After some well deserved and appreciated sundowners, it is time to get back to the lodge and experience a short night drive. The warm orange blaze of the sunset is long gone and the last pink trails are disappearing as the Sun continues sinking below the horizon and darkness falls slowly over the bush. Everything becomes dark blue (the Purkinje effect), and it is plunged in this American night and the silence of cicadas and fiery-necked nightjars that we start the car and the last part of the drive.
The engine purrs quietly and around us, rising above the dark mass of the bush, the black skeletal silhouettes of trees stand out from the cobalt blue sky. Here the eye dilates looking for an owl. The Spotted Eagle-Owl is a rather common nocturnal bird at Thanda, but one can also see the pink eyelids of the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, the sunken eyes of the Marsh Owl or the white face together with the distinctive screech of the Western Barn Owl.
In front of the car, the car lights light up the road as Derrick’s spotlight sweep the roadside. We follow the pendulum swing looking for a genet, a white-tailed mongoose, a porcupine or a serval (truly a rare sight), but of course, the one animal everyone wants to see appearing in the light is the elusive leopard. Always expected but seldom seen, the big cat knows how to avoid the attention drawn to him. I remember one evening as we were just five minutes away from the lodge, driving on the main road, a leopard came out of the bush briefly and being put immediately under the spotlight, retreated almost as quickly into the darkness. As it was moving east, Derrick and I shared a glance and quickly decided on a plan. Instead of trying to follow the leopard while frenetically agitating the spotlight in all directions, we’re going to go back west a few meters, turn the lights off, stay absolutely quiet and wait for a little. We’ve noticed that when leopards are walking along a road, they tend to stay on course, even if hiding from vehicles from times to times. So the plan is easy, we wait a bit and we slowly and as silently a possible go back east, hoping to catch up with the leopard walking on or along the road. We let the night envelop the car and with all lights off, we started moving on the road. Fully alert, we were all on the lookout for the movement of a shadow, the rustle of leaves or grass… and suddenly it was here, already on the other side of the road, moving swiftly but stopping quickly as we kept approaching. I stopped the car and Derrick shined straight at the spot.
And from the darkness to that sudden burst of light here it is, crouching in the grass and looking straight at us! The penetrating gaze of the predators’ eyes immediately raised the tension and the car’s mood was now a mix of excitement and prudence! We stayed a few seconds, or minutes, time froze for a moment, I managed to take a picture and the leopard started moving but stopped again a bit further into the bush. We diverted the light, turned around and went back to the lodge, fulfilled.
How many times before were those eyes watching us and will keep watching us, unseen, from the cover of darkness?
Story by: Vincent Hindson