“Beneath the bushes,” Peter hissed at us in an urgent whisper from the front seat, pointing to a thick growth of Camphor shrubs on the far edge of a grassy field.
Suddenly, everyone frantically clamoured to the left side of the van, standing on the tips of their toes to get a better look. Instead, I stood up on my seat, lifted myself out through the open hatch top and perched on the edge of the roof.
There was a subtle charge to the air as everyone stood with cameras and binoculars at the ready, waiting for the elusive jungle cat to emerge. With our breaths held collectively, no one dared to make a sound in fear of frightening the animal or losing concentration on the spot where it was hidden. The feeling of anticipation was so thick and palpable that I could feel the hairs begin to rise on the back of my neck. While everyone was focused on the distant bushes, a brief flicker of movement caught my eye from the tall grass directly below me.
That’s when I noticed a glossy pair of golden yellow eyes staring directly back at me.
We were only on the fourth day of our Kenya safari experience, yet we had already checked off nearly every species from the animal sighting bucket list. The first days were spent traversing the open plains of the Masai Mara with rewarding encounters of elephants, giraffes, buffalo, gazelles, hyenas, zebras and crocodiles. We saw more animals than we could count, had lunch on the open savannah and slept in luxury tents to the nighttime symphony of frolicsome hippos.
It was the big cats that usually seemed to cause the greatest ripple of excitement among the group. We spent hours following several prides of lions around the arid grasslands, watching them rest, play, hunt and eat. The old males were large and scruffy while the young cubs were energetic and full of life. It wasn’t until our last morning on the Mara that we spotted a cheetah in a standoff with her breakfast, putting every nature documentary I had ever watched into perspective.
But, the animal I had come for was the leopard.
The leopard was always my favourite of the African animals, with their intricate spots and mysterious demeanor; I had been dreaming of seeing one in the wild for most of my life. I knew that if nowhere else, Lake Nakuru National Park would be the place where I would have the best chance of seeing one.
The first day in Nakuru welcomed sightings of white and black rhinoceros, waterbucks, flamingoes, antelope and even more zebras and giraffes. We explored the shores of the Lake itself, drove through the winding forest trails watching baboons hop from branch to branch above our heads and watched all of the animals graze within close proximity.
But, no leopards.
I returned to the lodge with secret disappointment, but convinced myself that I would just have to return to Kenya one day. Not that I would need any convincing.
Early the next morning our guide announced that we would be taking one final game drive of Lake Nakuru before heading on to Amboseli. As the morning mists rose off the opalescent lake and we set out into the park I knew that I was going to see my leopard.
There were ten magical seconds in which our eyes locked together and I lost sight of everything else around us. No one else had noticed the camouflaged leopard that sat no more than five meters from our van and they were all too distracted by the possibility of a sighting across the field.
It was just me and her.
When I finally managed to pull myself back to the real world I called out to the others to turn around. That’s when she darted for cover and disappeared back into the tall grass.