It was overcast and a strong south wind howled through the bush over the krantzes, and along the river. We’d been walking since early morning and not seen a single animal. Suddenly old Magqubu stopped the trail party and pointed at a big tortoise moving cumbersomely through the grass under an acacia tree.
“Now we will see game,” Magqubu pronounced in the matter of fact, you-can’t-argue-with-me tone of voice he frequently uses to me if he thinks I’m getting a little irritated. “What makes you so sure? We’ve been walking for nearly six hours and seen nothing!” I exclaimed. Magqubu slung the rifle over his shoulder and said “Asihamba — let us go.” We followed a rhino path and had not gone 500 metres when he pointed with crooked finger in Zulu fashion. “Nango,” he said.
A little way ahead a herd of Nyala does were feeding on berries of the Mpafa tree shaken loose by a troop of baboon that had just scampered off. In the dull light the shining coats of the antelope made a vivid splash of colour. We watched for a while then carefully made our way past without disturbing them. A little further on a group of wildebeest cantered across and the thundering hooves brought a sow warthog running out of an Antbear hole, followed by her tiny offspring. In the next hour we saw impala, grey duiker, kudu and waterbuck. Magqubu turned periodically and smiled at me. He didn’t have to say “I told you so”.
When we stopped for a short rest I said it was time he showed us a rhino. He nodded his head, stood up and began walking at a brisk pace. We followed close on his heels, the south wind blowing in our faces and drowning the sound of our boots swishing through the grass. As we crossed a gully Magqubu raised his hand and quickly dropped to his knees. We followed suit, peering through the bush trying to see what the old man was looking at.
“Ingwe,” he whispered, hardly turning his head.
Then I saw it – a huge male leopard walking across our path in all its spotted glory, tail held high and those blazing eyes staring ahead. It moved so lithely it left one stunned by its beauty. Here was the prince of the bushveld.
When it had vanished it was like waking and remembering a dream of great significance. Magqubu’s eyes were shining with excitement. “Did you see how lightly it walked?” he exclaimed. “It is truly a great animal.”
That night as I did my hour’s watch at the fire, Magqubu woke once and sang out.
“Nkoos, was I not right about seeing game after the tortoise? And was that not a wonderful leopard?”
I agreed and he sank back onto his one blanket, rolled over and went to sleep. I did not tell him or the trailers of a recent report I had read about the destruction of leopards in Ethiopia. Every month 3000 skins are sold to traders. The leopards are trapped and pushed into successively smaller cages until they cannot move. Then they are killed by having a red hot iron pushed up the anus into the stomach. In this way the skin is not damaged.