Cat Spotting: A Thomson Staffer’s Safari Story
My name is Cat Yoder, and I’m a trip manager at Thomson Safaris. I live and breathe Tanzania, and I know the camps, packing lists and itineraries like the back of my hand.
Your daughter’s a vegetarian? Boom—I’ve alerted our chefs. You sleep with a CPAP machine? Breathe easy, my friend. You want to fly into Rwanda to see gorillas, meet up with friends for a Kilimanjaro trek, then head to Zanzibar for some sun and sand? Leave the logistics to me. I know safari inside and out.
Or I thought I did. Then I went on safari myself, where I discovered no amount of logistical expertise could have prepared me for how it felt.
Oh…this is magical.
My education began day one on our walking safari in the Eastern Serengeti. The air involuntarily left my lungs as a dozen enormous giraffes bounded past us. “Twiga,” our guide, Mohdy, said in Swahili before turning to me with a sly grin: “Giraffe.”
I never realized how regal they look when they walk…or how delightfully awkward they look when they run. As the sun set, I was standing 10 feet from an entirely disinterested twiga. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Over the course of my safari, the gasping, chest-grabbing and childish squealing never stopped. All my travel planning hadn’t prepared me for the sensation of standing in the presence of these almost mythical animals.
Even among these daily revelations, one moment stands above the rest. It happened in Tarangire National Park, on the last day of my safari.
The Final Drive in Tarangire
Day was turning to dusk in the lush Tarangire forest, and the sun was painting the sky in oranges and pinks. Grasses rustled from unseen inhabitants and birds’ chirping filled the air. From the car I saw elephants and impalas poking their heads into a cloudless sky. It was like a painting–but I was in it.
Sadly, it was also the final wildlife drive of my safari. My fellow travelers and I were heading back to camp, accepting that a few flights from now, we’d be back home, sitting in traffic, remembering safari like it was a dream. That’s when Mohdy slowed the vehicle to a stop. He motioned for us to be quiet as he scanned the trees.
“What is it?” I whispered, but Mohdy didn’t respond–not yet. He’s a veteran guide with decades of safari experience, and even though we thought we’d finished looking for wildlife, he hadn’t.
Throughout the trip, Mohdy was committed to squeezing every ounce of awe from his homeland. A few days earlier, we had been driving through the Serengeti, passing alongside some pretty unremarkable shrubs. We would’ve looked right past it if Mohdy hadn’t stopped the car.
“Look,” he said. “There’s a lion in there.”
Sure enough, there she was. All you could see were her two amber eyes. I got chills–it’s like there was this world of hidden wildlife behind the one I knew.
Mohdy’s skill and experience felt otherworldly, like he was conjuring wildlife into being. Here in Tarangire, I was hoping he could make safari magic happen one last time.
The Tallest Branches
The plains were silent as we pointed our binoculars in the direction of Mohdy’s gaze. I thought we were about to see a bird, maybe a saddle-billed stork or a flock of iridescent starlings, both of which I had learned to love more with each sighting.
Then Mohdy pointed higher up, to the tallest limbs of an acacia towering over a riverbank.
“Leopard,” he said.
There in the shaded limbs was a leopard with gorgeous, spotted fur, hidden well in the bark and leaves. Streaks of sunset fell on her back as she swished her tail to and fro. She looked regal, like she had been ruling Tarangire from that branch forever.
She stared right at us, then she laid her head on her paw and closed her eyes.
No one else was around–the moment was ours, and I was flushed with emotion. We took our time with the leopard, listening to the stillness that surrounded her, a stillness accompanied only by wind whirring through the acacia leaves.
“It’s getting late,” Mohdy said. “We should get back to camp.”
Reluctantly we left, but as we drove past the leopard, she turned her head one last time, making eye contact—one Cat to another.
I don’t know how Mohdy spotted the leopard so easily, but she was a dream come true. The peace of the scene awes me still; now, I know safari. I know in my heart how the plains roar with life.
I want to give a million thanks to Mohdy for giving me this experience. He consistently turned fun drives through the bush into memories that will burn brightly forever.
On top of that, he was just a kind soul. Everyone’s a little shy on the first day of a safari, and he went out of his way to make us feel included. He was so easy to talk to. Thanks to him, we were all friends by the end of the trip.
I’m home now, back in my normal routine at the Thomson office. But I can still feel the mythic calm of that last moment on the savanna. I can still see how noble that leopard looks on her acacia throne. If I concentrate, I can go there in my dreams; I can rekindle her gaze for a few magical seconds.