On my last trip to Kruger - overall, my worst ever - I was heading slowly down the H7 in order to exit the Orpen Gate at gate close. Very close to the intersection with the S36-S39 crossroads, I saw three cars stopped in higgledy-piggledy fashion on the left-hand side. Sensing a top sighting, I drove abreast of the last car and, edging forward, sought to scan the high grasslands.
After three or four minutes of careful peering through my binoculars, I could not find anything. I did see a darkish shape about a 100m in that could possibly be a head, but I soon dismissed it as the "upright head" did not move a nanometre in all that time.
I sidled alongside the 4x4 I had stopped near to and, gesticulating to the lady driver to open her window, I asked her politely what they were looking at. Her answer was, "I don't know. We're also trying to figure that out!" I looked again with my binocs, but still nothing.
I then reversed to the middle car and asked its couple what everyone was staring at. "I think there is a cheetah in the grass over there," said the gentleman driver. "Oh, where?" was the standard reply. "Well, I'm not sure - those two over there (he pointed at the first car) say there's a cheetah here, but we can't see it."
The obvious thing was to thank him and reverse in line with the first car. A broad English accent greeted me and, after the cursory hellos, I asked the question again for the third time: "What are you looking at?" Excitedly they pointed in the direction of the dark head-like shape I had identified earlier. I did not attempt to be arrogant, but assumed that I was maybe looking in the wrong direction. After some repeated clock-like directions - accompanied by the often used slight colour-difference in greens, as well as a small bush versus a medium sized bush versus a tree - I indeed confirmed with them that the dark shape was the cheetah.
Rekindling some hope and excitement at this "positive" ID, I waited around and focussed those binocs exactly where the head was and waited, breathing gently and deliberately to keep my arm muscles well-oxygenated for the wait ahead. However, no matter how much I stared, I could not see any movement of the animal - not a flick of the ear, not a slight turn of the head, not a change of position: zippo, zero, zut! However, I suddenly realised that, using Einstein's Law of Relativity, the waving yellow grass seemed to make the dark shape move! Soooo, it was the waving grass that was fooling these visitors!
Armed with this knowledge, I moved back to the front vehicle again, who seemed to confirm my suspicions that there was no animal to be seen. Disappointed, they drove off.
Now there were two vehicles: I sat and waited a little longer - just in case. Then, along came a private small-seater safari vehicle (not from SANParks); the guide was particularly interested in my assertion that "there may be a cheetah there, but I've yet to see it!" I explained as best as I could where to look, and the whole vehicle rocked with the oscillating passengers straining their heads to see the "cheetah". After a couple of minutes of this - which resulted in increasing despair painted on their faces - the guide did something I will not easily forget: he pointed in a brand new direction and confidently noted that there was a leopard in the tall grass! He ignored my bewildered frown as the noise level of the tourists raised to fever pitch. I stared at this new "sighting", but soon was convinced there was definitely nothing there. "Are you sure?" I asked the guide; "I can't see a thing!" "Yes," he said, "I saw it move!"
I was convinced that Einstein was up to his relative tricks again, but, before I could say another word, the guide - now sporting some consternation at the guests' insistences that he show them where this leopard was - suddenly put down his binocs and gunned the vehicle's engine. As the tourist protests rose to an extra-high C-sharp, three of them chided him together, wondering why they couldn't stay longer to see it. His embarrassed reply was that they didn't have much time to get to the gate (although it was almost two hours to go, and the distance to the gate was only 33km)! Whereupon, with a smile and a short phrase telling me to enjoy the leopard, the private safari vehicle roared off.
I was nonplussed at his insistence that he had seen something that nobody else had. I was bewildered that my eyesight had deteriorated to a point that I couldn't find a leopard and a cheetah lying stockstill in the grass, not 50m from each other! I stayed another 15 minutes, again just in case, but I was 99% convinced that nothing of a feline nature was about to leap out of the grass at this point. I drove back to the first couple to ask them if they had seen the "cheetah" move, and they told me that it had indeed swivelled its head a full 180 degrees. I whipped up my binocs and stared at the dark shape, but the yellow grass smiled broadly and waved goodbye as I drove off. The English couple said they would wait for the cheetah to get up and walk, having been there already over three hours.
To this day, I cannot be a thousand-percent sure that there wasn't a cheetah or a leopard in that central grassland, but at the same time, I didn't lose any sleep over the "missed" sighting. I am still convinced that we had all been entertained by the beautiful grass of Kruger. Then again ...
EVERYBODY'S TR!TR: A NEW DAY IS S-OWNTR: NECTAREAN NICETIES OF THE NORTHTR: PRIMEVAL PLEASURE"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." (Groucho Marx)