Leopard in the Night
By Frank Wolf
I stared at my sea-water-soaked copy of Moby Dick as it lay covered in sand on the beach, swollen to the size of a New York City phone book. Dave Stibbe and I had just capsized our folding double kayak end over end in heavy surf on the most remote corner of Java’s Ujung Kulon National Park-a 1,206-square-kilometre uninhabited patch of Indonesian wilderness. Our kayak was destroyed-the wooden frame had exploded on impact. Our goal was to paddle the outer coast of Java over to Bali, but that plan had obviously changed.
Before us lay a 30-kilometre trek to the first road. The kayak was a loaner, so we were on the hook for it and had to haul its remains and all our gear out with us. The accident also took our stove, oatmeal packets and noodles, leaving us with a dozen tins of Spam. Spam is delicious but heavy-great for kayaking, not for hiking.
After folding up the busted kayak, we began walking with our 50-kilogram loads. I carried the shattered frame and Spam-stuffed skin of our boat, while Stibbe carried the rest of our gear in a giant, awkward duffle bag. He decided to walk barefoot on the beach after losing one sandal in the accident. “The sand feels good on my feet,” he said.
As dusk fell, we entered the jungle at the far end of the beach, following a faint trail into the dim canopy. By this time, Stibbe was limping noticeably, his barefoot tactic having backfired with an arch strain. I was about 20 minutes ahead of him when I reached an opening in the thicket that would be our campsite for the night. A sudden pang struck my stomach, and I barely got my shorts down to relieve myself. This was followed by another session a minute later, then another. Despite purifying our water, sampling small sips of the river for brackishness as I’d worked my way upstream earlier had left me with a stomach bug.
Stibbe eventually appeared, breathless and eyes wide, from the blackness of the jungle. Back on the trail, he’d been hobbling along with only his headlamp to guide him. Suddenly, a leopard had appeared in his light beam, then disappeared back into the darkness. A moment later, a guttural growl had risen from the night. He had wrapped his hands around his throat to defend against an impending attack. Nothing. Still clutching his neck, he had continued on to camp.
Unpacking our gear to the hum of malarial mosquitoes, we discovered we’d either lost or left our tent poles and pegs at the crash site, 18 kilometres behind us. We tied the tent corners to the surrounding trees, and I stumbled around the campsite looking for adequate peg sticks. Fireflies flitted like a galaxy of stars in the inky blackness. As I darted my light back and forth, I noticed two especially large and still fireflies. Taking a closer look into the bushes, I saw they weren’t fireflies at all, but the glowing eyes of a crouching leopard. Too tired to care or react, I returned to the tent.
“Hey, Stibbe, your leopard is back.” He looked at me for a moment, nodded in unflinching acknowledgement, and then we both dropped into the tent, resigned to whatever fate had in store for us. The next morning, after taking ciprofloxacin for my gut and seeing no further sign of the leopard, we hiked a few more hours through the bush, eventually coming upon a ranger encampment. Over steaming cups of tea, we learned the Cikeusik River mouth we’d crossed was home to a healthy, ravenous population of saltwater crocodiles. Considering this, Stibbe and I thought our visit to Ujung Kulon had gone quite smoothly after all.