Lion sign. A large male, perhaps on patrol, perhaps with the pride. Even this mere hint of their presence, more than a day old, quickened our pulses; we were in the presence of brutal strength, singularly focussed on its own survival – without reason or compassion.
The mere possibility of confronting lions in the wild when you are on foot and exposed stirs a feeling of awe. To hear them roar at night grips the heart; if they are close the power of the sound makes your gut shudder. It is primal Africa exhaling into your face.
Yet, in my experience, lions relatively untouched by humans have a natural aversion, maybe fear of them. When they become aware of you, they usually flee, with, at most, a warning grunt or two – unless you confront a lioness with cubs, perhaps. Chasing them off their kill is even a way for bush people get to some meat, sometimes.
It is the ones that have become used to humans that I am wary of; the ones that live around the edges of settlements, sometimes prey on the odd stray; the ones that have learnt to prey on migrants and poachers; the ones that have learned to scavenge around unprotected camp sites at night while tourists sleep in elevated tents. The line between inquisitiveness or benign disinterest and predation is a feint and wavy one.
I have found, though, that the same lion that will slink away from you during the day becomes aggressive and predatory when it gets dark. African bush people know that too. Many a story is told around campfires, and I have a few of my own. This time I have extracted one from The Wanderers (Safari Press, https://www.hoffmantheronvanzijl.com/books/) and dropped in here. I hope you enjoy!
I was wandering around with three companions – two bearers and a tracker called Camisu, in an area a bit south of the Zambezi delta, not very far from the Indian Ocean. We were heading in a north-easterly direction but without going anywhere in particular, so when we came upon one of those ubiquitous footpaths I agreed that we could follow it for a bit (Camisu had a particular preference for such footpaths, for good reason).
It was clearly a well-used path, mainly by humans. Camisu, who spoke Fanagalo explained that it led to quite a large village some three days away on the Zambezi, and was the main path between there and villages on the road some five days to the south west (of course “led” is a bit of a misnomer; “aimlessly meander” would probably be a more appropriate description).
We soon met up with a small group of people moving southwards – two men and four women. It was, as always, a special occasion to meet people in such a remote place, and the customary drawn-out social exchange was inevitable.
The men, both around their forties (I guessed) wore somewhat tattered western clothes. The women had beautifully coloured sari-like garments wrapped around them. Two of them were older, about the same as the men, and there were two younger girls – one of about thirteen and the other a sub-teenager.
When we got on our way again I noticed that my companions were unusually talkative and animated. Once we had settled down at our midday break, I asked Camisu what it was all about.
He was a serious man with a proud bearing and a lot of gravitas. Not the best tracker I had ever worked with but on this expedition that wasn’t much of a handicap because I was more wandering than hunting, and he was very good at maintaining authority around the camp and at interfacing with any people we came across.
He explained to me in his serious demeanour that they had been discussing the elder of the two girls whom Domingo, one of the bearers, was particularly enamoured with. I was quite astonished that Domingo could be interested in such a young girl, but Camisu assured me that she was ready for matrimony.
A further reason for their lively discussions was then made known: A lion had, just a week earlier, caught a man traveling along the very path, and just a short distance from where we were. I could see that he was uncomfortable with the lion-situation. Of course there were lions around all the time, and although I felt sad for the slain man’s family I did not think it all that unusual for people to be taken by predators in the remote African bush.
When I said nothing he blurted out, looking away from me: “They are saying that we must leave this area quickly. They are very scared of the lion.”
“And you Camisu, what do you think”, I asked, curious to know if he as the leading figure would admit to being scared too.
“Hau Patrau, those people that we met, they are walking very fast so that they can be far from this place when it gets dark. The lion that eats the people is very bad in the night”, he said.
“I know this thing you are talking about. Ok, we can also walk fast”, and I nodded in a north-easterly direction, “but when it gets dark we have to make camp, and if the lion is there he is there, but I have a rifle and if he comes I can shoot him.”
“Yes Patrau, but they told us this lion, his medicine is very strong, because they have tried to kill him, but they could not”, and now he looked at me imploringly.
“But Camisu, this medicine is stronger, and that is the truth”, I said, patting the butt of my .375. My calm self-assurance seemed to relax him a bit, and after he had spoken to the two bearers they also seemed calmer – up to the point where we found, in the damp sand on the edge of the perfect little stream for us to camp at, the fresh spoor of a large male lion…
My companions, especially the younger of the two bearers were now worried to the point of being panicky. They first wanted to leave, but when I calmly pointed out that it was near sunset, and that we were unlikely to find water again, they wanted to set the veld around us on fire to drive away the lion. That seemed far too drastic, and I refused that too. I knew that one had to be very careful with lions at night, but I thought it somewhat less than likely that a lion would take on four humans if we were prepared. However, I knew I had to act quickly and decisively before the situation got out of hand.
I addressed Camisu in a forceful voice: “Camisu, stop talking like a young boy that is coming to the bush for the first time. This lion cannot kill us. If he even comes close I will kill him”, and I slammed my chest with my fist on the “I”. “Tell these men that we will build three fires here and here and here”, I said as I firmly ground my heel into the ground to mark each spot, “and we will sleep between them. And I have this light that can see very far in the dark”, and I produced a remarkably powerful little torch I had with me, “and if the lion comes, you put the light on him, and I will kill him with this rifle”, and I thrust forward the .375 as if I was presenting arms to the Chief of the Army. “Now take them and go and get some wood!”, and I turned a way to show that it was absolutely the end of the conversation and they had to get on with it.
Fortunately the combination of suggesting that he was acting less than manly and my adamant attitude hit the right cords, and he in turn had enough authority to get the other two into line.
The first part of the night was quiet, but on Domingo’s watch he heard rustling in the undergrowth and he had us all on our feet and brandishing an assortment of weapons, but the torch revealed nothing. We eventually went back to our lairs, and while we were still awake we all heard the sound again but from a different direction. It was very clearly some small animal foraging. Camisu said he thought it was possibly a rat or a hare.