The birds weren’t even chirping. The only sound was that of the electricity pulsing through the insect trap at the end of the room. That and my alarm. Screeching mechanical notes, beckoning me to wake and get ready for an early adventure. It was June, winter in Zimbabwe and the cold was bitter. I was wearing nearly all of my clothes as the sheets and mosquito nets provided no real coverage overnight. A small price to pay for staying in the heart of a National Park.
The alarm still ringing, I clambered out of bed to silence it before it disturbed the others. Still not ready to strip off my layers, I packed my essentials into a bag and picked out the warmest fleeces I could find ready to change into. Showering was not an option at this time as the tanks had yet to warm, the only thing left to do was to position my head torch firmly, secure my hiking boots and meet Roy, our guide at the front of the house.
It felt like an unnecessary time to be awake but Roy was already rushing us. We headed out into the bush. Never have I ever ventured into an area of pitch black with so much fear. The fear of having no clue what was around us, where we were headed or what we were stepping on. The head torch deliberately illuminated just a couple of steps ahead, drawing attention was not ideal, not when nightfall was prime time for hunting.
This was Matobo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, home of the white rhino and famous for its hills formed from granite forced high above the surface. And it was these granite kopjes that we were being asked to scale… although we didn’t know it at the time.
Halfway up and we ground to a halt. As we adjusted to the darkness our senses had become heightened, our animal instincts had fine tuned to pick up the rumbling sounds of baboons in the distance. Unsure of what to do we waited in silence for Roy to reassure us in some way. Sensing the tension he whispered a calm “don’t worry” and carried on. We dutifully followed. When you’re so far away from home, clambering through unchartered territories, what else can you do than to throw all your trust into the man who has spent his life mapping out every crevice of this land.
We finally reached the point where there was nothing more to hold onto, our feet fell flat and a quick wave around confirmed there was nothing in front of us.
“We’re here” he whispered.
Where?! Was what I wanted to scream back, but I was still catching my breath after the ascent, my hands cupped around my lips to catch any warmth my lungs had left to expel. The temperature was definitely chillier up here, the light no better. He led us a couple of steps forward, no more, as going too far was not advised. That was enough warning for my friends and I and we obligingly sunk to the floor ready for our next instruction.
Within seconds we jumped back up, startled by the echoing roars that had leapt into action. It was impossible to know where it was coming from, but it was the most glorious sound I had ever heard. Leopards. There aren’t many to be found in the world anymore, but here in this valley, the winds below carried the sounds up as if they were an army.
Were they talking? Tracking each other down? Were they warnings?
Images of wildlife documentaries I had watched on repeat over the years played in my mind. It was those documentaries that had led me here to Zimbabwe in the first place. My love for animals had spurred me to embark on my first solo adventure, to search for the big five I had dreamt of my entire life.
I couldn’t see them. I knew I would not see them this morning, the chances of witnessing a leopard sighting from way up here was quite minimal, even though this park contains the densest population of Panthera Pardus compared to anywhere else. But none of that mattered. I closed my eyes and blocked everything out, leaving just the harmonies of the big cat’s cry. I imagined a mother and cubs. Two males sizing each other up, claiming territories. Or the celebratory jeers after a successful kill.
These weren’t just any sounds. They were the voices of a free spirit. I could feel a tear travelling down my cheek, my heart in my throat, as the immense relief that they lived here safely washed over me. I couldn’t see the others, but I knew they felt it too. Even in the darkness the euphoria of this experience was clear.
With no real idea how much time had passed, silence descended and a glimpse of light started to seep through on the horizon. Dawn was breaking. We sat back down, waiting for the sun to rise and light up our path back home. Streaks of pink, yellow, deep orange… the colours of natural light bounced off what turned out to be the most spectacular view. In front of us lay the wild savannah home of our night leopards and other game, so vast it was impossible to see where it ended. It’s funny but we must have been up there for more than an hour, yet we had hardly uttered a word to one another. It was the longest pump of adrenaline I had ever felt, not ready to say goodbye I perched tentatively on the edge of the rock, physically shaking ever so slightly from my fear of heights, my eyes frantically darting across the plains searching for signs of movement.
Any creature on the move was protected by the canopies of paperbark and wild pear trees. Matobo National Park is home to over three hundred animal species with game such as sable antelopes, impala, hippos, giraffes and many more. But the animals of Matobo weren’t ready for an audience from above. A sighting wasn’t to be for us that morning, though it didn’t stop this from being one of the most enchanting wildlife experiences I had ever endured.
I often battle with others about my feelings towards animals in captivity. During discussions my friends point out that most people’s love of animals stem from childhood memories of visiting wildlife in zoos or local parks. They ask whether we would still have that same passion, same affinity if we hadn’t ever physically seen them.
As I sit here typing, thousands of miles away from my Matobo adventure, I know I can close my eyes just for a few seconds and feel my heart pound in memory of that moment. Unlike the mythical creatures we fall in love with from novels and movies, these animals share our planet. If the only wild encounter in my lifetime was to hear them, that was enough for me to acknowledge their existence as our fellows on this earth. Although my heart ached at not being able to gaze into the glass eyes of one of the most beautiful predators, I knew I would get the opportunity one day.
Maybe some things are best left to the imagination.
Or maybe, it’s just one more reason to plan my return.
Where would you want to go for your ultimate wildlife experience?
Thank you to Audley travel for giving me the opportunity to share one of my favourite memories as part of the #AudleyBloggerChallenge but there’s an even bigger opportunity for you…
WIN an African safari with Audley Travel by sharing your best wildlife photograph or video on your social media channels. To enter write #AudleySafari and @AudleyTravel on your Instagram or Twitter post or share directly on the Audley Travel Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/audleytravel/. To find out more or enter via the website, visit www.audleytravel.com/social. Entries must be posted between 20th August – 23rd September.
I may not have lucked out with the animal sightings on this trip, but I thought I’d share a few snaps from other adventures, that might inspire you to get your camera out…
Good luck!!! And I can’t wait to see all the dreamy photos!!