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Lion sign! The spoor from their soft pads was difficult to spot in the grass and litter, but the droppings told the story. This mere trace, more than a day old, grabbed our attention. Somewhere here, perhaps close, was the absolute predator of the African bush. We were in the presence of brutal strength that is singularly focused on its own survival – without question or compassion.
The mere possibility of confronting lions in the wild when you are on foot and exposed, and as much weighed for likely prey as any other, races the heart. To hear them at night grips your chest; they are out there in the dark. You cannot see them, but they may be coming for you. When they roar up close, your guts, no, your very soul vibrates with the power. It is primal Africa exhaling into your face.
Yet, in my experience, lions have a natural aversion, maybe a fear of humans. When they become aware of you, they usually move away, with at most, a warning grunt or two – unless you harass them, or confront a lioness with cubs, perhaps. It is even common for bush people to chase them off their kill to get easy meat.
But having said that, one must be careful of making general rules about animal behaviour. That is for armchair adventurers, from the safety of their living rooms or their cocktail circles. Animals will act differently under different circumstances. One must develop the intuition to anticipate their likely behaviour in each situation – and you could be dead wrong (pardon the pun).
Once, in the Kalahari, I was moving up closer to watch a herd of elephant at a waterhole. I was completely focused on not being discovered by them and I was almost in position, some fifty paces away, when something told me to look to my left.
A male lion filled my binoculars. He was closer than the elephants! There was a female with him, but she was lying on her side with her back towards me, unaware of my presence. They must have been there throughout my careful, and presumed unnoticed, approach. I felt quite stupid for not spotting him earlier, and uneasy. He sat on his haunches, watching me. Was he bemusedly curios? Why did he not move away? This was unusual. I had to be careful.
Thinking that I would just saunter over to the water hole and watch the elephants for a bit, I had left my bush stick and my bullwhip at my camp about half a kilometre back. They are good companions if I am not carrying a rifle, I have found. But all I had with me now were my binoculars and heavy hunting knife. Both would be about as useful as a cone of gelato ice cream if the male turned aggressive.
I stood absolutely motionless, watching him through my binoculars and telling myself, “If he charges, just do not run. Charge him back and shout as loud and deep as you can. Your life may depend on it!”
We stared at each other motionless for so long that I though my shoulder muscles were going to explode with spasm from holding up the binoculars. Then one of the elephants at the waterhole gave a loud squeal and he looked towards them. I quickly tried to move behind a raisin bush next to me, but he almost immediately looked back, and I froze again. Only a yard gained. He shifted his hindquarters round slightly to face me directly and pulled his hind legs under him. I could see the black tip of his tail twitching. These were bad signs.
The sun was setting. I was intensely aware that we were approaching the hunting hours. I have seen the same lion that fled from me during the day, turn aggressive and predatory when it got dark. African bush people know that too. Many a story is told around campfires, and I have a few of my own. They usually do not end well for bush wanderers.
The bush was cooling down, but I felt beads of sweat count one rib at a time down the sides of my chest and snake down the insides of my legs. Despite my predicament, I smiled to myself. What irrelevant things was I focused on?
I concentrated on trying to read the male. He was full-grown, but his mane was wispy. “Some males are like that, or perhaps it had not yet thickened and bulked.” More irrelevant thoughts. “Focus,” I breathed urgently. “He is damn close. At his distance it would take him just a few bounds. If he decides to come, he would rise, take a few tentative steps, testing the boundary between inquisitiveness and predation, then one or two more, faster, with more confidence, and then he would charge. It would be mere seconds. He is not moving now. Just watching me. They are probably mating. That is why she is lying down. Damn, I am unsure of what to expect of mating lions.”
The elephants were beginning to move noisily away from the waterhole. He looked towards them again. I dove to the left, behind the raisin bush. I landed on my side, completely defenseless and not very mobile. He must have heard me land! I was desperate to know what he was doing. He may be trotting up to see where I had gone. I lifted myself slowly, peering through the tangle of raisin bush foliage. I could not see him. It meant I had some cover, but he could be moving closer. This was scary. A danger that you know of but can’t see is the worst kind! I crawled away as fast as I could ignoring the bite of the gravel into my elbows.
When I was sure I had good enough concealment, I rose carefully, first on all fours, then on my knees, and peered over the vegetation. He was still where he had been, but now he was focused on the elephants. They were moving in his direction. The lioness had gotten to her feet and was watching them too. I was some sixty paces away. I tested the wind with a pinch of dust. It was slight, but across my front. For now I could observe the scene unnoticed.
The lead bull spotted the lions. He stopped and kicked dirt with his front foot and crossly shook his head at them. His ears flapped with the roll of distant thunder and a cloud of grey dust billowed from his head. The pair got to their feet, as dignified as they could under the circumstances, and moved away, grimacing over their shoulders. They stopped at a safe distance and turned to glare defiantly, shoulders hunched, heads lowered, mouths open in half-snarls. One of the bulls trumpeted and charged them. They just moved sideways. The elephants made a few more clumsy threats and moved on.
I stood watching the pair a bit longer through my binoculars. The male flopped down nonchalantly and started licking his front paws. There was not anything in this bush that he really feared, except perhaps me – at least a little, or so I hoped. The female came up to him and rubbed her face against his neck. They were a mating pair.
The sun had dropped below the horizon and the streaks of grey dust from the elephants had taken on an ochre wash. The bush and the lions were bathed in soft orange. Under the denser shrubs darkness was beginning to gather. It was time to get back to my camp and make some additional preparations with the lions so close.
I thought about the lions as I walked back to my camp through the gathering dusk – lions that close do not allow for much wandering of the mind. They were unlikely to bother me, I told myself. I was days from the nearest known human presence. It is those lions that live around the edges of settlements, sometimes take a stray human, or the ones that have learnt to prey on migrants and poachers, or that lie in the dark watching unwitting tourists fiddle around camp fires in unprotected camp sites, then move in to sniff and scavenge while they lie snoring in their roof tents, that one has to be wary of.
These lions lived cut off from humans. They should have a natural aversion of me. They were also mating, and hopefully had their minds on that. But this was a young male. Maybe she was young too, and youngsters… I felt uncertain. I slept in the open in my hammock, and one can never be sure with wild animals. The line between inquisitiveness or benign disinterest and predation is a faint and wavy one.
In my haste to go and see the elephants I had gathered little wood. I had also not set up my perimeter fish line and alarms yet and it will be almost dark by the time I get to my camp. Perhaps I should opt for the uncomfortable safety of the Old Man’s cab for tonight…
Sleepless in the cramped interior, and with the roars of the male making the cab vibrate, I tried to sketch them from memory in the light of my headlamp.