Last week I walked into a leopard kill. It was well past midnight and my water tanks were overflowing. The switches are located behind the kitchen, so, despite the lateness of the hour, I grabbed my flashlight and made my way back into camp. Rounding the corner where my pathway meets the entrance to the front of house, I briefly considered using the boardwalk to make the rest of journey. Foolishly, I decided that my footsteps might disturb the guests and continued through the woods. When a crash in the bushes caused my heart to stop beating momentarily, I sincerely regretted this error in judgment.
Instinctively, I shone my light towards the source of the noise. There I saw the body of an impala and I did not need to look for signs of blood to know that she was dead. I have followed this path enough to know that impala always flee when humans approach. I was, for the first time since I had arrived in Africa, afraid. This was not a familiar fear, like the type brought on by discovering a scorpion in my shower, by stepping out of the office to find an elephant blocking the way, or by flying in a small Cessna surrounded by lighting and ominous storm clouds. All these moments had made me uncomfortable and nervous, but I also knew on some level that I was safe. Standing next to this fresh kill at twilight, I was not so sure. The crash I had heard a few seconds earlier was the sound of a cat moving. This I was certain of. What now?
I could, for dramatic effect, recall the well-reasoned thought process I engaged in alone behind the camp laundry. Perhaps I remembered my training in encountering dangerous game. We were taught that when confronted by predators we should stay still, scan the area for other cats, shine a light at the animal, raise our voices, stand tall, and, if able to, take very slow steps backwards. Under no circumstances were we to run. This was the first and most serious instruction I was given when I started this job. I have been told not to run from predators so often that I would not be surprised if the instruction were to be permanently engrained in the synapses of my brain. Here I was faced with a situation I had imagined hundreds of times. I knew exactly what had to be done.
For at least several seconds I attempted to do as I had been told, but I was fighting a losing battle against an intense desire to do exactly the opposite. When I envisaged moments like this I always wondered whether I’d choose fight or flight, whether the will to run would be too strong, or whether I would have the good sense to stay put. Now I have my answer. I had barely set eyes on the carcass when I turned back and walked away with haste. One step. Two steps. I picked my feet up and began to run. I did not stop until I reached the front door of the closest management house. I stood there for half a minute, breathing deeply to calm myself, and then tiptoed home. My hands were shaking when I opened my door. Were it not for the sound of water hitting the ground to my right, I might have forgotten why I was outside in the first place. Convinced that all the money in the world would not persuade me to revisit the pump switches, I shut my water tanks off manually. When the maintenance manager arrived at my house at 5 am to turn them back on, I was informed that I had inadvertently cut off the entire camp’s water supply. Suffice it to say that I have had better days.
The next morning I surveyed the location of my embarrassing cowardice. Next to the dead impala were the tracks of a female leopard who had run in the other direction. As it turns out, she was likely more afraid than I. Standing on two feet I gave the impression of strength and prowess. I was the predator. This is why we are taught not to turn and run. Running is reserved for prey. Were I to have had the misfortune of interrupting a lion kill, and not that of such a timid cat, the outcome of my choice might have been very different. A pride of 16 lion have been moving near the camp for weeks now. I prefer not to consider fully the implications of my stupidity.
My midnight run-in and accidental water shut-off have quickly become a source of jest in camp. This particular leopard is shy, and the most unfortunate result of my ill-timed stroll was to ruin her supper. In an attempt to rectify my blunder, the guides moved the carcass further from camp in the hopes that our shy feline might be able to eat undisturbed. I laughed along with my colleagues when I shared the story and I’m sure I will again soon. Even so, I am left with a slightly unsettling feeling. I failed completely to obey the laws of the bush. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am and even more acutely aware of the shallowness of my courage. I have been living in my house on the lagoon for just over a year. It was four months before I was able to bring myself to walk home alone after dark. I see now that this was not bravery discovered. Just as it became easier to replenish depleted stocks and respond tactfully to unhappy clients, the significance of those four steps between the boardwalk and the ground faded. Time will make even the most dangerous places safe.
I hesitated and stumbled in my attempts to write about this incident. I think I was hoping to extract some meaning from the experience beyond the immediate physical panic that I detected deep in the soles of my feet. I wanted to frame the encounter in the light of a year having passed since my arrival in this camp. I have failed on both accounts. The smell of rotting impala behind the laundry has finally dissipated and I’ve given up my search for nature’s latest lesson. The truth: After nearly two years spent living and working in Africa, I am still afraid of the dark and the glowing eyes that accompany it. This is not necessarily terrible; it may give me pause the next time I debate venturing into the thicket under the shroud of nightfall.
A second truth: I will, albeit carefully, continue to walk alone long after the sun has set. The distance between my front door and the security of the walkway has become a blessing. I relish the serenity of my small piece of paradise, away from the mania and worry of a busy camp. I am lulled to sleep by the sounds of the bull elephant sweeping Mangosteen berries from my deck and the calls of hyena in the distance. This past year has given me a greater sense of peace than I thought possible. While I am humbled by my tendency to run away when experience and reason should command me to stand still, these moments of fear and doubt are mitigated by the comfort I’ve uncovered in this dangerous territory. Last night my feet touched the soil again and I froze upon hearing another crash in the bushes beside me. Heart pounding, I turned to face a large male Kudu, his magnificent horns held high to the moonlight. We acknowledged each other as we often do, my pulse slowed by the recognition of this noble guardian. Alone in the dark, where the lion roamed and the leopard hunted, I was home, safe and sound.