My fourth day in Africa was dedicated almost entirely to tracking wildcats. Amazingly, we had already seen quite a few lions, so now it was time to find a slightly more elusive species - the cheetah.
After another early morning, a 5am breakfast and a 6am start if I recall correctly, we set off into the Savannah grassland of the Maasai Mara game reserve. In what was becoming a bit of a routine, the first animals we spotted were wildebeests, followed by gazelles and zebras. Some elephants were spotted in the distance at one point, but we were on a very specific mission today and so, while we stopped to take some photos from afar, we didn't hang about.
Maybe an hour or so into the game drive, I was happy to hear the now-familiar crackle of a static-y message coming through over the CB radio. Someone had spotted something.
All usual, our guide remained silent when we asked what the tip off was. My guess is that he liked to surprise us, though it's also possible he didn't want our expectations to be too high in case we couldn't find what we were looking for. He need not have worried.
A few minutes later we saw what all the commotion was about - a lone cheetah was running in the distance, closing the gap between it and a small Thompson gazelle.
We followed, staying well back, until the gazelle was caught. At that point, when the cheetah brought the carcass of the gazelle under a small tree, we dared to go in for a closer look.
To this day I still don't know how to feel about what I saw. On one hand, I have always loved all kinds of animals and hate to see anything hurt or killed. On the other, I know that wild animals such as cheetahs need to hunt and kill their prey to survive. It's the circle of life.
But standing in that jeep, looking out at a cheetah brutally tear this cute little animal to bloody pieces... I was conflicted.
Only one thing is for sure - never in my life will I ever forget the sound of that poor gazelle's bones crunching and compressing within the jaws of that fearsome cat. It is a sound that will stay with me forever.
We stayed with the cheetah a long time, silent and watchful. But we were eventually forced to move when another tip crackled in over the CB. What now, we thought. What could be more captivating than what we had just witnessed? Our guide gave nothing away.
We took off, trundling over the dirt roads, and ended up in a ditch, similar to the one we stopped at the day before. At first there didn't seem to be anything there... until movement in the long grasses caught out eyes. A moment later a huge leopard emerged, calm as you like, and stalked directly towards us.
Right about here is when I realised how exposed we were. The roof of the jeep was popped up, and was not easily retracted. Nothing but the dead, hot air of Africa lay between the heads and faces and shoulders of the jeep passengers and this deadly creature. A deadly creature which could easily jump as high as the jeep. A deadly creature who could kill and eat us with relative ease, if it wanted to.
But no. The wild cat turned and continued on its path, giving us a fairly wide berth.
We drove slowly and quietly alongside the leopard for a time, before he veered back into the long grasses and out of sight. He apparently didn't particularly want an audience.
At the time, while I thought the sight of the creature was amazing, I didn't fully realise how special it was. In my entire two-week safari, that was the one and only time I ever saw a leopard. It was a miracle I even saw one at all.
The Kenyan sun was rising higher in the sky by this point, so we called it quits and made to return to camp. One of the occupants of the jeep said they couldn't wait that long, however, and asked that we stop somewhere for a toilet break.
Now, as anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the place isn't exactly brimming with lavatories - it's a great big open plain full of wild animals and a total of zero 7/11s. Our guide didn't want to stop, but agreed to. He found a nearby bush, took a look around and declared it clear of animals, and said we could get out.
Since one person was going, pretty much everybody else followed suit. We milled around outside the vehicle, talking, waiting our turn to go behind the somewhat sparse cover provided by the lone bush, generally at ease under the assumption that our guide wouldn't stop in a place that was unsafe. That nothing was around. That someone was on lookout.
Thankfully, everything was fine and nobody was attacked by anything... but it wasn't until a few minutes later that I realised how close we came. Piling back into the jeep after our pee break, we took off again. A few metres across the field, behind the next bush in fact, we literally nearly ran into a huge male lion (see the first picture in this post, above) that had been walking in our general direction. It was the first male I had seen on the trip at that point, and I was struck by how majestic he was and at the sheer muscle rippling under his back as he moved.
I have no idea if he had smelled us and was coming our way intentionally, or if it was just coincidence, but had we lingered at that bush for even five more minutes, he would definitely have been upon us... which is a scary thought. It was a thought that haunted me all the way back to camp where we ate, packed our things, and left for the shores of Lake Nakuru where we were due to spend the night, exhausted, and more wary than we had been when we had woken up.