We took ourselves to the Cederberg for the first time as parents ... it must have been 2003 ... our son was 5 years old at the time. The camps were in transition, the old Parks Board was giving way to the new SAN Parks, and it was possible, in that administrative gap, to snatch incredible opportunities of empty, unattended campsites, costing next to nothing to stay in.
There was one other occupied camping spot, besides ours, and the people there said they'd seen leopard tracks and scat, and that if we left early, for our hike planned the next morning, we might be so lucky as to spot a royal mother and her young one.
Our son made sure we were up before dawn. He just about sprinted up, ahead of us on the extremely steep incline. Once on top, we lost the path. We traversed five mountains that day, ever on the lookout for a path we never found. Our son was finally asleep on his legs, walking with his eyes closed as I pushed him gently onward, and my poor then-husband sprained his ankle at the eleventh hour. Only with difficulty did we get back to the tent, and to the miracle of a woman with ice wraps, as it happened, unbelievably. She had been sent there to take the little money we owed.
This poem - written as an Italian sonnet - developed out of that day.
The leopard is a person
The leopard is a person who conceals
herself, but likes to loer to see where you
might keep yourself and what you do. She reveals
no pawprints, though occasionally a youngster's poo
provides a possible track for you to follow,
past rocks with eyes, in heat and fearful hollow:
where who knows what may lurk, and watch, and wait,
with centuries to spare, while you meet fate.
Sit down there, eat your lunch and breathe her home
of purple lava, rippled down in curves,
jump frog-sung ditches, turned to stone -
and feel the flitches of your human nerves.
The leopard is a person so alone.
Could be she is the one who made this poem.
- Silke Heiss, October 2006
loer = Afrikaans, integrated into South African English, meaning to spy on, to look secretively or furtively
According to Anne Keating, in Wild Voices Messages from the Soul of Africa, Leopard cautions you "to be alert to the signs and omens on your path [...] You feel the need to cut the extraneous out of your life and hone in on what is really important."
There is further caution, which the energy of this shy, highly adaptive survivor of a creature brings:
"For you to win, no one must lose."
Leopard travels alone:
"You will not compromise what you are learning merely to fit into the expectations of others."
Photographs of the Cederberg, and of the Agama Atra, by Silke Heiss
Leopard photo by Uriel Soberanes