In Bed With The Jungle Queen

Lesley Mukwacha

Winner General Nonfiction Storyy

Copyright 2022 by Lesley Mukwacha

Photo by Richard Loller 2008.
Photo by Richard Loller 2008.

When I woke up to prepare coffee, tea, and biscuits that cold morning in one of the wildest bush camps in Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, I wasn't aware that I was about to witness a miracle no living human being I knew had ever witnessed. The camp was full. I could count five overland trucks and several 4x4 land cruisers. It was still about forty-five minutes before sunrise and only cooks were up and already busy with breakfast preparations. Clients would soon start emerging from their tents, most of them for quick toilet visits, as they would have been too scared to go during the night.

Being from Southern Africa, and not yet fluent in the Swahili language, I had not joined the Kenyan drivers and cooks for a drink at one of their campsites the previous night. I had chosen to sit with my twenty-one clients by our fire, sharing memories of that afternoon's sightings, and I remember hearing them talk and laugh loudly, long after we had all gone to bed.

This morning, as I was busy with breakfast preparation for my clients, I overheard one of the Kenyan cooks say, "Don't wake him up. Want to see his face when he wakes up to find everybody standing around an empty table." He was referring to the cook of the truck furthest from me, who, apparently had overslept in his tent. From where I was standing, I could clearly see his tent, which seemed slightly open. A warning bell sounded faintly at the back of my mind but quickly faded away.

This was mean, I thought to myself, but there was nothing I could do as I wasn't familiar with how they joked. As it was getting lighter and lighter, clients started coming out of their tents, some rushing to the bathroom while some started fixing themselves some coffee and tea, amid an exchange of morning greetings. It was suddenly getting louder in the camp, but still no sign of the Kenyan coming out of his tent. Even his clients started emerging from their tents.

Now, whenever possible, the crew always pitch their tents as far away from their clients as possible, for several reasons; the most common one being, they can come and go anytime without making noise for their clients, especially, since they always go to bed last, and are the first ones up early in the morning. The missing cook's tent was about thirty or so meters from his client's, and not very far from the bush line; probably why their noises could not wake him up.

Just as I was about to go tent to tent, announcing coffee and tea were ready, something caught my eye, a slight shaking movement of the Kenyan cook's tent. I paused and watched in horror as a lion's  big, round head appeared from the tent. I literally froze and could only yell out the word, lion! Everyone looked towards me, followed my gaze, and just froze like me. The lion pulled back into the tent and a few moments later, stepped out of the tent, followed by three little cubs that could have easily been eight weeks old. She paused in front of the tent, stared at us for about three seconds, and then looked down at her cubs as if to say, let's go, then together they slowly walked around to the back of the tent and disappeared into the tall yellow grass. My open mouth had gone so dry l couldn't feel my own tongue. My heart was pounding loudly I thought those near me could hear it. I remember one of my clients had been taking pictures of the lioness. There was total silence in the camp as everyone tried to come to terms with what they had just witnessed. The other Kenyan cooks had not said a word or moved an inch since I had screamed, "Lion."

From the corner of my eye, I saw them glance at each other and nod. But before anyone could walk up to the tent, two hands slid out of it, pushed the flaps apart and the cook got out. His eyes went straight to his truck where his clients stood, staring at him in disbelief. Without saying anything to anyone, he rushed to his truck's kitchen side and started opening lockers and pulling out food crates, loudly placing them on the table. It was like watching a ghost. Using the matches he pulled out of his shorts pocket, he lit the gas stove and placed on it, a kettle full of water. Then he suddenly got really mad at his friends for not waking him up. From the little Swahili I could pick up, they were telling him about lions in his tent. He told them to stop the stupid jokes and know that they were bad friends and that their friendship was over. Some of his clients, who had now recovered from the shock, started telling him about the lions too, but he still brushed them aside, that is when John, my client that had taken pictures, and I walked over to the cook. John showed him the lion pictures and at that moment, the cook looked at his tent, back at the pictures on John's camera screen, and understood. A look of utter horror clouded his face before his knees buckled under him and he collapsed right there in front of us, his eyes rolling back as his body stretched out on the ground. His driver, who also had not woken up, came out of the truck's cabin and walked over to us. The other Kenyans explained to him what had just happened. He just stood there, his eyes wide with fear.

 About three hundred meters from this camp is a small compound for rangers who are on standby to assist should something like this happen in the camp. They arrived a few minutes later, put the cook in their Land Rover, and took him to the park's clinic to be treated for shock.
As this was our last day in the park, we quickly broke camp, packed up, and drove towards the main exit. I was thinking hard. There was only one explanation for what had happened, and this is what I think had happened.

The previous night, drunk as a skunk, the cook had entered his tent, forgot to close it, and passed out. The lioness with her cubs walked by, in the early hours of the day, and it being a cold night, they had gotten into the tent, probably thinking it was a cave, and snuggled up to the warm dead log. The guy was saved by being a soundless sleeper who also did not move around in his sleep, because had he moved, that would have been his demise. The smell of alcohol may have drowned his scent, preventing the lion from picking it up. The growing noises from us must have woken her up, prompting her to investigate. When she peeped out the door and saw us, she quickly told the cubs it was time to move.

Now, think about this, when the Kenyan cook's friends thought they were fixing him, they were actually saving his life, for, had they gone over to his tent and tried waking him up, either by calling out his name, shaking his tent or opening the tent door, the lion would have reacted, first by attacking the bigger threat; the guy in the tent.

Sometimes when we kick a frog, we are helping him cross the river.

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