I saw the leopard making his way over the blood splattered ground and I knew he had seen me too. I froze mesmerised by his gaze. The remains of his last meal, a hollowed out warthog, lay in repose under a Mopani tree on a shroud of leaves. The cat settled gracefully onto the ground and closed his eyes. He was panting, tongue pink, teeth glistening. Warthog blood tainting his chin, his chest merged with his chequered pelt.
I knelt down about five metres away to observe him. My cameras hung heavy around my neck and I removed one slowly. Keeping my movements fluid I brought the camera to my eye. I had waited many months for this. I focused on his face. The artificial click of the camera caused his eyes to open, intent once more. It was a perfect shot. I took a few more but tired of me, he closed his eyes again.
Suddenly he was up, mouth open, threatening and feral, tossing dust into the air. He seemed to look past me. A low growl reverberated and I turned, insubstantial and unprepared. A male Lion stood huge and terrifyingly close. His black mane trembled as he swung his head from side to side. He looked from me to the leopard. I was still crouched, helpless, one camera clutched in clammy hands, another around my neck. A fly buzzed, attracted by the sweat trickling from my brow. My mind was vacant and my body no longer solid but water, structure melted away. The cats stared at each other warily. I was forgotten in their enmity.
The leopard behind me screamed and lunged and his rival retreated briefly with a snarl. The lion charged, the ground rumbling under his weight and power. With a flick of his head the leopard feinted sideways. Instinctive as a primate I leaped towards the Mopani tree seeking sanctuary among its lofty limbs. My camera clattered to the ground and the lion swung around jaws snapping but I was not his focus. By the time he turned for his enemy the leopard was already padding for the undergrowth and disappeared.
The lion shook his body vigorously, glanced up at me clinging to the tree and ambled over to the warthog. I still had a camera around my neck and tried to distract my trembling body by taking copious photographs. I resigned myself to a long wait in my now favourite tree. It was dusk before with a shake of his immense head he left his feast under the tree. I clambered down aching but alive with an extraordinary tale to tell.