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Big Cat with Black Spots

It was a dark and dreary day…..dud, dud, duuuuud….

And the Rocklands proper was deserted of climbers. The overcast clouds had been releasing a steady mist all morning, leaving the typically vibrant orange rocks dark grey and dripping wet. No climbing today. A perfect excuse for a lazy rest day. Or for some, a perfect day to explore.

These two explorers pulled our little Volkswagon go-cart rental into the empty gravel parking lot, zipped up our raincoats and stepped out into the blustery cold wind and dense mist, camera, video camera and bouldering guides in hand. Our mission was to search out a bouldering area called The Fortress, of which we had not yet been. The guidebook and fellow climbers promised a slew of classic lines here.

We set off up the familiar dirt road into the Rocklands proper, which provides access to many of the popular areas: Roadside, Road Crew, Cedar Rouge, and the mysterious Fortress: a giant, bright orange warehouse-sized block that sat atop a prominent boulder-strewn hillside.

At the road-side cairn marking our single-track approach trail, Paul and I gaze up at The Fortress across the meadow, high on the hillside above us. The distant block and surrounding boulders were just barely below cloud-level. The cloud cover was moving right-to-left over the tops of the rocks at an unnaturally fast rate. It seemed as if we were watching a fast-forward video. Every now and then the fiercely strong wind would tear a slice of moisture off the main cloud mass, leaving the rogue wisp whizzing across the front sides of the boulders, hiding the boulders’ soaking grey faces for a brief moment as it zipped by. “Looks cold up there,” Paul says to me. I agree and we tramp on.

After crossing the meadow, we see another large cairn that marks our next turn. We are now faced with a boulder-scrambling maze of cairns up the prominent hillside upon which The Fortress sits. We start up, gaining elevation quickly, our vantage point above the meadow below getting more and more impressive with every step. Our sneakers and pantlegs are getting more and more soaked with every step too! Every weed, grass and wildflower in our path is weighted heavily with wet beads of moisture. We continue up.

Eventually, the hillside appears to plateau out and Paul and I realize that we’ve reached our destination. The giant Fortress looms directly above us, it’s flat summit hidden in the mist. Surrounding us are dark grey gargoyle figurines wrapped in white cloaks….I mean, dark grey boulders wrapped in mist and clouds. Wow, is it spooky up here.

We remedy the eery feeling by pulling the bouldering guide out of our backpack and hunting for climbs. One by one, we find the classics, running around like kids on Christmas day. There is one set of boulders however, that has us stumped. We can’t find the line Stargate. Did we pass it and not see it? We circle around again, confused. We’ve found every line up here except this one. According to the guide, it should be right next to the boulders we’re standing at, but either we’re wrong, the guide is wrong, or the Stargate has disappeared into another dimension. Perhaps the line has been transported through the giant car-sized circular hueco in the rock tower behind us…a.k.a “the Stargate?”

Frustrated, we give up on Stargate. And it’s at this point that we realize the clouds have completely engulfed the top of this hill, and us. We look out into the valley behind The Fortress and see the clouds racing by, at eye-level now. This is really creepy, we both agree, and decide to document the phenomenon with the video camera.

Perched up on a boulder, Paul and I sit silently and motionless with the video camera running, letting the wind whip past our cold faces, listening to it howl at an unsettling volume through the gargoyle-like features in the rocks. It seems to be getting louder. Is it the wind? Or my heightening sense of sound, amplified with each additional minute we sit?

After about 10 long minutes, the eeriness of our perch in this ominous place is too much to bear and Paul breaks the silence with “Let’s head down.” He scrambles off the boulder and begins packing up our camera. I take one last look at the valley and then turn around toward Paul and climb off the boulder, facing forward.

Stepping off the boulder onto the dirt, I raise my gaze from my feet to the giant car-sized circular hueco in the rock tower now directly in front of me. My gaze abruptly hones in on the body of a large, dog-sized, blond cat with black spots, crouched in front of the rock tower not 20 feet away, it’s head turned toward me, it’s eyes staring squarely back at mine. “The elusive leopard,” my brain registers, regurgitating the text of our South Africa Lonely Planet guidebook.

With my unobstructed view, the animal appears to be in mid-departure from us, having stopped briefly to look back and take inventory of the strange 2-legged creatures scrambling off the boulder. Upon eye contact, the cat immediately bolts away from us and it’s at this point that I am finally able to blurt out the forced hushed words “It’s a f’in leopard!! It’s a f’in leopard!” to Paul. My vulgarity at such a beautiful and amazing National Geographic moment startles me almost as much as the cat.

Paul wheels around 180 degrees, but it’s too late. The cat has already bounded up and behind some rocks out of sight. We both stand there dumbly, unsure of what to do next.

Then, from behind the rocks the cat’s large head pops up to take a peek at us. We stare at the cat, and the cat at us. The 2 or 3 seconds that probably truly tick by during this stare-down feel much more like 2 or 3 minutes. I’m amazed at how strikingly friendly the cat’s face appears, so sweet and kind and cute, like a kitten’s. Only…..larger.

The head disappears. We continue to stand, silently frozen. Then, a moment later, the head reappears. The cat is playing peek-a-boo with us. This time though, Paul interrupts the 2-3 second (or 2-3 minute?!) staredown. “Let’s roll.”

We grab our camera (having not taken a single shot of this beautiful animal!) and high-tail it out of there, our enchantment replaced with fear.

Within minutes we’re off the hill and back down in the meadow, scooting quickly and deliberately back to the car. Eventually, as we near the car, our pace slows down and our conversation speeds up. The fear has now been replaced with enchantment again and we re-cap the sighting, second-by-second, kicking ourselves for not having taken a picture.

Back at the farm we confirm our sighting with Thys, the owner of the farm. He is astonished that we, visitors having been here in South Africa a mere week, saw the animal that he has been trying to get a glimpse of his entire life. “No one sees the leopard,” he informs us, “No one. You two are VERY lucky.” Later that evening at a braai (cookout) that Thys and his neighbor threw for the climbers staying on the farm, the news of our leopard story buzzed. Tale after tale was told of the many locals who have tried to see this astonishing animal. Footprints in the sand and dead sheep in their pastures was the closest they had ever come to the elusive leopard.

Walking back to our little cottage late in the evening, while the fire of the braai and the laughter of climbers still roared, Paul and I reflected on our good fortune. The stories from the locals sealed our realization of how incredibly lucky our sighting was, making the entire experience all the more mystic.

posted by arr

This entry (Permalink) was posted on Monday, August 4th, 2008 at 9:52 am and is filed under Bouldering, Hiking, Rocklands-South Africa. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response , or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Big Cat with Black Spots”

  1. Ann Says:

    Just sent you a regular email. What a moment of blessing and wonder. Great writing. Keep having a great time.

  2. Cara Says:

    YIKES! But cool at the same time 🙂 Glad you guys are having fun..I’m envious!

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