Aidan Hartley

Wild life: Leopard on a hot tin roof

Wild life: Leopard on a hot tin roof
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A leopard has been on the rampage night after night. We know her because she often lurks in the woods behind the farmstead, between the beehives and the old long-drop hut. Very occasionally, at dusk, she’s spotted lying on the hot tin roof of the big water tank on the hill above the woods — but for weeks around midnight she’s been prowling up to the goats’ boma. She leaps over high thorns and razor wire and dry-stone walls, struts along the top of the enclosure and then pounces. Livestock erupt in panic, the night watchmen shake themselves from their deep slumber and roar and rush about. The she leopard, out to feed a litter of cubs, I think, is disturbed, abandons the throat of her already killed prey in disgust and slinks off to hunt something wilder.

I love the leopard as much as the cheetah on the plains and feel a deep sense, almost of regret, that I shall never meet my end because of a buffalo goring, an elephant charge or lion mauling. Oh, lucky few to have that finale, since for most of us it’s a death with tubes and impatient relatives — or we meet our fate at the hands of our fellows.

On the farm I frequently sense I am being watched. I have felt this in Africa as well as in the countryside of England. It’s a primeval feeling that our ancestors must have become attuned to because they knew they were prey. I feel it when my hackles go up, my heart rate increases and I can sense the eyes of a creature observing me. A lion? I am never scared. In the Devon of my youth it might have been an owl. But if it were a human...

Since being ambushed by bandits who shot at me in March I’ve been feeling very much like Robinson Crusoe. For years he lives in the castaway paradise of an empty island and creates his own utopia. Then one day he finds the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore. ‘I stood thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition.’ Crusoe returns home ‘terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man’. The reality is that I have seen that foot, the track of a giant who has returned again and again to raid my cattle. My Sasquatch nemesis whom I pursue across dusty plains and into my nightmares. He is real and I even know his name — he’s coming again and I shall be waiting.

Happily, sometimes we can live in the wild and be happy, which I almost always am -— as is my elder brother Richard. Rather like me, he enjoys his own company and chose to spend some years of his life in Malawi’s Shire Valley. Here in the bush after a hard day’s conservation work he was quite happy to see his staff excuse themselves and declare that they would be sleeping in the nearby town. He set up his own camp bed in a glade and slung a mosquito net from a branch, made a fire, opened a beer and stared up at the stars.

After a couple more beers Richard dozed off — but some hours later he woke with a start. The crickets and other night sounds had gone utterly silent. He listened but could hear only the blood flowing in his ears. He decided to get up for a pee, wandered around a bit, saw and heard nothing, then returned to bed. Here, satisfied and happy, he broke wind loudly. Why shouldn’t he.

The bush all around him immediately exploded into life as what sounded like a herd of buffalo stampeded in all directions. Hooves thundered. Terrified animals snorted. Trees cracked and branches broke as grassland and bushes flattened as in a hurricane with the sounds of panic echoing far off across the African wilderness.

Richard was a little surprised. He was entirely untouched and, after looking about and listening as silence returned, he fell asleep once more. In the morning his staff crept slowly up to his camp, expecting to find a dead Richard, a pancaked mzungu. They looked with astonishment at the bush surrounding the camp bed, which looked as if it had been hit by many lightning bolts, or a meteorite perhaps. Richard was shaving and looking happy in the morning. All Hartleys are happiest in the bush.

‘Mum moved into the village and there are already problems: she’s too busy to babysit.’