OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
IN THE SLANTING LIGHT OF DAWN I SPOT IT, SUBTLE AS A WATERMARK, pressed into the bare patch of dirt. Were it midday, when the African sun glares down hot and bright, I might have missed it entirely, but in early morning, even the faintest dips and depressions cast shadows, and as I emerge from our tent that lone footprint catches my eye. I crouch down beside it and feel a sudden chill when I realize that only a thin layer of canvas shielded us while we slept.
Richard emerges through the tent flap and gives a happy grunt as he stands and stretches, inhaling the scents of dew-laden grass and wood smoke and breakfast cooking on the campfire. The smells of Africa. This adventure is Richard’s dream; it has always been Richard’s, not mine. I’m the good-sport girlfriend whose default mode is
Even if it means I could die, which is what I’m thinking as I stare down at that footprint, pressed into the dirt barely three feet from where Richard and I were sleeping last night.
“Smell the air, Millie!” Richard crows. “Nowhere else does it smell like this!”
“There was a lion here,” I say.
“I wish I could bottle it and bring it home. What a souvenir that would be. The smell of the bush!”
He isn’t listening to me. He’s too high on Africa, too wrapped up in his great-white-adventurer fantasy where everything is
I repeat, louder: “There was a lion here, Richard. It was right next to our tent. It could have clawed its way in.” I want to alarm him, want him to say,
Instead he blithely calls out to the nearest members of our group: “Hey, come take a look! We had a lion here last night!”
First to join us are the two girls from Cape Town, whose tent is pitched beside ours. Sylvia and Vivian have Dutch last names that I can neither spell nor pronounce. They’re both in their twenties, tan and long-legged and blond, and at first I had trouble telling them apart, until Sylvia finally snapped at me in exasperation: “It’s not like we’re twins, Millie! Can’t you see that Vivian has blue eyes and I have green?” As the girls kneel on either side of me to examine the paw print, I notice that they smell different, too. Vivian-with-the-blue-eyes smells like sweet grass, the fresh, unsoured scent of youth. Sylvia smells like the citronella lotion she’s always slathering on to repel the mosquitoes, because
Naturally Elliot is quick to join us, too. He’s never far from the blondes, whom he met only a few weeks ago in Cape Town. He’s since attached himself to them like a loyal puppy, hoping for a scrap of attention.
“Is that a fresh print?” Elliot asks, sounding worried. At least someone else shares my sense of alarm.
“I didn’t see it here yesterday,” says Richard. “The lion must have come through last night. Imagine stepping out to answer the call of nature and running into
I don’t join in their laughter. “Someone could have been killed out here,” I point out.
“But this is what happens on a real safari, hey?” says Sylvia brightly. “You’re out in the bush with lions.”
“Doesn’t look like a very big lion,” says Vivian, leaning in to study the print. “Maybe a female, do you think?”
“Male or female, they can both kill you,” says Elliot.
Sylvia gives him a playful slap. “Ooh. Are you scared?”
“No. No, I just assumed that Johnny was exaggerating when he gave us that talk the first day.
“If you want to play it perfectly safe, Elliot, maybe you should have gone to the zoo instead,” Richard says, and the blondes laugh at his cutting remark. All hail Richard, the alpha male. Just like the heroes he writes about in his novels, he’s the man who takes charge and saves the day. Or thinks he is. Out here in the wild, he’s really just another clueless Londoner, yet he manages to sound like an expert at staying alive. It’s yet another thing that irritates me this morning, on top of the fact I’m hungry, I didn’t sleep well, and now the mosquitoes have found me. Mosquitoes always find me. Whenever I step outside, it’s as if they can hear their dinner bell ring, and already I’m slapping at my neck and face.
Richard calls out to the African tracker, “Clarence, come here! Look what came through camp last night.”
Clarence has been sipping coffee by the campfire with Mr. and Mrs. Matsunaga. Now he ambles toward us, carrying his tin coffee cup, and crouches down to look at the footprint.
“It’s fresh,” says Richard, the new bush expert. “The lion must have come through just last night.”
“Not a lion,” says Clarence. He squints up at us, his ebony face agleam in the morning sun. “Leopard.”
“How can you be so sure? It’s just one paw print.”
Clarence sketches the air above the print. “You see, this is the front paw. The shape is round, like a leopard’s.” He rises and scans the area. “And it is only one animal, so this one hunts alone. Yes, this is a leopard.”
Mr. Matsunaga snaps photos of the print with his giant Nikon, which has a telephoto lens that looks like something you’d launch into space. He and his wife wear identical safari jackets and khaki pants and cotton scarves with wide-brimmed hats. Down to the last detail, they are sartorially matched. In holiday spots around the world you find couples just like them, dressed in the same outlandish prints. It makes you wonder: Do they wake up one morning and think,
As the sun lifts higher, washing out the shadows that so clearly defined the paw print, the others snap photos, racing against the brightening glare. Even Elliot pulls out his pocket camera, but I think it’s simply because everyone else is doing it, and he doesn’t like to be the odd man out.
I’m the only one who doesn’t bother to fetch my camera. Richard is taking enough photos for both of us, and he’s using his Canon,
“Now you see why I tell you to stay in your tents at night,” Johnny Posthumus says.
Our bush guide has approached so quietly that I didn’t realize he’d returned from the river. I turn to see Johnny standing right behind me. Such a grim-sounding name, Posthumus, but he told us it’s a common enough surname among Afrikaans settlers, from which he’s descended. In his features I see the bloodline of his sturdy Dutch ancestors. He has sun-streaked blond hair, blue eyes, and tree-trunk legs that are deeply tanned in khaki shorts. Mosquitoes don’t seem to bother him, nor does the heat, and he wears no hat, slathers on no repellent. Growing up in Africa has toughened his hide, immunized him against its discomforts.
“She came through here just before dawn,” Johnny says, and points to a thicket on the periphery of our camp. “Stepped out of those bushes, strolled toward the fire, and looked me over. Gorgeous girl, big and healthy.”
I’m astonished by how calm he is. “You actually saw her?”
“I was out here building the fire for breakfast when she showed up.”
“What did you do?”
“I did what I’ve told all of you to do in that situation. I stood tall. Gave her a good view of my face. Prey animals such as zebras and antelope have eyes at the sides of their heads, but a predator’s eyes face forward. Always show the cat your face. Let her see where your eyes are, and she’ll know you’re a predator, too. She’ll think twice before attacking.” Johnny looks around at the seven clients who are paying him to keep them alive in this remote place. “Remember that, hey? We’ll see more big cats as we go deeper into the bush. If you encounter one, stand tall and make yourself look as large as you can. Face them straight-on. And whatever you do, don’t run. You’ll have a better chance of surviving.”
“You were out here, face-to-face with a leopard,” says Elliot. “Why didn’t you use
Johnny shakes his head. “I won’t shoot a leopard. I won’t kill any big cat.”
“But isn’t that what the gun’s for? To protect yourself?”
“There aren’t ...