It is pitch black as we flit along the dirt trail. The sweep of the lightsman's torch pulls our heads from left to right as we stare into the darkness, our breadth held against the possiblitity of lions in the night. The cats eyes show, Pious tells us. We'll see leopards stalking in the bushes.
We've seen little yet. The first gasps at kudu, elephant and zebra now long behind us. A hush has descended. Gone our high hopes of the lion pack, not seen in two days. We see green eyes in the night, all around us. Impala waiting fearfully; stalked by our prey.
At sunset we drank at the lake edge watching the elephant herd move in caravan past us, going to the crossing to rob villages in the night. The last crocodile sank back into the water as the sun gave way to the stars.
We cross the bridge and stretch out onto the plain. We go quickly now, the time ticking before we must turn back and leave empty handed. No predators spotted in the wild, no cats seen in the night.
Then the wheels grind as Pious brakes hard. He reverses and the lightsman shines fixedly in the dark. "There!" he whispers, his voice loud above the engine, "Hyena". We stare out into the dark, but nothing moves. The torch scans a large bush, too thick to penetrate. We wait for a long moment, then with no great interest in us, the hyena emerges, loping along with its ungraceful bounds. It's big and powerful; larger than a dog, with a head more like a bear. It's also ragged and unpleasant, a mongrel's mongrel.
Relief seeps through the three of us. We've seen our first predator.
The engine shudders into life and we move on. The stars are bright now, the sweep of the milky way panned out above us. I'd nearly be happy to just sit and watch the stars, but the call of the unkown is pulling us deeper.
We cross broken country, scrub brush spread across our flanks. There are no eyes in the dark here, a lone civet is caught by the light. The whistle of the air is cool on my face, we speed up and enter the forest. Every few minutes the countryside changes here; no two parts quite the same. Every half a kilometer we see something diferent, even in the dark you can tell the land is old. Erosion lines wriggle down to great gulfs; dry rivers draining down to the mighty Luangwa.
We burst from the trees with a rattle. The land is smooth here. In the distance we can see the lights of two cars. A good sign, cars only gather when there is something to see. It spoils the isolation, no longer do we feel so alone.
Pious speeds up, I clutch the rail, white knuckled, breadth forced. The hand-cannon, my great tokina lense, is clasped in my lap. It's heavy and I have to hold it in the crook of my arm to keep it safe as we bounce along the trail.
We draw up to the trucks, similar to ours, big off-road safari vehicles. Their engines are off and we ease in beside them. Their spotters have their torches focused at a single point, a dead Imapala, behind it, the leopard.
All we see at first is her head above the dead male impala's carcass, but she stands to get a better purchase. She's beautiful, with a sleek dangerous beauty. A killer; slick and deadly. Pious urges her to hurry under his breadth "If she doesn't get him up a tree quickly the hyenas will come." she works hard at the corpse "She's gutting him, to make it lighter. He's too heavy to get up the tree." We wait enchanted despite the grisly scene.
There is a growl in the dark and the leopard edges back, staring into the bushes. One of the cars pulls its light upwards. Our hearts sink, the hyenas have come. A small one at first, smaller than her. "She won't risk a fight. Any wound would be a disaster, she has two cubs to feed." We will the hyena to leave, but it's hungry and the impala is a good prize.
For a long while there is a standoff, the leopard too wary to move, the hyena too cowardly to steal it's dinner. The hyena however has the advantage, the longer it waits the more likely backup will arrive; the leopard has no such luxury. The hyena moves first, the leopard backs away and starts to circle. The hyena savages the carcass, ripping the guts out with a terrific noise. The smell of the impala drifts out onto the air. We can smell it from the truck, hot and earthy, but not unpleasant.
Having taken the insides the hyena moves away. The leopard returns. Now that the impala is lightened we hope she can get it to the safety of the tree.The leopard needs to be quick, the smell of blood will draw all the hyenas in the area, bt hyenas can't climb.
She starts tugging on the antelope, pulling it hard towards the tree, but it still seems too heavy, she starts to eat, trying to lighten the load. She soon stops, a bigger hyena has arrived. She moves away to the tree, with a bound she's in its safety. She's given up.
The two hyenas rip the carcass to shreds, consuming almost everything in a matter of minutes. The leopard watches from the tree, when the hyenas finally move off she takes the scraps on the ground.
We see another leopard in daylight the next morning, then wild dogs later in the day and lions that evening, but for me the magic was watching the leopard stalk by, 2 metres from the car, in the dark.