Why a pair of Leica binoculars is the most important companion on every safari – Madeleine Jansen tells us her story.
It’s five o’clock in the morning. Our zebra-striped Jeep has been bouncing along the bumpy roads by the Ngorongoro Crater for the past half-hour. I envy Gert, on the back seat next to mine. Our vehicle is rocking and swaying like a dinghy in a storm –and he sleeps the sleep of the blessed. The night is still pitch-black in Tanzania, our destination this morning is a good vantage point for watching the sun rise over Ngorongoro Crater.
Suddenly, two ghostly green points of light shine out on the dark road ahead of us. Our driver slows down our Jeep and stops. ‘Your binoculars please!’ Darweshi, our guide, excitedly asks me to lend him my binoculars. I have the latest Trinovid 8×42 HD binoculars with me on this trip. ‘Are they any good?’, asks Gert from the next seat, and adds, ‘You can hardly see anything at all beyond the beam of our headlights.’ In spite of this, we both stare intently into the darkness. It could be a hyena or a warthog – or maybe another Thomson’s gazelle? But no, it actually turns out to be something special. Darweshi knows the area very well and hardly ever uses his binoculars. I hand him mine. After a couple of seconds, he passes them back and whispers excitedly: ‘Leopard, leopard!’.
Gert and I bang our heads together as we both try to get a better look over the front seats and through the windscreen at the glowing green points still focused on our vehicle. ‘Take a look with your binoculars’, suggests Darweshi in an urgent whisper. He is right, of course. A glance through my Trinovids makes the scene look as if someone had made the sun come up early – I can clearly recognise the outline of the big cat in the dark. The weak light of our headlights at that distance is still bright enough to let me identify the leopard by the rich contrasts of its spotted coat. Wow! I had never even dreamed of ever seeing a leopard this close.
I had hoped I might get to see one from a long way off, maybe dozing in a tree in the shimmering midday heat – but this was really something else! In the early morning, in the middle of the road, right in front of our Jeep!
‘Look’, whispers Darweshi quite suddenly, ‘there’s something else moving on the right-hand side of the road’. It is till too dark to recognise anything with the naked eye. But now, through my binoculars, I could also see something moving. The leopard turned its head and looked back over its shoulder. I’m sure I heard it making soft noises. Two half-grown leopards suddenly step cautiously out of the tall grass at the side of the road – we had a whole family of leopards before us, a mother and her two cubs. The two sprang quickly past her into the cover at the other side of the road and she followed them into the tall grass. My doubts that rising so early on holiday would bring anything special were gone in a flash.
Our Jeep sets off again. Our actual plan this morning was to watch the sun rise over Ngorongoro Crater. We have a drive of around thirty minutes ahead of us to get where we were going. Amazed, Gert says, ‘I would never have thought you could see so much more in darkness like this with a pair of binoculars’. Darweshi knew better: ‘Oh yes, everyone who goes on safari ought to take a pair of binoculars with them. If they do, we don’t have to drive the Jeeps up close to the animals, we don’t disturb them so much and people see a lot more details than they would with the naked eye – even when the animals let us get within a couple of metres of them’.
A shimmering golden band on the horizon announces the sunrise. We could now recognise acacias, towering high above the tall grass as sharply defined silhouettes against the light of the rising sun. The Jeep rolls to a stop. We clamber out. ‘Now we climb!’ – Darweshi points briefly to a steep track and his gesture tells us there is a tough climb ahead. I sling the adventure strap with my binoculars around my neck and tighten the belt to stop them swinging as we climb. Gert leaves his in the Jeep, and says: ‘I’ll have to crawl up there on my hands and knees.’
Darweshi scrambles quickly ahead and our driver brings up the rear. I’m glad he’s there. More than once he stops me sliding back down the slope on my belly. On reaching the top, Gert anxiously asks if I – and my binoculars – had survived the tough climb in one piece. I’m none the worse for the climb – and my binoculars are still safe and sound. The view from the top is breathtaking. Far below us, we see endless herds of zebra and gnus crossing the floor of the crater. Individual animals are hard to pick out with the naked eye. Only the magnification of my binoculars and the bright, incredibly clear view through them make it possible to pick out individual animals from the tangle of stripes. On their long necks, the heads of giraffes sway like ships on the ocean swell above the herds.
A loudly twittering flock of weaver birds flits busily back and forth from the branches of an acacia. It’s breakfast time for the chicks in their countless, cleverly woven nests. The entire treetop looks like a natural high-rise apartment block for a myriad feathered families. I hand Gert my Trinovids –we enjoy the breathtaking details of this early morning scene in Tanzania – glad to have the opportunity to see it all before the big Jeeps and crowds of tourists arrive and scare off the herds.