The jungle is no place for a skirt. So when we set out for Yala National Park, I was delighted to see I was not alone in my choice of clothing. Our final passengers were picked up outside her hotel shortly before 5am. Unable to see anything clearly past the reach of our jeep’s shining headlights, we saw instead silhouettes cast in the cool morning’s air. I could make out the shape of two young men and three ladies, each man in pants and shirts, and women in tops with triangular bottoms reaching their knees. As it turned out, we’d all opted for an unconventional safari outfit.
As we waited in line amongst over fifty other jeeps filled with hundreds of other visitors, we stayed awkwardly silent. Morning had not yet broken, and in the darkness of our open-air jeep, we still hadn’t actually seen each other.
After thirty more minutes of rest, the sun quietly rose over the horizon, acting as a visual alarm clock to nature and to spirits. A domino effect washed over the road as engines started and one by one, we entered the park.
Our guide opened the back window of his cab to offer a quick debriefing. Unlike our neighbors, we wouldn’t be taking the ‘normal’ route. Instead, we’d run away from as many jeeps as we could. We’d speed past elephants, buffalo and wild boar, and would begin our search for the shiest of cats : the spotted leopard.
We were in the midst of the most densely concentrated population of leopards in the world, but still our chances of a sighting were not guaranteed. We chosen our guide because he was well known in the park for his persistence and dedication to finding these reserved beasts. And as we soon found out, that meant cutting off our neighbors, hitting 30 degree angles with violent force, and driving several minutes full speed through Mars-scaped roads.
While contemplating jumping to safety or holding on for dear life – either of which could end wonderfully or painfully – we careened toward a large clearing in the road and stopped abruptly. Over twenty cars had already gathered, with more on their way. A message was being transmitted from guide to guide in calling-tree fashion, alerting each of a possible sighting.
Visitors jutted out from large openings in their jeeps, each silently watching through binoculars and telephoto lenses. High on the rocks, our guest of honor peered from his hiding place. His elevation and the thick mass of trees separating him from us surely left us at a disadvantage. We had nothing but high hopes and attempts at never ending patience to get us through while he was snickering above at the thought of our angst.
Once the suspense below had been built to mountainous heights, he casually sauntered out of his hiding place. Head held high, he looked away. Acting as though he knew not of our existence, he casually lapped at a water pool which had collected from the previous night’s shower.
Lying down briefly, he teased us into thinking we’d had our three seconds of excitement. And then, like a celebrity testing his fans’ allegiance, he stood up once more and looked at his audience below.
While his cool beady eyes scanned the crowd, we smiled wildly and feverishly attempted to capture the moment on film.
I shot several photos of his majesty, amazed and encouraged by his presence. After a series of shots and an air of confidence mimicking his own, I took a moment to breathe and glance at the images. Blurry. All blurry. Caught up in the excitement, I had been shooting the great distance between us, completely out of focus.
I stared him right in the eyes, insisting he not leave. With a deep breath, I clicked the shutter. One shot. That’s all he allowed me to take before bending down, sipping another drink of cool water, and walking away.
He had wanted to be seen, but not exploited. To say hello, but not to stick around for the small talk. That would be too much to ask on such a fine morning.
He went his way and we went ours. The rest of the morning, we returned to open fields where elephants and buffalo herds roamed freely. We had contests to see who could spot lazy crocodiles first, and watched as wild boars kept peace with painted storks. We found another leopard but left him be, as he appeared to be injured and was slowly making his way to the coast for solitude. And we eventually broke the silence which bound us.
Nearly eight hours since we’d awoken, we returned to the main road and said our goodbyes to Yala and soon enough, said goodbye to each other.
In awe of our good fortune and captivated by the splendid sites we’d witnessed that day, we shared a laugh as the first female alighted. Our guide is a talented man, that is without a doubt. But as she left, he opened up the back window, pulled himself toward us by hitching his elbow over the seat behind him, and shared his own opinion about our luck.
“He’d heard four women dressed in skirts had come to see him” he said in reference to the leopard, “How could he miss his chance to see you?”
We’ll consider it a rare case of dressing for success.