Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Eyes Tell All

Even after a "warm up and wake up" cup of coffee, I was still cold and my eyes betrayed a definite lack of sleep. Four hours of sleep to be exact because at 5 AM we were back on the same open truck with the same guide. Last night's sightings of 4 out of the Big 5 meant that we only had to find a leopard and, as our driver joked, "Then we go back to hotel, right?". Carson warned me that it took him 6 times before he saw the Big 5, and then it was a glimpse of the cats (lion and leopard) at a distance. The quality of last night's sightings was up close and personal and we could not expect the same, especially with the leopard, which is rarely seen at all.

There were only 4 passengers on the truck and that meant I had the responsibility of handling one of the spotlights (until Carson relieved me, my hands blue with cold and shaking fiercely). This job was much harder than it looked and I was now the inept neophyte. I tried to swing the light in sweeping cycles through the darkness in an attempt to illuminate the grass, bush and trees where animals might be lurking. But I was far from fluid in my motions, imagining the whole time that I was either seeing strange beasts hiding behind clumps of tall grass or, worse, fearing I was missing herds of wildebeests or parades of aardvarks. Then, just when I thought it was all useless, I saw them, blinking at us like Morse code signals in the dark. It was their eyes that gave them away. The animals seemed hypnotized by the bright light and stared at it without bolting for the shadows. The phrase 'deer in the headlights' phenomenon actually worked, with eyes glistening brightly from several hundred meters away. Despite the extraordinary natural camouflage, and even in the pitch black, the eyes gave them away. Even though humans lack the "eyeshine" of most mammals (produced by the "taptum lucidum" in their eyes), I thought of how important the eyes are in understanding another person. Thus, the saying, "the eyes are the window to the soul".

The morning wore on, with sightings of impalas, proud kudus, some grand bull elephants with huge tusks and even graceful-looking giraffes (in the distance), until the sun rose to reveal relatively flat but rugged terrain, strewn with scrub, trees, rock buttes and grass. Time was running out. Then a half shout, half whisper, came from the driver. "Leopard", he proclaimed excitedly. The regal cat stood silhouetted against the African morning sky as he stood overlooking his territory from on top of a barren clay hill. It was a perfect, unobstructed sighting from 200 meters away. But this wasn't enough for our driver.

Our large vehicle inched its way towards the leopard, lurching along a heavily rutted path. When we were about 100 meters away, the big cat slipped down the back side of the hill, out of view. All four passengers let out a collective breath that had been held since first sighting the leopard. Excited, everyone started talking at once, but the guide hushed our excited babble, "Wait, he will come back" he prophetically said. And, sure enough, just then the graceful creature reappeared and slowly moved directly towards us, stopping from time to time to stretch, or look out to the horizon. At no more than 50 meters he turned and walked parallel to our truck, glancing warily at us from time to time. He was magnificent as he slowly strolled past us only 20 to 25 meters away. It was impossible to look away from this creature and his perfect coat and his lithe muscles which stretched underneath it as he moved. He was the picture of elegance and danger, beauty and speed, as he seemed to glide past us. But it was his eyes that I was drawn to. They seemed to confidently say, "I am in control. I do not fear you. You will respect me or know the consequences."

The truck followed the leopard as he made his way toward the bushes, where we watched him disappear. Gone, we again erupted in jubilation, our driver repeatedly telling us how fortunate we had been to not only see our last of the Big 5, but to see him in such close quarters and for so long. It was as if the big spotted cat had permitted it. We had been favored.

Just as on the heights above Machu Picchu, I felt a sense of reverence, a state of awe. The eyes of the leopard seemed to peer right through me. The eyes said it all.

1 comment:

  1. The wild is bringing out the poet in you again:

    Just as on the heights above Machu Picchu,
    felt a sense of reverence and awe.
    The eyes of the leopard seemed to peer right through
    The eyes said it all.