Sighs rolled out of the gate as the jeep’s wheels did.
“We just missed it! I mean, we could smell it. Smell it! We knew it was there…” exclaimed someone.
“Oh, why did we turn left instead of right? I knew we shouldn’t have left that area.” I lamented.
“Just missed it! The tiger!” reiterated another person.
Slowly our grumbles ceased but an audible sigh could be heard from time to time. The jeep had stopped just out of the gate, as one of Phillip’s friends had called him over for a chat. Had they seen it? I directed a stream of silent jealousy, veiled as animosity, at them. Just missed it… Why, oh why, was my luck so terrible?
“Again, huh?” I said, leaning forward to chat with Sam, the assistant. She had missed a tiger before, too, having heard the alarm calls of the deer and actually finding a dead deer before being called out of the park as it was closing time.
“Yeah, again. And we were pretty close, too!” she said. Disappointment tinged both our voices. I turned back to look at the forest we had just left. What if, by some miracle, right at the forest’s end, it came striding out? I laughed at myself. I hoped too much. What if… there was no point in playing the ‘what if’ game now. It would only increase my disappointment.
There wasn’t much of a chance in seeing a big cat tomorrow, in the last safari, either. Phillip’s streak of seeing a big cat every time in Kabini would be broken, and luck would have its way. Oh, cruel Fate! Why did you tease me so? But this was no time to break into poetry- I had better concentrate on clicking some birds so I had at least something to show for this drive. We had just been concentrating on tigers and leopards and hadn’t stopped for any birds, or anything else, for that matter. Not that we had seen anything else. No mongoose, or gaur, or sambar (a type of deer). Just endless herds of chitol (Indian Spotted Deer) and birds.
Suddenly Phillip came sprinting back from his friends. “Start the jeep! Quick!” he cried, and ran to the forest official’s office/hut for something. The driver reversed back into the park, and turned around, just as Phillip came sprinting back. The car was moving when he jumped in. “Might be a false alarm, but we have to try. Hold on tight, switch on your cameras, and take off your hats. We need to go at full speed!” My heart leapt. Tiger? Leopard?
I started to remove my hat when the jeep started moving. Fast. Gripping onto the seat in front of me, I sat on the hat and looked around. The excitement was obvious on everyone’s face. Hair was flung back in the wind that raced past us, so deliciously cool. I opened my mouth wide, ready to scream but didn’t for fear of scaring it, whatever it was, away. My heart beat fast and I looked around at everything, at everyone. What was it? What would it be? Tiger? Leopard? Please, God, please… The wind continued moving, moving, moving, buffeting us back and forth as the jeep raced at full speed over every pothole and puddle.
Suddenly the jeep shuddered to a halt, and we were thrown back. A group of jeeps like ours and buses were all gathered around an area, blatantly disregarding the rule of being 30 meters apart when looking at wildlife. “I can see it!” said Phillip excitedly. “It’s on a tree, leopard!”
My heart rate rose. “Where? Where?” I asked, my eyes as usually blinded when important things were happening. Someone pointed. I looked. I stared.
There, on a forked tree without leaves that was probably destroyed by lightning lounged a leopard. It was magnificent. Feet hanging over the edge and tail hanging down, eyes closed, silky gold fur iridescent, it was just sheer beauty. I got my camera out and zoomed in. Everything was silent but for the birds and the clicking of cameras. It yawned, canines bared, and a flurry of clicking arose. I just kept looking at it, then at the camera, awed by it. My finger didn’t move off the shutter button. This was amazing. It needed to be recorded. This was a leopard, right there, about 30-50 meters away, huge, resplendent in its glory. This was it. This was a big cat. This was the big cat. I thought of what it made of all these people looking at it with strange blank devices and strange concentrated expressions, and chuckled to myself. But it didn’t really seem to be bothered. Perhaps it was used to it, or just too tired or sleepy. Slowly it turned its head towards us and quickly I clicked, clicked, clicked. I had never seen anything like it before. Nothing at all.
Even as the jeep rumbled away from the leopard, still resting on the tree, I couldn’t take my eyes off it, or stop thinking of it. It was just amazing.
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The Glasswing Butterfly