The most dangerous, withdrawn and charismatic of all the African cats, leopards hold a strange but powerful allure. Perhaps it is their combination of supremely indolent beauty and deadliness. Perhaps it is their secretiveness. Leopards are antisocial creatures; they are seen together only during the mating season, and they hunt almost exclusively at night, making stealthy, cunning predators. It is their mystery as well as their beauty that compels. What begins as a straightforward hunt for a leopard can take on the significance of a personal, spiritual quest. They are famously reclusive and, for some, the thought of catching a glimpse of such a creature is as irresistible as the sirens' song. For those trapped in the corporate realm, a world that can stifle the sense of adventure and disillusion the spirit, the leopard can come to symbolise freedom of the soul.
Fifteen years after my first hunt for a leopard, documented in Leopard in the Afternoon, I decided to retrace Ernest Hemingway's travels in East Africa. By this time, I'd made several journeys that had changed my own life but, perhaps more importantly, journeys that had taught me to see the lives of others in a unique way - as if from the inside out: one step ahead of renegade Tamils, I'd searched for the man-eating leopard of Punanai in Sri Lanka, where I was born; I'd followed in the footsteps of Sir Richard Francis Burton in the wilderness of the Indus river valley in the Sindh; then, armed with modem technology and ancient maps, I'd traced the paths of the great Nile explorers and seen for myself that mighty river's sources.
However, as I learnt from Burton, "The devil drives..." I was restless and still wondering what had so captivated a writer who had fascinated me for years. A love for East Africa was the only thing I had in common with Hemingway but it was enough to propel me on to another journey. I had spent years seeking the Nile sources. Now, I set out to find the sources of Hemingway's passion for Africa, to re-see through his eyes a place that had fascinated him since his boyhood, a place of which he said, in Esquire in 1934, "Nothing that I have ever read has given any idea of the beauty of the country..."
The preserved leopard carcass that Hemingway describes in the prologue to his finest short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", is no fiction. There are black-and-white photographs of the leopard on a pile of rocks and of a bearer holding the carcass above his head. It was found by Donald Latham during his 1926 climb to the peak of the mountain. In his description of the ascent, Latham proudly mentions that: "A remarkable discovery was the remains of a leopard, sun-dried and frozen, right at the crater rim. The beast must have wandered there and died of exposure. I built a small beacon and described my dwelling therein.''
But Hemingway's leopard carries far more symbolic weight than the preserved body found at "Leopard Point". Latham suggests that the leopard was hunting and lost its way in a blizzard. Hemingway offers no such explanation. Rather, he sets his prologue up as a riddle that the reader must answer through the tale that follows. The story presents us with Harry, a writer dying in the shadow of the mountain. Waiting for the plane that is his only hope of rescue, he reflects on the stories he has never written and the mistakes he has made, perhaps symbolised by the unexplained, frozen carcass that lies unreachable above.
Although the story is brief, it is perfect. It encompasses the key themes of Hemingway's opus: how can a man remain heroic in a world in which death is a constant companion? How can a person remain true to his vision when everything conspires to cloud it? What is the relation between a writer's life and his work?
Hemingway invites the reader to provide his own explanations "for what the leopard was seeking at that altitude". The image of the cat's carcass on the mountain peak stays in the mind throughout the story, and so do the questions that that image poses. Why is Hemingway's most penetrating look at a writer's failure set in Kenya? What was his own relationship with Africa, the setting for two of his best short stories, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", as well as the non-fictional Green Hills of Africa?
By following in his footsteps, experiencing the places he visited on his first and second safaris, in 1933-4 and 1953-54, understanding Hemingway in a new way seemed possible. It would take a journey round Kenya and Tanzania, stopping where he stopped, looking where he looked, searching for the heart of his African experience. Like the frozen leopard, Hemingway's Africa remained elusive, but was about to become tangible.
Before we went into the Tsavo National Park on the trail of Hemingway's second safari, while we were staying with Alwyn Smith on his ranch at Lake Naivasha, we were offered the chance of seeing leopards ourselves. It so happened that leopards had been killing cattle and goats in the area, and it was necessary to try to shoot them by setting a bait. Baiting animals is cruel yet justified when the animals are marauders or man-eaters. But although leopards are my passion, and I am always eager for the opportunity to shoot a live one with my camera, I had no desire to see one dead. Finally, on the understanding that no leopard would be killed, I agreed to accompany the leopard-baiting party.
In 1934, Hemingway reported on the hazards of leopard-hunting for Esquire in the following dramatic terms: "Philip Percival [who lead him on his second safari] ranks leopard as more dangerous than lion for these reasons. They are nearly always met unexpectedly, usually when you are hunting impala or buck. They usually give you only a running shot, which means more of a chance of wounding than killing. They will charge nine times out of 10 when wounded, and they come so fast that no man can be sure of stopping them with a rifle.
"They use their claws, both fore and hind, when mauling, and make for the face so that the eyes are endangered, whereas the lion grabs with the claws and bites, usually for the arm, shoulders or thigh. The most effective stopper for a leopard is a shotgun and you should not fire until the animal is within 10 yards. It does not matter what size shot is used at that range. Birdshot is even more effective than buckshot as it hangs together to blow a solid hole. (Mr P took the top of the head off one once with a load of number sevens, and the leopard came right on by and on for 15 yards. Didn't know he was dead, it seems. Tripped on a blade of grass or something, finally.)"
Twenty years later, in his journal about the second safari that became True at First Light, Hemingway described his own hunt for a leopard that had been condemned to die by the game department for having killed 16 goats. He and his party spot the animal reclining in a tree, and his rifle shot knocks it off the branch on to the ground with a thump - but then the leopard disappears into the bush, creating the most dangerous of predicaments for the hunters. Hemingway and his tracker Ngui follow the leopard's blood spoor. On the way, Ngui picks something out of a clot of blood on the ground and hands it across: "It was a piece of shoulder blade and I put it in my mouth. There is no explanation of that. I did it without thinking. But it linked us closer to the leopard and I bit on it and tasted the new blood, which tasted about like my own, and knew that the leopard had not just lost his balance." An unnerving search in dense cover follows this discovery, until the wounded beast gives away its position by roaring, and is finally blasted to death.
On our leopard hunt, we left at 6pm to meet the trackers and gun-bearer, who had been baiting leopards before our arrival. Over a three-day period, the animals had already consumed three dead sheep left as bait. They are clever cats, adjusting their habits to their own benefit and to outwit their baiters. Now, at the spot where a hide had been built, one more unfortunate sheep was butchered and hung on the same tree as its three predecessors. Our hope was to catch a glimpse of a cat or cats breakfasting at the tree early the next morning.
We ate dinner beside the camp-fire under a star-filled sky, with the distant glow of lights on the eastern side of the lake. Around the perimeter of the campsite stood a few umbrella acacias, while the air was heady with the scent of palm roses. (About a third of all the roses bought in Europe are grown at Lake Naivasha.) A couple of friendly dogs nosed about, hoping for handouts. Eventually, we went to bed, replete with both food and well-being, feeling like Karen Blixen in her lovely book: Here I am, where I ought to be."
My safari guide, Joerg Bondzio, woke me in pitch darkness from a fitful sleep disturbed by hippos grunting outside. The time was 4am, and we left for the hide at once. It was deathly quiet there, until the dawn broke and the birds began to sing. At one point in the silence I was certain I heard a bird's alarm call followed by a deep coughing sound that had to have come from a leopard. But our luck was out - the carcass remained untouched. We would have to return in the evening.
Around 5pm, full of hope, we drove back through the hills and scrub to the hide. Nearing the spot, it was obvious that most of the sheep had been eaten; only the head and feet remained. A leopard must have hit the carcass soon after we had left it in the morning. Having eaten its fill, there was now little chance the animal would come back. This was a great disappointment. However, I had only to recall episodes in Green Hills of Africa to remind myself that frustration is part of hunting. We decided to sacrifice one more bait: a cow instead of a sheep. Then, as the sun was going down, we left the hide and ranged the plains in the golden light, seeing impala, eland, gazelle and a herd of menacing-looking buffaloes.
We returned when dusk was thickening into night. Deep silence prevailed as usual, until the night-time chorus of francolin, guinea fowl and a solitary nightjar started up. Then, just before 8pm, while scouring the vicinity with his night-vision binoculars, Joerg saw the silhouette of a cat at the base of our tree. By the time I could look through, I could glimpse only a large shape bounding away into the brush. Perhaps the animal suspected that there was a hide nearby. Even if it had, we were not in danger, because a leopard is far too skittish a creature to attack a human in a hide. A lion would have been a completely different matter. If it senses danger, a lion will certainly attack a hide, even when it has already begun to feed on a bait.
On one occasion, Joerg remembered, seven lionesses discovered a bait two metres up a tree. One lioness turned and scanned the bush. Slowly, she approached the hide and stood eye to eye with Joerg. The other beasts came up, sniffed the brush cover, and clawed at it. All seven eventually wandered away, but when the hunters returned later, they found the hide had been destroyed and the bait left untouched.
In the end, we gave up the pursuit. We would see no leopard. That night, dining with Joerg's parents-in-law in their secluded paradise, with the hippos grunting and the night herons croaking at the edge of the lake, Alwyn talked of the enormous adjustments Kenya had made, and was still making, after the end of colonial rule. Although he did not mention it, I could not help but reflect that the eclipse of big-game hunting was a natural part of this decolonisation process - the passing of white dominance over animals, as well as over men, countries and resources. The sort of hunting that Hemingway did half a century ago is a thing of the past. Hence, perhaps, why I had found leopard-baiting to be an unsatisfying, even distasteful, experience.
I don't think now that I came closest to Hemingway's Africa during my leopard hunt, or while interviewing people who knew him, or in driving through his green hills. No, I was closest to Hemingway's Africa when I seized it with my own hands and lived it for myself. For me, waking in the early morning, waiting for coffee and the day to begin, is Africa at its most perfect.
On my last morning, spent by Lake Naivasha, I heard the morning chorus - the fish eagles crying to each other over the water, the hideous shriek of the hadad ibis, and always the melodic tones of the African boubou. Long yellow streaks of sun cast equally long shadows behind the acacias on to the glistening grasses and darker papyrus by the water's edge. Africa in the morning holds out a wide potential, it is a time and a place where the idea of attaining one's best self and achieving one's best work seems quite possible.
Hemingway achieved immortality through his best work, and it is an immortality he associated with Africa and its great mountain. As a boy, he longed to go there, and as an old man, he longed to return; in his death, I am certain he did return, to the top of Kilimanjaro, "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun".
This is an edited extract from Sir Christopher Ondaatje's new book, 'Hemingway in Africa - The Final Safari', published by HarperCollins on 2 October, £24.95. He will be talking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on 16 October (booking: 01242 227979)Reuse content