The River Crossing

There were three of us on that morning in June: my gorgeous cousin, Nicolette (born in England, heart planted in South Africa at an early age, now living in Atlanta, USA), her American-born, 19 year-old aspiring-actress daughter, Alexandra and I.  After a late start, we had set out on a game drive along the Phai River that runs through the south-western side of  Sentinel Ranch. We had left the Land Rover below the crest of a gravelly hill, 100m back from the edge of a lookout point over the gray-black volcanic sands of the winding river.  We were well above the trees that lined the opposite bank, lushly wooded and shaded in emerald green. 


“Right, no talking,” I instructed them. “We must walk up to the edge of the cliff as quietly as we can, so if there is anything drinking at the water in the river below, we won’t spook them.” 


As we picked our way slowly over the rock strewn ground to the top of our hill, I scanned the surrounding veld for movement.  In the distance to the right I spotted a small herd of zebra. They were standing on high ground above the small tree-strewn valley between us which was streaked with worn, weaving game paths of silver in the grey scrub. The zebras stood ears up and alert, tails swishing, stamping the ground, scouting for danger before they descend on their customary routes to the water below. 


I wasn’t sure if they had seen us.  “Duck!” I whispered.  Bent low we turned to the left to advance up to the precipice, out of sight of the zebras.  It was already hot, and the distant horizon shimmered in the heat.  We crept forward to a commiphora tree perched on the cliff edge and slid under its low spiky branches. Giving the ground a preliminary, cursory sweep for loose thorns, we seated ourselves on the prickly dry grass. In our khaki-coloured bush clothes we were suitably camouflaged in the dappled shade.  We waited quietly for the zebras to descend to the river.


We had not been settled long when the silence of the bush was shattered by a sharp, loud, guttural bark of a baboon, echoed in quick succession by the responding alarm calls of his nearby troupe.  The zebras startled, turned and disappeared in a veil of dust.  “Damn,” I remarked under my breath, annoyed, “The baboons must have heard us.  They’re such pests and always give the game away!”


I couldn’t see the offending creatures on the hillside below us - they were still making a ruckus though, so I knew they were there.  How had they seen us?  Their continued chattering and alarm calls didn’t make sense to me.  If I couldn't see them, surely they couldn’t see us!


Then Alex pointed. “A CAT!” she said excitedly,  pointing towards the maze of game paths on the opposite hill. “Look! A big cat!”  I followed her gaze and sure enough, there in the shadows of a knob-thorn tree, making its way down the opposite side of the hill was the distinct shape of a large leopard.  Her long slinky body, tawny at the head and fading to cream at the back, generously splattered with distinct black spots from one end to the other, glided silently down the slope, her elegant body ending in a graceful sweep of her long, white-tipped tail. No wonder the baboons were shouting! 


The beautiful animal paused in the shadows and glanced up, disdain for the noisy baboons glowering in her golden eyes.  She sat momentarily, considered her surroundings and rose again to continue her graceful walk down the hillside.  All the time, the white tip of her tail, held aloft at the end of its sweeping curve, floated unwaveringly along like a ship’s beacon on a squall-less sea.


She leapt off the bank into the thick black basalt sand of the riverbed and without stopping to drink, cleared the shallow waters of the flowing stream in a series of easy cantering strides. She casually sauntered across the riverbed below us, and with one final graceful glide rose up the far bank into the deep shadows of the trees and disappeared.