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The Leopard

I have spent many frustrating days trying to compose a painting of chimpanzees - black animals in a dark forest. This follows a fascinating trip to the Mahale Mountains on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. But the right composition evades me - I am finding this task very difficult. After one such day, the best antidote is to get away from the mounds of photos and rejected sketches. We fill a kikapu (basket) with cheese, crackers, a bottle of South African wine and glasses. Also, those items which are always included: sketch book, pencils, camera and binoculars

Less than a mile from our house is Lake Elmenteita, one of the Rift Valley's alkaline lakes. The water has a high soda content and will burn the skin in tender places as I know from painful experience when I lived here as a boy. This 5 mile long lake is shallow - no more than 4 feet deep. At one end it is fed by hot springs, at the other, a now-seasonal river which used to flow year round when I was a boy.


Thousands of years ago, this area was rent by violent volcanic activity. Huge volcanoes to the south sent massive lava flows towards the lake which, in those times, was much higher than today. Around the western shore, molten lava burst through the earth's crust creating a jumble of black lava ridges and plateaus interspersed with hidden glades and hollows. Near the lake itself, these are filled with 10 foot high bamboo grass but further inland, they contain beautiful yellow acacias and rich green warburgia trees.

In the shallow water on this side of the lake are a number of low, rugged, lava-rock islands. Here is one of the few nesting sites in Africa of the Great White Pelican. The islands are packed sometimes with shoulder-to-shoulder nesting birds or at others, a tightly packed host of dark colored fledglings. Elmenteita does not have an adequate food supply for all these huge birds so they fly the 10 miles westwards to Lake Nakuru to fish and bring the catch back in their large beak-pouches to their young. The sky is therefore often filled with great flocks of pelicans circling in formation, seeking the thermals to lift them over the ridge to Nakuru.


This small, secret wilderness on the west side of the lake is home to some 250 Cape buffaloes, 20 Rothschild giraffes, numerous herds of impalas, Thomsons gazelles, hundreds of the diminutive dikdik, warthogs, baboons, hyenas, hyrax, porcupines, jackals, bat-eared foxes, many different species of birds including thousands of greater and lesser flamingoes and last but not least, the elusive leopard. This unspoiled haven is where we go to escape the cares of the world and the frustrations of a stalled chimpanzee painting.

I hunted here as a boy so know it well. There are some places where the ground sounds hollow; it's like walking on a drum. I imagine huge underground caves created by the volcanic upheavals of the distant past. I manouevre our ancient Land Rover down a broken lava slope into a hidden glade, gently easing the tires over jagged, black rocks which can rip them open if hit too fast. Across the other side of this hollow is a herd of about 30 buffalo. As usual, they are restless, heads held high seeking our scent; some toss their heads threateningly. I turn off the engine and the buffalo are overcome with curiosity. Some move forward to investigate this strange monster. After some minutes, they decide we are not a threat and, one by one, start to lie down. This is special to us. It is a subtle message from these wild animals that we are OK, to be trusted and accepted.
Sketch books from the kikapu. Cameras readied for any eventuality. Cheese sliced and put on the crackers. Wine opened and poured. The buffalo are at peace. Life is good. I catch a movement from the corner of my eye and, turning my head slowly, see a black-tailed mongoose cautiously approaching the car. Maybe it smelled the cheese. We freeze. It stands on its' hind legs and peers at us for long moments before slinking away. Buffalo Group

Special moment. Beautiful birds come and go. Life around us returns to the natural rhythms which were so rudely disturbed by our noisy approach.

At dusk, relaxed and happy, we decide to head for home. Just before shattering the peace by starting the car, the buffalo herd suddenly gallops away. Strange. Why? Did they anticipate our leaving?

We drive down a faintly-visible trail and follow a pair of dikdiks as they run ahead of the car. Suddenly, a large form bursts from the tall grass and chases the dikdiks. In a flurry of dust we see it is a leopard which grabs a dikdik and stands with the unfortunate animal in its' mouth only twenty yards from where we sit in stunned silence.

Leopard I switch off the engine and turn on our spotlight. The leopard is quite unconcerned. It stands with its' prey dangling from its' mouth for fully two minutes before melting into the undergrowth. WOW! Very few people ever see a leopard kill. Poor dikdik, but nature can be cruel.

What happens next is shameful. I call my sister in Nairobi on the cell phone and crow about seeing a leopard kill. Phones don't belong in this magical place so it serves me right when the car refuses to start. It is dark. We are surrounded by buffalo. Somewhere there is a predatory leopard. The starter motor has failed. We are fortunate because when I call a friend for help, she tells us her son is only a mile away. We are rescued and saved the indignity of an uncomfortable night in the car.

Life here is ever-filled with drama.

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