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What feeds our fascination with Africa? How have our passions evolved, and where do we find fullfilment? Here, author Mike Unwin investigates his own very personal obsession. In his story, perhaps we recognise something of our own

”Hold on. I think I saw… Was that some kind of… Can you go back a second?”

It’s around 7.45am on Friday 18 August, 1989. The words, or something similar, are my mother’s. They herald a moment that I have been trying to imagine for much of my life. Forget space travel or scoring the winner in the FA cup final. Forget Siberian tigers, blue whales, polar bears and other fantasy animal A-listers. One childhood dream has long crowded out all others, and its realisation is now just seconds away.

First, some context. This is day four of a safari in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. I’m sitting behind the wheel of a battered Mazda 323, my father beside me and my mother in the back seat. My parents and younger brother Nick are here for a holiday, my first visitors since I arrived in the country a year ago. I am working as an English teacher at a high school in Bulawayo – as is my wife: we got hitched last summer, when our contracts were confirmed. A year on, and I’ve thrown myself into all things African, shedding my English Home Counties skin – or so I imagine – and reinventing myself. Now, my family is here to witness the new me. It feels like a significant rite of passage.

But back to the story. This morning it’s only the three of us in the car. After an early start, we’re returning to camp via a dusty backroad called the Salt Springs Loop. Mum, hampered by her position in the back, has so far spotted little. Now, however, her urgency demands attention. I look around to see her gesturing right towards a flash of water half concealed behind the verge.

As I slip the car into reverse we all simultaneously lay eyes on what Mum has spotted: the lowered head and raised elbows of a large cat, drinking. Backlit by the early sun, the colours are hard to make out but the shape is unmistakable. At the crunch of tyres, it looks up. We have just seconds in which to fumble with binoculars before it slinks back into the long grass, but this is time enough for me to bring into focus the spotted hide and white curl of tail tip. “Leopard!” I say, first to get the word out. “Shit!” A pause. “Sorry Mum.”

So that’s it, then. My life’s ambitions fulfilled in about six seconds and at the tender age of 23. Not a great view – certainly no time for photographs – but a leopard, indisputably. What now? After this, things can surely only go downhill.

That morning was now nearly thirty years ago. Since then, I have seen many other leopards, not to mention plenty of other big cats around the globe. I’ve had ample time to contextualise that childhood obsession within broader frameworks of knowledge and experience.

As part of this maturing process, I’ve learned to rail against our anthropomorphic distortion of the natural world into some value-laden hierarchy: the good, the bad and the ugly of wildlife. How can we expect to understand nature, let alone make a decent stab at conservation, when we continue to stereotype the likes of leopards as “magnificent” and hyenas, say, as “disgusting”? Can’t we accept that every animal is simply adapted to meet the challenges of survival in its own way?

On a personal level, I’ve also discovered that liking leopards is nothing very original. The cat is near the top of most wildlife bucket lists, after all, universally admired as beautiful, enigmatic and so on. In taste terms, it’s the animal equivalent of admiring David Bowie or Roger Federer: impeccable, but hardly niche. Indeed, when asked to name my favourite animal, I seldom fess up. Either I purport to reject the very notion, explaining how I prefer to appreciate the natural world in all its holistic glory or, when I see eyes glazing over, trying to defy expectations with a more left-field candidate: dwarf mongoose, perhaps, or dunnock.

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About Travel Africa

Why Botswana? Where to go, what to see, how to plan for your trip to this amazing country • Slow safari - letting wildlife come to you • Kaokoland, in search of remoteness • What it's really like to walk in Luangwa • Self-drive Tanzania • Know your owls • Sierra Leone rises • 60 reasons to visit Nairobi • Lapalala Wilderness... and much more!