The rain stopped the leopards - but not us

Part of Kenya is just below the equator. "Just below the equator" should signify hot - or at least warm. It should mean dry, dust, heat. Anyway, that's what we were told to expect.

But this was not the case in December when we started off on our safari. It rained every day for 17 days. It rained in the desert, in the plains, in the mountains, and at sea level.

But the safari went on.

Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, which is usually brown and dry this time of year, was green and lush. It was also wet, muddy, and slippery: Not the kind of weather that cats enjoy.

Elephants don't mind the rain, though. They walk about in herds, their wet backs a darker gray than their bellies.

Rain doesn't affect buffaloes, wildebeests, impala, giraffes, or zebras, either. These animals continue to graze on grass and thorn bushes without batting an eye.

But the lions, the cheetahs, and especially the leopards hide when the ground becomes wet.

Koskei, our guide and the driver of the well-used Land Rover in which we rode, took advantage of every dry moment to search for a leopard.

We had already seen 71 different kinds of animals and birds - but not the elusive leopard. We drove for miles and spenthours - in and out of bushes, over rocks and fallen trees, into gullies and potholes as big as craters - trying to track one down.

We waited in silence, engine off, by the Mara River while 40 or so hippos popped their pink ears and noses above the surface every three minutes for air. The crocodiles slept on the banks, hoping for the sun to appear and warm them. The silence was occasionally interrupted by the "ku-ku-ru" of a bird or the shriek of a monkey.

We waited and listened - alone, just the three of us, under a blue-gray sky on this massive Earth. It sometimes seemed as though we were the only ones on this planet. Nothing stirred. Nothing moved. The leopard was not there.

Then the sky began to drip. Small teardrops at first, followed by a downpour. Our guide quickly rolled the canvas over the top of the Land Rover to keep us dry. "We go back," he said. And it seemed like a good idea.

Before sunrise the next morning, we were back at it: If anyone could find a leopard, we were certain it would be Koskei. He could spot a lion in the bush a mile away. "Can't you see it?" he would ask.

Eyes strained and binoculars poised, we still could not identify a lion in the bush until we were six feet from it - and many times, not till we were only a few feet away.

Then Koskei said, "Hunting dogs! See them?"

"Where?" we asked excitedly.

Off in the distance, impala scampered away from something, but we could not tell what.

"Hold tight!" Koskei said as we took off over rough terrain to catch the impala on the run. Behind them, just as he had told us, were seven hunting dogs.

It was like magic: He'd see it first, tell us to look, and the object would appear to us.

Day after day, hour after hour, mile after mile, we searched for leopards. We saw the sun rise and set. Once we paced back and forth by a border of shrubs and trees. Twice we stationed ourselves outside a cave where Koskei's keen eye could actually see a leopard sleeping inside, even if we couldn't. But the leopard didn't appear.

We found a black rhino chewing grass, a baby cheetah that was as furry as a pup, a bat-eared fox peeking out of a hole, mama and papa lions with cubs, and many warthog families with tails sticking straight up. But no leopard.

On the day we departed, we teased Koskei and told him that we had spotted a leopard in the tree just outside our tent. He knew it was a joke and laughed. "You have reason to come back to Kenya," he said.

"We'd love to come back for any reason," we told him. "Like the elephants, we don't mind the rain."

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