There it is again. Something nicks the edge of my gaze and makes me turn. In the dimly lit room, the edge of the floor-to-ceiling drapes twitch once more, I’m sure of it. My eyes slowly move across the drapes’ 10ft (3m) width and stop at the source of the movement. The eyes of a large caracal (a powerfully built, lynx-sized African cat) look directly back at me.
It’s the last night of an exhausting big-cat photography assignment in Namibia. Heth, my bestie and camera assistant for many years, and I are sitting around a campfire with 20 staff and guests at a wildlife sanctuary. Following a pre-dawn start, a couple of beers, and a face full of spare ribs, we’re ready to hit the hay. With an approaching thunderstorm rumbling in the distance, we bid all a good evening and turn to leave just as a bolt of lightning strikes the nearby generator with a dramatic flash, taking the lights with it.
An African thunderstorm is a joyous affair – usually. Rain quickly extinguishes the campfire, and another bolt of lightning takes out the back-up generator. We stand around in blackness for a while, discussing how the lions and leopards will be secured behind their enormous electric fence enclosures … without electricity.
“We don’t,” a staff member volunteers. “It’s the baboons. They’re the ones that lead the charge. They get out first, and once they’re out, the lions follow.” A couple of the rangers murmur their agreement. Frikkie, the gung-ho manager, adds: “Everyone piles into the 4x4s, and we patrol the fences.” A voice somewhere in the dark enquires how many vehicles they’ll need to cover 100mi2 (260km2) and what exactly they will do if they come across an escaped carnivore.
The thunderstorm turns into a torrential downpour. Minds filled with visions of lions, leopards, and cheetahs roaming about the place, Heth and I decide to make a run for our 4x4, parked some distance away. Nearing the wobbly wooden bridge, I hear several crocodiles fling themselves with unnerving speed and dexterity into the water beneath it. I imagine them surging under the bridge, waiting for something edible to fall in.
We find the car and bounce down the corrugated track to our bungalow. A herd of menacing-looking buffalo are blocking the entrance. After a lengthy debate, Heth decides that I should swiftly exit from the passenger door and unlock the front door while she distracts the buffalo by flashing the headlights and tooting the horn. It works.
Sodden, we stand in our respective foyer puddles, wondering what to do next. The flashlight is in the glove box and the cavernous room has just a single tea-light candle. I leave Heth to fret while I take a shower in the dark.
Fresh faced, clothed in silk kitty-motif pajamas, I sit on my bed looking through the picture window at the headlights of several 4x4s bouncing off in the distance, and wonder if any of the lions have escaped yet. A nearby roar assures me that at least one has.
In the faint candlelight, I contemplate the dinky bottle of red left by management and yearn after the bottle of Amarula apricot liqueur in the back of the 4x4. Have the buffalo dispersed yet? I dismiss the urge to check, and instead pour two glasses of wine.
Glass in hand, I reflect on the day – and then the room wobbles. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s as if the wall of drapes did a stadium wave. Looking more closely at the window, I see that Heth, in her infinite wisdom, has opened one of the sash windows. And directly beside the window is an open jar of Marmite.
Other than tasting good, Marmite has another benefit that few know – as a wildlife photographer, I’ve learned cats love the stuff.
Looking at the pulled-back drapes and the jar of Marmite incenses me. Here we are, in the middle of an African thunderstorm, in a nature reserve, surrounded by wild beasts that have probably already escaped the electric fences that contained them – and she opens a window and leaves out a jar of Marmite, just in case one of the cats needs an invitation.
I stalk across the room, slam the window shut, then sit back down on the bed, glumly formulating a rebuke I will deliver once Heth emerges from the shower.
The room wobbles again. This time I follow the movement to the end of the windowsill, where it reveals the head and shoulders of a large caracal. We stare, wide-eyed, at each other for what feels like 10 minutes. The cat peels back its top lip and hisses. I marvel at its long canine teeth, the elongated, drooping black tufts at the tips of its ears, and its dense, reddish-tan fur. I blink, hoping the tea light is playing tricks on me, but there it still is. Now the caracal delivers a full-throated wail.
“Heth. There’s an animal here,” I bleat weakly.
“What?” she shouts back from the bathroom. “Don’t let it in!”
Too late for that!
“Heather! There’s an animal! It’s inside the room!”
The cat and I continue to stare at one another – its large yellow eyes look equally terrified as mine. It’s true, you know, what they say about death. Your life does flash through your mind. This is it then, mauled to death in bed, holding a glass of red. I have the overwhelming need for a cigarette, a habit I’d quit decades earlier.
As I’m finalizing my funeral arrangements, Heth barges into the room. She takes a few butt-naked steps, flapping her hand towel in the direction of the caracal.
“Shoo! Shoo! Go on, shoo off!”
“For crying out loud, he can’t shoo anywhere,” I cried. “I closed the window you opened!”
We proceed to have an argument about her opening the window, about me closing it, her inane need for constant fresh air, her obsession with Marmite. Out of fresh insults, we glare at one another.
In a sudden burst of heroism, I launch myself towards the window, sending the caracal under the bed. In one fluid movement I unlatch the sash and yank up the heavy window frame, then take two bounding leaps to the top of my bed, where I join a somewhat hysterical Heth.
“It’s under the bed!” I screech. “Swat it with your towel!”
With all the commotion and shouting, and now a clear escape route, the caracal blasts through the open window at a velocity seldom seen outside of a Roadrunner cartoon.
After lauding one another’s courage, we vow to take turns standing sentry through the night. I peacefully sleep through mine, and awake to find us both still alive at daybreak and Heth cheerfully making coffee in preparation for the day ahead.
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