My parents got married on the 14th of February. If you knew you would know this is probably one of the world’s greatest jokes due to their utter indifference to all important pop culture days. I should add now that this indifference has now become a family trait that’s been passed down to the next generation. As a rule in my short life, Valentine’s Day is a date that I either forget (thus getting me in trouble with significant others in the past) or it’s a date that disappoints me due to social pressure and expectations (I’m doomed even if I remember it!). I have learned to walk into Valentine’s Day as I do with most conventional dates: with no expectations. On a particular morning game drive, having no expectations ended up unfolding a sequence of events that has made me feel the most love, both from humans and wildlife.
On this morning safari – in the endless struggle to finds leopards – I decided to “respond” to a sighting. This basically means that somebody else had found an animal I was interested in viewing and in a full marine-like heavy-coordinating mission, I would be allowed, in a specific slot, to go view set creature. It all sounds quite simple in theory, but when leopards are involved, there is always chaos.
The situation went on something like this:
-“Stations I’ve got an ingwe (leopard in shangaan) on Kingstown cutline, static on the Eastern side of the road”.
-“Copy that, can I come and join you there?” – asked the quickest ranger to pick up their radio, ensuring not having to wait in line.
“Make your way” – instructs the guide with set animal of interest.
Thus the mostly passive-aggressive fight amongst guides started to guaranteed themselves and their guests a view of this leopard. To ensure the animal’s wellbeing only 2 (or 3) vehicles can view a specific animal at a time, once 2 are there you have to start waiting in line for your turn hence creating the infamous “standbys”. In this reserve the protocol only allows 3 standbys at a time calling it a “full rotation” and you’re only allowed to get a new standby once people start “rotating” through a sighting and freeing up standby spots. It generally turns into utter chaos and frustration until you feel the instant relief of showing this animal to your guests. Being granted a standby however doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a chance to see this animal because well, they move and there are plenty of places where vehicles cannot follow (can you feel the pressure on the guides yet?).
On this morning I responded to a leopard sighting and only managed to get the very last spot on the last rotation. I eventually found out through the radio that the leopard was actually, a leopardess. This girl is known as Scotia – the princess of the South and one of my most beloved spotted friends. She is relaxed with vehicles, doesn’t give you too much trouble, she’s gorgeous and in general I enjoy being in her presence.
In previous months there had been a lot of speculation that Scotia was a youngster no more and that she was indeed awaiting the arrival of her first litter of cubs. Being such a leopard star for all her guide fans, everyone was eagerly and competitively waiting the confirmation of her being a mother. It’s a matter of outmost pride between guides to find a den site, or being the first human to to lay eyes upon much awaited, new life. It’s a feeling like no other.
In a practical sense though, if it’s already a challenge finding a leopard, imagine how hard it is to find a cub, a tiny cub… constantly hidden by its mom.
After a 45min standby, I got called into the sighting.
Hallelujah, that had taken long enough.
As I arrived the ranger that initially found her (who wasn’t being really a team player and had refused to leave until he had no other choice), left her heading into very thick bush. Jono pointed to the place where he last had seen her. Impossible to follow her in there. Avoiding radio contact he looked at me and said something that got my heart into full racing speed:
“She went in there, she was making contact calls”.
Contact calls? CONTACT CALLS! My heart started racing. She was there, the cub(s?) could be there. We didn’t want to move. It’s was sensitive situation and we were only half guessing-hoping as to what was going on. We stuck to our positions. I was at the bottom on the road and Jono was on top. We waited.
And we waited.
….And we waited some more.
Wishful thinking makes you imagine the best thing sometimes. This is however my luck with leopards. I just wished then she would come back so my guests could see her and I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing leopards for a few days, I was starting to give up when I got another call from on the radio from Jono.
“Ale, go channel 3” (private channel)
“Ale she’s here, and she´s got the manpinpan” – said Jono in a shaking voice
“No ways!” – silent screams of unbearable excitement in my head.
“Just give me a few more minutes and I’ll leave her to you”.
I could see him staring with his binoculars in the distance. We decided to wait and let her handle the situation. If she came towards us we would stay but if she went the other way, we had decided we wouldn’t follow her.
After what felt like an eternity I heard the sweetest words: “ I’m leaving, she’s yours”.
My hearts went at 834589435 beats per second. Having half glances of the little one suckling and then enduring it mother’s bath she gave us sign of trust like no other. Eventually she decided to come towards us, cub in town and then proceeded to lay there and play with her little bundle.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time in trying to control my excitement and seem professional. This was the first tiny leopard cub I had ever seen and under no circumstances was I going to have a negative impact on its tiny life. Scotia, being the more mature of us girls, handled the situation in her own terms. Her, a leopard and wild animal had decided to allow me the honour of seeing her most precious possession: her first cub. In my imaginary empathy I felt this was her very proud way of officially introducing her cub to the world. I like to believe it was a girl thing.
It was a perfect moment where time seem to stop, and while the magic still lingered, I decided to leave and grant someone else the opportunity to see them. The biggest smile was already imprinted in my face for the rest of the week and, after all, happiness is meant to be shared.
Back at the ranger’s office one of the girls had started teasing Jono (who I was involved with at the time), assuming he would have been his usual self in this regard.
“So, Jono where’s Ale? What did you do to her? “ – she asked.
“I gave her the best Valentine’s gift ever” – he proudly replied.
“Oh yeah? What’s that?” – she asked in a mocking tone of voice.
“A leopard cub sighting”.
She had no reply to that, because it was indeed a unique, once in a lifetime gift.
When I got back to the office that morning three of my friends were immediately on me.
“Come on, don’t come in here pretending nothing’s happened. We want to see the pictures NOW!”.
I laughed, pulled out my camera to the curious eyes feeling the excitement take over all the corners the office.
“Too much, it’s too much”. No heart can resist this cuteness, not even the tough manly ranger hearts.
Sometimes and for no apparent reason, the best gifts are given to you by someone who had unexpected help from the Universe. I… well I have the photos to prove it. While my relationship with Jono wasn’t meant to be and despite its colourful ending, every Valentine’s Day I always remember how my heart was so full of love for little Ndzilo and for the kindness shown to me that allowed me to treasure this moment forever.
For a Valentine’s Day it was simply, perfect.