Lion tracks, in the soft sand around the edge of a slow seep. It was a big male. He had left huge splayed imprints in the mud as he leaned forward to lap from the thin sheet of water. Then he had crossed and lain down on the cool sand with a casualness that said, “I fear nothing here.”
It is his right front paw in the centre of the picture. The left hind is partly visible on the edge to the left. The marks to the front of his toes are small drag marks made by his pads as he lifted his paw forward. If you look carefully you will see that the bits of sand thrown out are still dark with moisture and the small cracks in the sand around the edges are still sharp-edged. He had been here minutes before.
The drag marks, and the hind imprint almost in line with the front, showed that he had stretched his gait when he left. Why, after such a relaxed linger? Because, he had moved off as he sensed us approaching. Perhaps he was still very close. Perhaps his yellow eyes were right now fixed on us through a veil of vegetation. If our senses were as sharp as his, we would be able to smell him, perhaps hear a muted rustle of crushed vegetation as a crouched down behind his cover.
I wanted to spend the night here. The sun was already touching the treetops and we had come far that day. We were definitely not going to find more water before it got dark and we couldn’t carry much – not enough to cook and wash ourselves and have some left for tomorrow anyway.
But my companions were nervous. I was too. He was alone – either patrolling the far reaches of his territory, or he was a wanderer. We hadn’t seen or heard any sign of lions for at least three days, so the latter seemed more likely. He might be an old warrior, defeated and weakened and sour and mean.
I pick up the story from The Wanderers:
I had been wandering around roughly halfway between the Gorongoza and the Zambezi delta. Earlier that afternoon we had come across a small party of travellers. They were hurrying south-westwards along the same footpath that we happened to be following north-eastwards.
Such encounters are rare in the remote bush, so inevitably there had to be greetings and exchange of news and gossip, no matter that the members of the other party were strangers from a bush village some two day’s walking to the north. They told us that a lion had, just a week earlier, caught a man from a party traveling along the very path, and just a short distance from where we were.
I could see that Camisu 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 Camisu 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 among my companions 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 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.