Risk

Sir Christopher Ondaatje's latest book, The Power of Paper: A History, a Financial Adventure and a Warning, is published by HarperCollins.

www.ondaatje.com

The night companion

Kasese, usually a sleepy town on the Ugandan side of the Ruwenzori mountains, was in semi-chaos. Rebels, possibly from Zaire, had crossed over the border only ten kilometres away and were moving down the Kazinga Channel. Conversations were tinged with alarm and suddenly there were armed men everywhere, some in uniform, but many not.

We decided to quit Kasese, and abandoned our plans to climb the eastern slopes of the Ruwenzori. Instead we'd go round the southernmost tip of the range and reach the Semliki River on the Zaire border. Few people ventured into the region. We would be in equatorial forest: dense, muggy, luxuriant, mosquito and fly-infested swampland.

As we descended deeper into the Semliki Valley, we met people carrying spears, another group with bows and arrows, then men with long beards. Eventually, almost at the foot of the mountains, we found ourselves surrounded by massive trees soaring to great heights, a virtually untouched tropical lowland forest, separated from Zaire's Ituri Forest only by the river. We set up camp in a small clearing not 50 metres from the rugged mountain road, ate dinner and settled in for the night. I slept alone in a small plastic tent some way from Thad Petersen and our two Tanzanian bearers. The clearing was about 45 metres square and completely surrounded by tall cane grass. It was dark, very dark, and I was lying on a groundsheet, being bitten by minute insects which I was later told were bukukums. The bites left awful welts, particularly around the eyes and ears, but eventually I dozed off.

A short time later I was woken by the sound of gunfire and shouting on the mountain road. I lay motionless in my tent, gripped by the apprehension of a few hours earlier in Kasese. I didn't know then that that very day, Laurent Kabila's troops had made their successful first attempt to topple the dictatorship of Mbutu in Zaire. Both rebels and refugees were spilling over the border.

I listened to the turmoil for a good hour. Then, as the noise faded, I silently unzipped the front flap of my tent and shone my torch into the long grass either side of the narrow path that led away from the clearing. No sign of the gunmen. But two bright orange eyes shone back at me from the edge of the forest. It could only be a large cat. I trained the beam on the motionless figure facing me. The stealthy predator turned its head away and looked down the narrow path towards the noise and turbulence of the crowd surging forward on the road. The thin light revealed the tawny hide and abstract rosettes of a full-grown female leopard. After a few moments, she moved away from the path towards the centre of the clearing and out of view. I dared not make a sound, but slowly, silently crouched down again on my ground sheet and turned off the torch.

The distant clamour of the fleeing refugees continued into the night. But the immediate sounds of the forest took over: the rustle of the wind in the trees, cicadas near and far, a swift, soft footfall, now obscured by the persistent drone of a mosquito. Then a deep, guttural, steady breathing right outside my tent: the leopard. I tried to shine the torch through the thin plastic wall that separated us, but to no avail. I listened. Her calm breathing continued. I felt an undetermined, unspoken bond; as if together we were less vulnerable, perhaps even a threat to any passer-by.

Again I heard voices, hushed and distant at first, but coming closer. Two people were walking along the path directly towards the clearing. I dared not shine the torch for fear of giving away my position. The voices grew louder and more insistent. Just as the voices were almost upon us, I heard the leopard's rasping warning snarl only inches from my head. The voices were silenced, and the strangers retreated back along the path to the mountain road. I lay still on my groundsheet, listening to the measured breathing of my companion against the unnerving sounds of the night.

I must have slept at some point. When I awoke the thin shreds of light that heralded the dawn shone through the upper branches of the vast trees. The front flap of my tent was open as I had left it in the night. Still too frightened to move, I saw the morning become lighter, and as the echoing greeting calls of the jungle birds became bolder, I looked out of my tent towards where my night companion had been. Nothing. Not even a scratch or claw mark on the small anthill that must have provided an uneven resting place. She had completely and silently vanished.

A few minutes later a concerned Thad yelled across our clearing: "Are you all right, Chris?"

"Yes," I replied, "did you hear the commotion on the road?"

"Of course," Thad replied, "but they all seem to have gone now. I think it's fairly safe now."

"Did you see the leopard?" I asked.

"What leopard?" Thad inquired.

"Oh! I thought I saw a leopard last night sometime before midnight when the commotion first started. But I may have been mistaken."

The encounter was fast taking on the quality of a vivid dream.

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