As the train pulled into Victoria my wife Claire, back home on the farm in Kenya, revealed that a buffalo was charging her. ‘Oh dear!’ she exclaimed as the phone line went dead. She called back minutes later, out of breath, to explain she had been walking our three dogs when the beast came thundering across the savannah and chased her half a mile. It later turned out that lions had injured the buffalo, which put it in a foul mood, gave it a bad limp and — thankfully — slowed it down. That was just the first drama for Claire, when she put on her gumboots and ran the ranch for me while I was away. Normally she works in the movie business, but for two months she oversaw all the daily dramas of farm life: livestock births, mongooses biting off chickens’ heads, staff visits to hospital and the planting of 350 avocado trees.
Had it caught up with her, that Cape buffalo would have flattened my spouse of 21 years. Disappointed with her speed of flight, Claire took up jogging with the dogs — a mongrel bitch called Potatoes, a collie and a labrador — in the valley, far from the horned perils of the plains. As she approached a lone thorn tree, a lioness sat up abruptly in front of her. After two decades of bush living she knew not to run, as the lioness would decide she was prey and simply eat her. So Claire nonchalantly turned around and burst into what she says was a bad rendition of Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’. ‘I am as poor a singer as I am a runner.’ She told me that on the phone — I dared say nothing. ‘The appalling squawking put the lion off and we strolled home.’
With lions lurking in the valley, and buffalo bellowing on the plains, Claire now decided to confine her walks and runs to the paddocks around our farmstead, which is surrounded by drystone walls and high electric fences zinging with thousands of volts. On a Sunday evening she was walking below the house, headed for the avocado fields, when she saw the bitch Potatoes leap three feet, then crouch down in front of what looked like a cowpat. Claire was about to walk close by this when she looked again, saw that the cowpat was as intricately patterned as an Afghan carpet and then noticed the two dark, beady eyes fixed upon her — a coiled puff adder ready to strike. Claire and the dogs retreated, and an avocado planter strode up and obligingly bludgeoned the snake to death with a large rock. When they stretched it out, the adder was more than three feet-long and as fat as my arm. The planter tossed it over the fence where it was noisily eaten by a hyena in the dead of night.
Buffalo on the plains, lions in the valley, puff adders in the paddocks — Claire now decided to stroll, very cautiously, over to the main yards where the cattle were being kept overnight. The yards are only a few minutes from the house. Historic rains this year have caused a riot of growth in the bush and each day, as Claire came and went through the farmstead’s main gate, she felt some hidden creature was intently watching her. One morning, soon after dawn, she exited the gate, vainly told the dogs to heel, and ‘something large and blackish brown’ — a leopard — bounded out of the bush and tore off, with mongrel bitch, collie and labrador in hot but pointless pursuit.
After that Claire decided to stay at home. Two eagle owls had taken to roosting under the eaves of the veranda. She saw them fly off at dusk. At night she listened to their eerie, rasping cry and the beat of their wings as they went about hunting for young monkeys and bush babies among the fever trees. ‘You can hear them cutting through the air, a sound that exudes both raw power but is almost silent,’ she wrote to me, feeling joy in solitude that was very far from loneliness.
The day before I arrived back on the farm, the cattle stockman Leshoomo appeared, saying Claire should come as there was something she might like to see. They walked purposefully through the valley’s thorn forest until, about 50 yards away on the edge of a thicket, they saw the ears of a lion. At this point several large cats got up and moved away, having got wind of the humans. Leshoomo and Claire walked up to the thicket and there was the buffalo, half eaten but clearly the same animal that had charged a few weeks before. She had put up an epic fight, smashing up the bush as four male lions had moved in on her, pulling her to the ground.