Cheryl Lyn Dybas transports us to Leopard Gorge, with its rocky caves and outcroppings, in Kenya's Masai Mara. Here wildlife abounds along a road to a netherworld.
Road to a Netherworld
The gloaming, it’s called, this twilight between day and night.
In myth, the gloaming is the place between the known and the unknown, the ordinary and the extraordinary that you might be witness to on safari in this area of Kenya.
It’s also the time when rarely seen creatures emerge from the shadows.
Here along the equator in Kenya’s Masai Mara, sunset comes early. Although it’s just after 4:00 p.m., the light turns gold…orange…indigo.
In this “blue hour” that’s neither full daylight nor complete darkness, the gloaming indeed has opened a portal to another world. To the north, south, east and west of a cleft in the Masai Mara’s seemingly endless savanna, all is still but the wind in the grass.
In a ravine called Leopard Gorge, however, beings asleep in the hot African sun begin to stir.
Undaunted, our safari group forges ahead in its Land Cruiser. We’re hoping to see the leopards for which the gorge is named.
At its entrance stands an ancient fig tree. Four clawed paws and a tail dangle from the tree’s gnarled branches. But the setting sun is blinding, keeping us from spotting what lies in the giant fig’s twisted arms: a leopard.
Fig trees along the gorge’s rim root into rows of boulders; the trees offer secretive leopards wide-angle views of the savanna. Inside the gorge, caves in rocky outcrops provide cover for the big cats and their young.
Leopards aren’t the only camouflaged predators, however, in Leopard Gorge.
They share the lush greenery that springs up near major watercourses like the Mara and Olare Orok Rivers - which the gorge lies between - with other creatures of the night. Here Big Cat Diary meets Harry Potter. The result is pure magic.
Photo by Graeme Dougan
Into the Twilight Zone
In less than a mile, the “road” that bisects the gorge floor abruptly dead-ends. We must turn back.
But not before we look up and glimpse a glint in an Acacia tree. Huge brown eyes - not two, but four - gaze at us from a branch close to the trunk. In the tree are two Verreaux’s eagle-owls.
Also known as the giant eagle-owl and milky eagle-owl for its grayish-white translucent feathers, the Verreaux’s eagle-owl is the largest African owl. The owl is a sedentary species and may be found in the same place year after year.
Dusk-to-dawn hunters like leopards, Verreaux’s eagle-owls unfurl their seven-foot wings over the gorge in search of small-animal prey.
Sunset on the Masai Mara. Photo by Alexander Zeverijn
Rulers of Darkness
We reluctantly re-trace our path to the world outside.
Too quickly, we reach Leopard Gorge’s opening, and the fig tree that marks its exit. In the darkness stealing over the gorge, the tree’s limbs seem to spring to life.
The four clawed paws and a tail are still there, backlit now by the setting sun. Finally, we see the leopard lazing along a branch, its head resting on one paw.
Suddenly, the cat claws its way down the fig…and disappears into a cave below. In the cavern’s dark interior, the leopard may keep company with another species that also makes use of the den. Remains of Verreaux’s eagle-owl meals have been found in such hollows.
In contrast to the ‘leopard in the tree’ idea that the big cats cache their kills high up in large branches, they may prefer to stash their prey in caves’ deep recesses. Vultures, hyenas and lions, which might steal a leopard’s kill, keep out of the shadowy interiors.
Could this be the secret of Leopard Gorge? Do its caves, as much as its ridge of tall fig trees, attract leopards - and eagle-owls?
The gloaming is turning to night. The guardians of the gorge will soon stalk on soundless paws and search on silent wings until the next gloaming—the one that happens at dawn.