly for the lion, either. She was a little harassed. She had a bad morning at the office. Don’t we all, sometimes? Soon enough, she would disappear deep into the bush to do the things that lions do when Land Cruisers aren’t trying to park underneath them. And those people who saw her will all go back home and tell their friends they saw a unicorn, and maybe inspire some of them to come out here too. With their money. So this can all last a little bit longer.
It’s just that this wasn’t a moment. It won’t be on my highlights package. It might be a footnote. Part of a checklist I’ll run through to make sure I haven’t missed anything: Bungie jumping? Check. Running with the bulls? Check. Climbing the Alps? Check. White lions? Check.
And that’s when I realised that it had been a mistake to try and drive home lessons about leopards. Because it wasn’t about the leopard. It was about the place we have been blessed with. It was about breakfast with mongooses, and jumping off irresponsibly high walls into pools overlooking a view of something ancient and beautiful. It was about tracking down rhinos, and red eyes in the night, and elephants snacking on my father’s garden, and hyenas whooping in the night, and nearly putting your hands down on snakes, and finding scorpions in the shower. And yes, it was about the five of us alone together with our hearts in our mouths as a vision of burnished gold and cloud spotted platinum stalked past us close enough to touch as we bickered about chip packets and explained to Mrs 23thorns how to drive with the engine off.
And maybe that doesn’t need a lesson at all. Maybe I don’t need to be earnest and sincere. They are smart kids. Maybe they don’t need a lecture to understand when they have experienced something transcendent. Maybe I just need to learn to keep my mouth shut while they put together their own highlights packages.
And so, as I lay in the dark after our night visitor had disappeared into the dark, I said nothing. I just lay there quietly listening to their breathing slow as they drifted off to sleep, trusting they would know that this had mattered.
Just in case, though, I did make a point of thinking as loudly as I could. “LOVE THIS!” I thought. “LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”