“Sighting of a leopard.” My head snaps up as the static voice crackles over the radio: “5 kilometers away.”
I hold my breath and glance over to our tour guide (and terrifying driver) Lucas. He answers in Xhosa and I peer over my mother’s shoulder. He puts down the crackling radio and I see the excitement alight in his eyes…and a mischievous grin. I feel a smile forming on my own lips because I know that smirk spells adventure. Sure enough, he puts his formidable jeep in gear and proceeds to trample anything in his path: rocks, bushes, and even a few trees.
I suck in a joyous breath, enjoying the feeling of the crisp air filling my lungs. It is the calm before the storm and I revel in the pressure building around me. The car begins to slow and I mentally beg Lucas to hurry up. Just when I feel that I can no longer handle the suspense, he pulls his vehicle to a stop and silently points to a tree. I frantically scan the tree line, terrified I’ll miss this once-in-a-lifetime sighting. There. I forget to breathe.
For a moment, I wonder if I am amiss in some wonderful dream and that at any moment I’ll wake up. But no, I appraise the swirling designs on the leopard’s fur. The distinct whites of her whiskers. The rose pink of her tongue as she tidies her paws. I stifle a hysterical giggle as I’m caught by the resemblance to my own cats grooming their paws. The leopard almost seems domesticated. She suddenly lifts her head and I’m captured by her gaze. Her piercing, yellow eyes stare into me and I do not know how I could have mistaken her for anything but wild.
I see the African plains through her eyes, the life she’s led to defend herself. Her life is just a breath in this land: powerful but not lasting. She has struggled through many droughts, watching the precious water dry up day by day, drink by drink. She has seen the mighty rhino taken down for its horn, leaving its young crying after it. She has watched humans watching her. All this I see in her eyes as she assesses me.
She suddenly leaps from her perch on the tree. She pauses; she poses. And then with a flick of her tail, she is upon us. A moment of appreciation has turned to a moment of fear. She could easily leap into our jeep with its unfortunate lack of doors. But instead, she chooses to rub herself against it, almost to display her power over us. I have the irrational urge to reach out and pet her. Too soon, she satisfies her itch and moves on. I watch her walk into the African sunset, ready to forge ahead until her next meal.
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