When I set my Big Cat Quest in motion, during a dark time exactly a year ago, my friends at Naturetrek were, from the start, wholly behind me. They were quick to come up with the tours I needed in order to see the requisite cats in 2015, and daft enough to let me lead them.
I was left, however with a gnawing feeling. I would be looking for all of the cats traditionally regarded as big cats, and likely to see most of them, but I would be making no attempt to see either of the species of clouded leopard, which modern genetic research has placed firmly in the Pantherinae, the big cat subfamily.
This wouldn't do.
At Birdfair in 2013 I had heard Quentin Phillipps' fascinating and informative talk on the Sunda clouded leopard (the only one I managed to attend between the seven talks I myself gave that year). I wrote to wonderful Tina at the Birdfair office and asked her to put me in touch with Quentin. This she did and by return I received a charming, friendly, open-hearted email from him. So I exposed to Quentin my zany plan: I wanted to go in search of the Sunda clouded leopard. Instead of telling me I was soft in the head and who on earth did I think I was anyway, Quentin sent me a second, even more charming, friendly, open-hearted email full of ideas and encouragement, and invited me to visit him in London.
So I did. In real life Quentin is yet more charming, friendly and open-hearted than by email. Without his enthusiastic support, his ideas based on his huge knowledge of Borneo, and his excitement, I would never have dared think it possible to look for the leopard, That I am here, on the verge of looking for it, owes a great deal to him.
It owes much to Dan, David and others at Naturetrek too. Instead of telling me I was soft in the head and who did I think I was anyway, they listened to Quentin's ideas, to me, and said they thought it was a great wheeze. So we made a tour. The day we advertised it it sold out. Apparently there is lots of interest out there in the Sunda clouded leopard. Best of all, six of the eight clients in the group are what I term repeat offenders, people who have travelled with me before, some of them several times. (Though a word to C and K: you've been with me to Svalbard, Kamchatka and Ladakh in winter. I really hope you've brought a different wardrobe this time.) What's more, we had a waiting list for the tour. So Dan rang to ask whether I would stay two more weeks in Borneo to lead a second tour. Two more weeks, making three months away from home, three months of unrelenting work from dawn until well after dusk, three months of never eating my own food, of not exercising, of never seeing my family, nor my garden, nor the view across my pond.
Dan is a persuasive man. Happy for me, on the waiting list were four more of my favourite repeat offenders, some of whom have watched tigers with me in India, and others lemurs in Madagascar.
The next month will be gruelling; there is no doubt of that. I am already exhausted and life has dealt me a cruel card this week. But I shall be surrounded by genuinely lovely people, in a beautiful place, looking for an extraordinary cat. Twice.
Perhaps we shall see no Sunda clouded leopard. It's quite likely. Perhaps, even worse, one tour will see it but the other won't and one group of my friends will despise me forever.
We will cross those bridges when we come to them. For now, thanks to friends at Naturetrek, to Quentin, and to clients who have become friends, I am sitting by a lake, among flowers and the beaming faces of the young men and women who work at my lodge, waiting for my first group to arrive and a daft adventure to begin.
Wish me luck.