I have been on many journeys in Africa – or ‘safaris’ as they say in Swahili – and all of them fostered a deep love of wilderness, but there was one safari which I came back to time and again when I was writing Leopard at the Door. My husband was born in Nairobi, and spent much of his childhood in Kenya, and so on our honeymoon we planned an expedition into the wilderness – a camping trip, just the two of us, with no guides or safari camps to fall back on. I wanted to experience East Africa as it might have been a hundred years ago. We flew into Nairobi, and drove across the Maasai Mara to Lake Victoria, down into Tanzania, through the extraordinary, jaw dropping remoteness of the Western Serengeti and out of the other side. It took us just over two weeks, and it was every bit as extraordinary as we had hoped it would be.
We spent our first night on the bank of the Mara River, a pod of hippo blowing out air a few metres below us. There were trees for shade, and a patch of earth for our fire. In a moment of unwitting joy at finding ourselves in a place of such beauty, I opened the doors of the Land Rover and begun unpacking the stove, chairs and kit that would make up our camp. A second later a huge male baboon appeared, ushering his harem past him, a hundred strong. If you have never seen a male baboon up close it would be hard to imagine the size, bulk and agility of such a creature. We were entirely at his mercy – the troop could have decimated our camp in minutes – but having never had contact with humans they ran straight through, darting quick looks of curiosity in our direction. Later, as the sun slipped behind the dappled leaves of an acacia, we watched two waterbuck amble down to drink on the far side of the river, then a hyena in the fading light, loping along the bank. The following morning there were leopard prints in the ashes of our fire.
The journey wasn’t always easy. We drove hundreds of miles on juddering, dusty roads, and battled with wet, sucking, wheel-spinning mud. We put up with swarms of tsetse flies, and watched one morning, amazed, as a lion trotted nonchalantly past our camp. There were no showers, and the loo was a spade and a wish that you wouldn’t encounter a lion on the way. We gathered firewood, and dragged thorny acacia branches close to the Land Rover at night to keep off game. A small fridge in the boot provided the only luxury – a cold gin and tonic as we watched the sun slip behind iridescent plains, herds of wildebeest shifting in the gloom, and as darkness fell the eyes of hyenas glittering like fire as they crept closer to where we sat. We cooked every meal on a camp stove; delicious, hot curries, pilafs and stir fries. And at night we climbed onto the roof of the Land Rover, where our tent was erected. Up there we felt safe from pretty much everything.
Toward the end of our trip, we were camping in Tarangire National Park, when I was woken in the night by something moving against the side of our tent. I opened my eyes but it was too dark to make anything out. I didn’t dare nudge my husband awake in case he made a sudden noise. Whatever it was, it was either very large, or it was up on the roof with us. Tarangire was famous for it’s tree-climbing lions, and only two days before a Maasai had been killed walking home through the bush.
I held my breath and listened. There was another scrape along the canvas, and an agile fumbling with the zip of the tent. Could it be a person, trying to get in? The blood beat so heavily in my head that I had to strain to hear anything above its rapid pulse. I recalled my mother asking me whether it was safe, driving on our own through East Africa.
The canvas side of the tent billowed in with the weight of something pushing against it, then I heard a long, rumbling exhalation of breath, signifying the presence of something huge. I rolled over as quietly as I could and peered through a gap in the canvas. There – in the flat light of the moon – was an elephant. Not just one, I realised, but a whole herd, at least thirty strong, picking their way silently past us, just metres from our car. One of the elephants had paused, and was rubbing its trunk along the side of our tent, playing with the zip. It let out a deep, vibrating hum, loud enough to stir my husband into life. It was a throaty purr of pure contentment. We lay there grinning at each other in the half-dark, until - after a long while - the elephant moved on. It was an unprotected encounter with the wild, as my characters might have experienced, living on a farm in Kenya in the first half of the 20th Century, and this feeling of remoteness – the joy of travelling far from the confines and safety net of the modern world – inspired Leopard at the Door.