OnSafari: Close Leopard

OnSafari: Close Leopard

For a million years the huge rock hill with steep sides stood undisturbed in the middle of the Great Northern Frontier, alone on 200,000 acres yet in the shadow of the sacred Samburu mountain, Ololokwe. Then, a camp was built on its top.

Just as the camp’s first customers arrived Ugali was born in one of the narrow caves pierced from the cliff side by the brief, slashing rains of April, several hundred feet below Tent 4.

The cliff side was perfect for her mother and herself. It was packed with hyrax for a light snack and baboon for something more substantial. There were also klipspringers, although their dexterity defied capture.

Usually when a leopard reached sexual maturity in about 12-15 months, the mother would chase her daughter out of the territory, and that would have been a major move for Ugali. Here in the harsh Northern Frontier game was scarce. The brilliant landscapes were baked to a crisp in the dry season, nothing moving but the shimmering of the broken quartz and weathered shale of the desert floor.

Only around a lone high hill or closer in to the reserve where the great Ewaso Nyrio River carved a meandering line of jungle through the desert was there enough game for a leopard. Ugali’s birth place was 7k from the river where the thick palm forests and heavy acacia drew all sorts of game. But the river’s territory had long been claimed by other, bigger leopards.

But as the lodge entered its second year, Ugali was still there. Her mother had disappeared. Perhaps Ugali had challenged her. Perhaps she had died or moved away from the discomfort of people so close to the life she had lead so removed from humans for so long.

Ugali, on the other hand, was born into the night lights and funny laughter of clients sharing their dramatic days around the camp fire. She had no problem living under the camp. In fact it provided some added security. The one small lion pride in the area wouldn’t approach the camp: Lions had difficult times scaling cliffs and wouldn’t dare follow the winding road the lodge had carved out of solid granite.

So Ugali made herself at home.

Betsy was on the third day of her first safari. She was already ecstatic with the first game drive in the reserve that morning. They’d seen all the rare stuff: reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, blue-legged Somali ostrich and nearly three dozen of the 2800 Grevy’s zebra left in existence.

She treated herself to a massage while most of the lodge napped in the 100-degree afternoon heat. As she walked back to her Tent 4, it was nearly 4 pm. The desert wind was only starting up, again, and the only sounds she could hear were the hard-working fans of the bedroom.

Everything in her villa-tent was open. It was just so hot. She finally got to the shade of the tent eaves only a few feet from the door when… Ugali was coming out of one of the front windows.

The two stopped for a minute to stare at each other in wonder, only 9-10′ apart.

Betsy said her coat was so magnificent, lush and vibrant compared to the coat of the leopard they had seen on the game drive that morning along the river.

Remembering the caution her guide had given her, Betsy didn’t run or shout. In fact, she said nothing, wondering if her iPad could take pictures.

When she shut her iPad, the click made Ugali bare her teeth before slithering away.

Saturday, March 9, 2019
Samburu Saruni Lodge
Kalama Reserve
Great Northern Frontier