For me, any forest is exotic, along with the creatures dwelling there, but the scene unfolding before me took exotic to a new level. After miles of brushy, rolling hills the slopes above the graveled road became forested, not with evergreens familiar to me, but with tall, slender, broad leaf trees, waving their tangled hairdos high into the upper skyline. The underbrush and greenery thickened into a shadowy collage punctuated by the smooth, imposing tree trunks of these forest monarchs, and slipping through this collage came a scattering of tall and rangy herd animals. Their subtle stripes rippled in and out of the shadows until they slowly emerged from the towering trees and came into full focus while targeting the open, low lying vegetation.
Now the mystical forest spun it’s magic, as the splendor of these exotic animals quietly unfolded; pin stripes on tan hides toned and muscular, raccoon-like markings around their faces, and magnificent horns spiraling upwards that would be any unicorn’s envy. As I absorbed the subtle antics of these imposing beasts while they grazed and wandered, occasionally sparring over the greenest prizes, it became apparent why “greater” was part of the name of this exotic antelope, the Greater Kudu.
From this window on nature the road roughened up with a mix of gravel and dirt, and as it wound back into the scruffy bluffs, the acrid smell of smoke permeated our vehicle. Soon smoke was all around us as cinders and embers smoldered along the empty roadway.
Predictably, apprehensions prompted the question, “do we continue on or turn around and go back the way we came.” Since my oldest daughter and son in law are brave at heart and my wife is trusting, the group consensus was “We’re fine so long as it doesn’t get worse.” With that agreed upon wisdom in mind, I kept a lookout on the road behind us for any flames closing in and watched carefully as the road descended into draws, quickly making the ascents for better visibility. It would not be wise to get caught in a canyon by a brush fire.
Shortly thereafter, we approached the point of no return in the middle of the brush fire, in the thickest of the smoke, but there was still only smoldering embers and minor flaming, with no wall of flames visible anywhere on the charred hillsides. As we edged along the smoldering hills, we eventually could see the lush green of the wide plain below, and with the road dropping downwards, it was a relief that we would soon break away from the smokey haze.
Eventually we found ourselves free of the hilly terrain and onto the verdant plain punctuated with patchy strips of jungle. And along one of these sprawling thickets of jungle the elusive qualities of wildlife again manifested, this time ending with the unanswerable. A black, slinking animal appeared from the thicket, and as I grabbed for binoculars, it just as quickly leaped up and back into the jungle cover.
Since this is leopard country, and with my wistful eagerness to observe the exotics, I wanted to say this was a black leopard. This perception was reinforced by a tense kudu close to the road that was staring back towards the mystery animal, visibly nervous while snorting the air and pawing the ground and hopping backwards away from the perceived threat. However, the sighting was over fifty yards away, and I will never know what I really saw, and it will be forever filed away in the “what was it” category of wildlife sightings. Further along and within a reasonable viewing distance, a ground- level African Crested Eagle working over its prey assuaged our misgivings over the phantom leopard.
The unidentifiable creature sparked the memory of another mystery animal sighting closer to home in Oregon. My youngest daughter and I were driving down a rural road at night in heavy traffic moving at sixty when a formidable white animal floated across the road like a ghost. Too large for a familiar tabby but undeniably cat like, it appeared directly in front of our headlights as it dodged between us and oncoming cars at lightning speed. Observing a lioness dashing after a large bird in a short sprint is the only comparable “speed sighting” of an animal that I have ever experienced.
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Mile by mile, the wild country receded behind us as we sped down the straight strip of asphalt dividing this wide plain resplendent with wildlife. With late evening approaching, the car grew quiet except for the whirring tires and occasional dips and bumps of the paved track. Lulled along by the silent, empty roadway, I noticed a speed bump crossing the pavement far up ahead.
What would a speed bump be doing way out here? No sooner than I realized that this was potentially a creature and not a speed bump, I quickly reviewed the average width of a standard highway. Although this was a crude strip of tarmac without painted lines, I knew two vehicles could easily pass, and that put the road width at roughly sixteen feet. At this point I knew what I was seeing up the road and made the announcement “Python straight ahead!” and the quiet, lazy ride suddenly became quite animated.
Absorbing the solar storing power of the pavement, the serpent was stretched out from one gravel shoulder to the other. As we slowed up to this road block, wife and daughter were shrieking, and I was laughing with delight—until the large snake lunged up, his head staring right over the hood and into the car.
In a frantic millisecond I found reverse gear and gave the fearsome reptile some breathing room. And with that extra space, son-in-law jumped out with his camera and went to work.
Where on Earth?! St. Lucia Estuary, South Africa