When The Lions Visit

Lesley Mukwacha


Copyright 2023 by Lesley Mukwacha
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Having completed the first part of our two weeks training as recruits for one of the biggest tour companies in the world, we were ready to proceed to the next level, the practical side of Overland guiding. The whole first week had been consumed by mostly theory, stuff like learning company policies and accounts, meals, and trip planning, plus clients handling; not so exciting but very important and necessary.

Now, I am going to use the words white and black, nothing unusual in Africa and am not at all being racist, so please bear with me, because for the story to make sense, I need to make use of those words; this will make sense to you later in the story. All six of us, three white South Africans, two of us black Zimbabweans, and Jerry, a black South African, could not wait to leave the city of Johannesburg. We were ready for the bush;

ready for boot camp;  so, leaving Johannesburg early in the morning, we headed for Balule game reserve, home to the big five and part of the Greater Kruger national park. Now, I know some of you are already wondering, what's the big five? Well, let me tell you. The big five are the five wild animals that gave hunters a tough time during hunts for trophies, the most feared and potentially dangerous animals on land in Africa. And, please note, the name has absolutely nothing to do with size, weight, or looks. The hippo, the giraffe, and eland are much bigger and even heavier than some of the big five. And, statistically, hippos and crocodiles kill more people than most wild animals in Africa but, back in the day nobody hunted them for trophies, hence their exclusion from the list. Nowadays we even have the small five, and the ugly five, but let that be a story for another day. That being clarified, let's get back to our story.

The long tiring journey of about 500km, took us the whole day to do in our strikingly beautiful overland truck, and on arrival, just before sunset, we offloaded our gear and set up camp, just 300m from the Main Lodge. Our HR manager, who had traveled with us, and would be part of the team training and evaluating us, was given a room in the lodge and the rest of us stayed at the campsite. The campsite was in the form of a boma, a circular roofless structure built of wooden poles fastened together by wooden trusses, nails, wire, and in some places, rope, picture an oversized cattle kraal with an entrance resembling that of a Blair toilet, the one with a hairpin turn. There is no door but if you are inside, you cannot see outside and if you are outside, you cannot see inside, meaning, animals such as cats and dogs can enter at will, you see where I am going?

"Guys, I suggest we pitch tents before dark," I said. And, to my surprise, all three white boys said no.

"We have a big fire burning all night and stretcher beds too, no need for tents," one of them said. His name was Henk, a long-haired caucasian guy of Australian origin who had been with the company longer than anyone of us. He was here not as a trainee, but as the Hr manager's assistant.

"But guys," I insisted, pointing at the thick dark clouds over our heads, "what if it rains? Those are rain-bearing clouds up there."

"Ney, it ain't gon rain, you just a coward that's all." He laughed and carried on with whatever he was doing by the kitchen area.

Quietly, Jerry pitched his tent about fifteen meters to my left and I decided to follow suit. I had to have somewhere to run should it rain. Besides, sleeping outside, no matter how beautiful the sky is, in a big five area is unafrican. We do not dice with death. When my tent was up, I realized the entrance was not facing the campfire as it normally should and wanted to swing it around then but decided I would do it later. Temperatures could have easily been around forty degrees Celsius and I badly needed a drink, a very cold one with alcohol in it. So just after placing my stretcher bed in front of my tent, I sat down on it, opened a cold beer, and sipped on it like a thirsty gold miner. Stive, my Zimbabwean colleague walked up to me and placed his stretcher bed next to mine. Sitting down on it, and smiling, he said, " I guess we can share one tent nuh?"

"So long as you don't snore man, don't want lions in my tent" I responded, with a smile as well.

"Well, finally, we're here, thanx for hooking me up bro."  He half-turned towards me still smiling and extended his hand for a shake. I took it, nodded, and got to my feet.

"No worries bro, we're good. Now let's get this dinner prepared." I said and walked over to the kitchen area where we all started cutting vegetables and in no time, dinner was cooking.

Roundabout 7 pm, we were all having dinner; a tasty butternut soup to start with, followed by roasted potatoes, rump steaks, a Greek salad, and tomato and onion sauce. The management team that had joined us for dinner was very impressed by the food, and as we ate, we shared all sorts of stories from politics, religion, business, to personal experiences in the tourism industry. The big fire in the middle did not disappoint. The stars were amazing, with all the rain clouds now gone. But without the moon, the darkness was intense. The light bulb attached to a brunch of the big syringa tree by the kitchen illuminated the whole boma. The setup here was fancy, with the light switch nailed to the trunk of the huge tree, two nice wooden tables by the sink, and a nice big wooden board leaning against the wooden fence with metal hooks from where you could hang pots and pans to dry. I was already having ideas in my head as I took in every inch of the area, partially listening to the stories being shared.

Close to midnight, our HR manager checked his watch, glanced at the lodge manager, and nodded. It was time to call it a night. Together they thanked us for the wonderful dinner and left for the lodge, one of the lodge guides leading the way, a 458 magnum held firmly in his hands. Jerry got up too, said good night, and went to his tent. As he pulled down his tent's zipper, he said, out of the blue, "You guys ota be crazy sleeping outside like this.?

Henk replied with a wave of his hand, and a chuckle saying, "Wild animals, especially lions have a special gift of smelling fear and cowardice. You being in the tent makes you the weakest and most scared one. Good luck tonight."

Jerry said no more. A few minutes later, he was snoring.

Now, I am an African who spent seven years of his young age in the village heading cattle and listening to scary tales of wild animal attacks, witchcraft, and ghost stories, and this makes me highly superstitious. I have heard of sacred mountains, caves, rivers, springs where people had disappeared or become disoriented for days, weeks, and months after having said certain things or done certain things deemed disrespectful. My father, who worked as a game ranger for over twenty years had told me stories of some scouts who had been visited by lions just because they had mentioned them or wished to see them. That again is a story for another day.

I was not going to sleep out here on some stretcher bed, come rain come thunder, but as I entertained these thoughts, the silence seemed to take over and as I lay back on the stretcher bed, seeing that my Zimbabwean colleague had also done the same, the white boys on the other side of the fire suddenly quiet and one of them already in snoreland, I vaguely remember seeing Henk, the long-haired guy getting up and approaching the light switch on the tree trunk. I also remember him ignoring me when I told him to at least leave the light on; unbeknown to us, our worst nightmare was approaching.

At some time around 2:30 in the morning, I woke up with a start. The piercingly loud screaming accompanied by scratching noises, coming from my left by Jerry's tent had woken me up, together with the rest of the other guys. No, it was coming from inside the tent but because the night was pitch black, I could not see anything. The fear in Jerry's voice only meant one thing, lions were in his tent. Thinking fast, I reached down behind me and fumbled for the zipper of my tent so I could open the door and slide in, but it was nowhere to be found. Remember I had intended to swing the tent around and bring the entrance to the front but had forgotten to do it. Swearing softly, I gave up and grabbed hold of one of the tent poles supporting the tent and started shaking the whole tent vigorously to try and scare off any lion that might have spotted me. Of course, it was a desperate move, but remember, desperate moments call for desperate measures. I was not going to die without a fight. But, even as I write this story, I cannot help but laugh at myself. How the hell do you scare off a  lion by shaking a tent? The guy would just be like, "Seriously.?" There was also absolutely no way I was going around to the other side of the tent in that darkness, risking being noticed by the lions. In my mind, these were my last moments on earth. Without a weapon of some sort, very few men can stand a chance against a lion. The full-grown male weighs around 250kg, so if he happens to knock you over and sit on you, there is no rising from there. All this I knew first hand as someone who had been guiding in big-game national parks for over ten years now.

I was just waiting to die, even though no one is ever prepared to die. The fear that grips you is immeasurable. It causes your heart to pound so loud you would think everyone nearby can hear it. Especially us Africans fear death, we do not dice with it. For example, when airplanes develop technical faults in mid-air, it is mostly us folks whom you hear screaming and praying loudly, reciting all the many verses in the bible. White people on the other hand are special, together with their cousins, the Asians. Big dangerous things do not scare them easily, especially if they have never actually witnessed someone getting killed by them. That's why you hear many stories of them leaving their vehicles to go and try to grab a selfie with a lion. But, that also is a story for another day. Let's get back to the issue at hand.

Suddenly, something zipped past me, through the glowing coals from the dying fire. I did not see it, I just felt it. The wind it blew towards me felt like that from a jet engine. Whatever it was, it was fast and had not seen me. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I saw something move across the fireplace from me. At first, it looked like a huge male lion, then as the image got clearer, I realized it was the long-haired boy, Henk. He was holding a chair in his hands and blindly swinging it from side to side at the invisible lions. His long blond hair had made him look like a male lion and had prompted me to scream, "Lion!"

Because it was a warm night, we were all shirtless, we had on only boxer shorts and my dark skin had prevented him from seeing me, and him being white, with a good shade of tan, had made him look like a lion itself. Instinctively, I shouted, "Switch on the light!"  It was only then that he saw me since the chaos had begun. Obediently, he dropped the chair, rushed over to the tree trunk with the light switch, and hit it. Ironically, he is the same guy I had nicely asked to at least leave the lights on in case we got visitors and he had rudely responded by saying, "Nothing ain't coming Lesley, you just scared coz you're a coward." Now here we were.

Now, let us take a break and think about this. When faced with death, we do not think about anything or anyone else but ourselves and our fate. For instance, I did not think about the three white boys, I did not for one second think about Stive who had been lying in the now-empty stretcher bed a few feet from mine. This however taught me one terrifying thing, that, when we eventually die, we die alone, thinking only about ourselves and our fate. Scary stuff.

Anyways, the flooding light from the bulb hanging from the tree's brunch lit up the whole boma and when we both looked around us, there were just the two of us standing. The second white guy, Tom,  just sat there like a hypnotized someone, his hands clutching at his stomach and his eyes never leaving the fireplace in front of him. The third white guy, Richard, was nowhere to be seen, only his empty stretcher bed lay there. Steve was nowhere to be seen either and for a moment it dawned on me that he also, like Richard, had been snatched by the lions. Jerry had suddenly stopped screaming, probably finally dead from the lions going at him this whole time. I remember frantically looking around me for the lions. There was none in sight, but that is not uncommon, they can snatch and disappear with the speed of a tiger.

While I was still trying to figure things out, I heard the sound of a zipper being pulled from Jerry's tent. I turned and looked over at the tent and suddenly, my mouth went agape. No way. This was not happening. I mean, I had heard him being killed. We had all heard him being mauled. There was absolutely no way this could be happening. But there he was, coming out of the tent, unscathed and slowly walking up to me. Without saying a word, he just stared at me for a good three to four seconds as if he saw something he had never seen before. Henk, breathing heavily, was still scanning the whole campsite, looking for our hairy killer visitors. I stared back at Jerry and screamed softly, "What the hell!"

Without saying a word, he just shook his head, turned around, and slowly walked back to his tent. As I slowly began to comprehend, I heard some rustling noises coming from the small acacia tree by the boma's fence. I looked up into the tree that could have easily been just about two and a half meters tall with a couple of lower branches armed with the sharpest thorns I had seen. Amongst the few branches were two that sort of leaned towards its right side, one on top of the other, and my eyes could not believe what I saw. Richard was sitting on the top branch while Stive, who could have easily weighed over 100kg was perched up on the lower branch. How the small tree managed to carry the both of them without collapsing is still a mystery to me. At first, I had thought they were rangers sent by the lodge manager to assist us after hearing the noises but realized they were our own.

Still awestruck, I managed to say, " how the hell did you do that?" They quietly started negotiating their way down through the menacing thorns.

"How the hell did you guys get up there?"

I found myself asking again.

The funny thing is, it had taken these two a fraction of a second to climb up to the top of this thorny tree but climbing down took them ten minutes because of the formidable thorns.

Well, I guess survival was more important than a couple of scratches, especially when visited by lions.

So am sure right now you are all wondering, what the hell had just happened. In brief, Jerry, who had never in his life stayed on a wild campsite like this had a nightmare in which lions had entered his tent, thanks to Henk for teasing him about lions going for the weak, and started mauling him. The whole thing was just a dream. There were no lions in camp. The something that had zipped past me like a jet was Steve on his way to the tree. The next morning, under his feet, there were blisters the size of a golf ball from stepping on hot coals while making for the tree.

Well, eventually, we all went back to bed, me and Stive in my tent, the white boys still slept outside on their stretcher beds, with the light off; white people.

Jerry did not get the job, the reason the Hr gave him was, "Imagine you having that kind of a nightmare on an actual safari and sending twenty clients scurrying off into the night where there might be real hungry lions.

The tree climber,  Richard, did not get the job, bad luck I guess.

Steve, I guess was lucky. He still works for the company today.

As for me, as I lay down, back in the safety of my tent, I told myself that this had been one hell of a night. I checked my time, it was 4:00 am, just two hours before we had to get up again. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

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