The temperature approached 90 degrees in Botswana’s Linyanti Reserve that afternoon. On safari with my husband, Mike, and a guide from Savuti Camp, we were hot on the trail of a leopard, a handsome fellow. The big cat did not seem to care that our Toyota Land Cruiser followed as he went off road into a grassy area punctuated by bushes and small, scrubby trees.
The leopard, a fairly large cat, surprised us when he decided to climb one of the brushy trees. We had seen leopards climb or lounge in large trees before, but this young tree was no more than ten feet tall. Its trunk was sturdy and some of the branches had substance - but the twisted branches narrowed as they climbed toward the sky.
When the cat clambered up the tree, our guide pulled the Land Cruiser along side. We enjoyed the show as the leopard tried to arrange himself in a thatch of branches that could barely hold his weight. He experimented with different positions, but never seemed to find one that was comfortable. Several times, it looked as if he might lose his balance and crash to the ground. For a few minutes, his antics made him look like an overgrown housecat trying to perch on a tiny shrub.
Until he decided to come back down...
The leopard, known as one of the most fearsome predators in the African wilds, padded slowly down the trunk of the tree. His paws with their huge claws were immense. The angled trunk formed a perfect ramp for his descent.
My seat in the Land Cruiser was no more than three feet away from the end of that natural ramp. The vehicle’s sides, totally open fro
m the seat to the canvas roof, offered no barrier.
I sat completely still, mesmerized by the magnificent animal as he made his way closer and closer. When his face came level to mine, he looked straight at me. I held my breath. If the big cat chose, he could have hopped right into my lap without the slightest effort. We have seen other leopards jump twelve feet or more without breaking a sweat.
Instead, the leopard turned away, hopped to ground, and meandered away.
What an amazing experience to be that close to such a wonderful animal on the prowl. His power was evident in the muscles that rippled beneath his skin. His coat was beautiful, the tawny fur highlighted with perfect splotches of black and brown. And the eyes that gazed into mine -- translucent gold and completely wild.
A living testament to Thoreau's observation: In wildness is the preservation of the world.