The noise shook me awake like a clawed hand reaching out from the veil of a monster’s robes. I grabbed my torch instinctively and looked through the house, as the high-pitched squeals closed in on my cocoon of canvas and wood. The shrieking and screaming were of such a strange quality that I was able to easily eliminate the usual suspect: squirrels, hippos and elephants. My search revealed nothing suspicious and I was just about to crawl back under the covers when I pinpointed the source of the nightmarish calls. Peering though the thin mesh of netting I discovered at least six honey badgers chasing each other in furious circles on my deck.
These typically solitary creatures were gathering to fight for a female. I watched the bizarre mating ritual in fascination, though it was difficult to distinguish winner from loser. The battle chorus was disturbing and wonderful all at once. This was only my third honey badger sighting. I had last seen one while walking a guest to his tent. I stopped to wait for the badger to run off the boardwalk, hesitant to cross his path. These animals have a vicious reputation; more than one lion has mistaken a honey badger for easy prey, only to find himself bit in the face. Now half a dozen of these mad mammals were fighting next to my door. I shone my torch on them momentarily to catch a better glimpse and I am almost certain that this was what elicited the next round of screaming. I jumped back into bed to avoid interrupting them further. Restless with curiosity, (and unable to sleep amidst the deafening calls) I returned to the door several times. I may have even asked aloud: “What is so interesting about my deck?” I was, after all, exhausted, and hoping for a few hours of rest before the sun rose.
A few nights later I was escorting two guests to their tent when the thrust of African darkness presented itself in the flesh. I stopped dead in my tracks halfway between the boardwalk junction and the door and watched a leopard leap from its crouching place in front of me. Instinct told me to run, as it did each time I found myself in the company of predators and other aggressors. With guests standing directly behind me, my feet must have sensed that instinct had to be suppressed. We took a few steps back and waited. When the guide returned, we approached the tent slowly to find the cat, and I spotted it crossing from the shrubbery to the floodplain in front of the verandah. We gazed into the blackness together, sharing a few minutes of utter wonder.
Leaving the guests secure inside the tent I felt like shouting to the sky. My blood pumped with vigor and the force of adrenaline carried my feet weightlessly across the same planks the leopard had stood upon. A hundred frustrating afternoons of delayed flights, lost sleep and guest complaints were erased. I see a leopard stalk and I understand the power and perfection contained in life’s movement. Each limb dances in effortless motion until halted by a split-second connection with the earth that catches the fluid energy of her body in beautiful suspension and propels her onwards. Her presence is ephemeral, but so stirring that I find sleep unattainable. I lie awake, ears piqued to detect another roar or trumpet. I savour the sounds that permeate a solitude that has never been wholly real. How many leopards have I passed without noticing? How many birds fluttered golden wings, unviewed?
Both nights left me sleep-deprived and gratefully invigorated. I treasure these signs of the camp’s wildness. Hours of office dwelling and administrative work cause us to forget where we are. Twilight encounters with leopards burrow in the far reaches of our consciousness and we walk as if these woods are not teeming with danger. I want the kingdom of hunters to grip me and toss me into unrest. I want to breathe in the awareness of my own finiteness in the vast biome. I will shudder in the shadow of giants, because this is as it was intended.
An elephant passed through camp this afternoon. I followed him with my camera from one patch of light to another, marveling at the artistry of a setting sun. Will I remember how small I felt with his eyes upon me? Sitting in an office while everyone else is sleeping, part of me fears the inevitable walk home through brush that hides dangerous possibility. Then I hear a hyaena howling in the distance and suddenly I know what I will miss most when I leave this place. I will hunger for the vulnerability of living amongst the mighty. I will listen in vain for the sounds of fighting in the darkness. I will sleep, wrapped in the safety of quiet insulation, dreaming of a faraway land that is both frightening and magnificent.