Seventeen Guides and a Lioness

Lesley Mukwacha


Copyright 2023 by Lesley Mukwacha
Image by Henk from Pixabay
Image by Henk from Pixabay 

Being the head ranger at a fast-growing game reserve in Zimbabwe, I was assigned the duty to take seventeen young aspiring newly recruited guides and game scouts for a seven-day intense training program in the Victoria falls national park, something I enjoyed and was very good at. Something I was passionate about. I was excited beyond measure.

The seventeen young men were also just as excited as this would be their first such experience and would certainly shape them into remarkable safari guides, tour leaders, game rangers, and anti-poaching scouts. We were all ready to get the show on the road. The company had given us two vehicles for the trip into the heart of the park, a 4x4 22 seater overland truck for the seventeen boys and a 4x4 land Rover for me and my assistant

"Alright lads, let's do this!" I shouted above the noise of the idling vehicles, jumped into my car and we set off.

Three hours later, we arrived at our destination, a small opening deep in the jungle about 80km off the Kazungula-Vic falls highway, and give or take, 300 meters from the Might Zambezi river. This was going to be our home for the next seven days; close to the river for water. We quickly pitched the big tent that would accommodate the seventeen trainees. It was a large tent with only one entrance closed by way of a big zipper, the size of a wrestler's thumb. We also pitched a small one to be used as our storeroom for our food and drinks; this would also be where my assistant would sleep. I did not need a tent, my 4x4 was good enough for me.

Having arrived late already, there was not much else to do besides properly setting up and making a big fire. This would also be the best night for proper introductions as most guys did not know each other, having come from all around the country. I remember enjoying every moment and every introductory speech given by the boys. One thing was clear, they were all eager to begin a new life of saving and preserving nature: protecting our environment and making sure that our wildlife would not suffer extinction, sharing our culture, history, and knowledge with travelers from all over the world, and, as I looked at them, and listened to them talk, I could not help but feel honored to be the guy that would make that happen. Yes, and I was pretty damned sure I was the right man for the job.

Since the next day would be an early busy one for us, we went to bed before midnight. Everything was so peaceful except for the occasional hii hii from some owl somewhere nearby and as sleep finally stole me, a distant laugh from a hyena reminded me of the fact that we had company all around us.

Before sunrise the next day, we were all up and having coffee, tea, and rusks- some kind of South African sweet homemade biscuit. The program for the day was clear, orientation walk, tree identification, and learning how to find water, for example, if you ever find yourself in an unfamiliar jungle with no knowledge of where the river might be, what sort of animals to look out for. The guinea fowl has always been my favorite most trusted guy. They forage in flocks and make unmistakable noises easy to pick up. They always drink early in the morning and late in the evening, so if you happen to see a flock headed somewhere around those times and you follow them, they will lead you to water.

Everything went well the first half of the day and just as we were about to have lunch, a vehicle from our main camp arrived. The driver came up to me and said that he had been sent to take the overland truck back to the main camp. One of our trucks in Botswana had broken down on tour and had to be replaced. I did not like the sound of it because our main fridge with all our perishables was in that truck, but there was no other way.

The truck left and everything went back to normal. Since we had no idea how long we would be without our truck, we had to somehow preserve our meat. I suggested we put the whole impala carcass we had on a spit braai. The boys loved the idea.
We made a big meal that night and ate the meat off the spit but we could not finish it all in one day. Just like the previous night, we shared jokes and other stories for a while before I decided it was time for me to hit the hay. I went behind my car and watched the stars for a while before getting into my car for the night. It would be a while before the moon would rise and the darkness outside sent me to sleep the moment I entered my sleeping bag.

The sudden loud screaming from somewhere outside woke me up with a start, my heart suddenly slamming hard against my ribs. I struggled out of my sleeping bag, immediately fumbled for my 458 magnum that I had placed on the front passenger seat, and snatched it up. There was no time to think. There was only time to act. I opened the driver's side passenger back door and jumped out, gun at the ready. The screams were deafening as I frantically searched for their origin. Then a big shock struck me. From where I was standing, because of where I had parked my 4x4, with the tent in front of it, I was not supposed to see the rising moon. This only meant one thing, the huge tent had disappeared. Someone or something had snatched the tent and vanished with it, with the seventeen guys inside of it.

My eyes still adjusting to the darkness, I stepped back and leaned against the 4x4 and suddenly comprehended. The screaming was coming from the ground. I looked down and saw something that terrifies me up until today. The tent was on the ground, shaking from everywhere. Among the screams were distinct growling and grunting noises from inside the same tent. Someone screamed, "Lions, please help!"

I could not believe my eyes as I helplessly looked down at the tent, ready to shoot. But how was I going to shoot a panicked lion trapped in a tent with seventeen panicked guys, without seeing it? Random shooting would result in accidentally shooting and killing one or more people. Try to imagine what was going on inside the tent. The lion thought it was trapped, and the screaming people meant to hurt it. It could not find the exit. The guys were thinking that the lion had come in to kill them and were also looking for an escape route; which was nowhere to be found. It was dark in there, meaning the guys could not see each other, and could not see the lion. Anything that you touched, or that touched you, was the lion. The lion, on the other hand, can see better than us at night and could see the people but they were too many for it and all it wanted was to get away. Mayhem at its best.

At least, I had not heard the diminishing sound of a dying someone in there, only occasional "mommy and daddy come help me" calls. And what was disturbing was the fact that these were merely young inexperienced boys, some of whom had never seen a lion in real life. That was terrifying. Their only hope out here was me. Poor helpless me.

I was about to take the big risk of going to the door of the tent and lifting it to try to help either them or the lion see the gap in the canvas when suddenly, its head popped out through the door. I raised my gun and aimed, ready to squeeze the trigger but pity got the best of me. The lion fully emerged from the tent, turned to look at me with its teeth showing in a grin that seemed to say,"Come on dude, haven't I suffered enough?" before she disappeared into the darkness.

One by one, the boys staggered out of the tent, some still crying. They were so exhausted and terrified that the moment they made it out, they collapsed onto the ground. I could not find words with which to comfort them. I simply waited for them to recover naturally, which seemed to take forever. And when I felt they were ready for my voice, I said to them, " Guys, let's discuss this in the morning. Some of you can sleep in the 4x4, the rest can squeeze into the kitchen tent, or we can all make a big bonfire and sit around it until daybreak. It's only two hours before that."
In unison, they said, "The fire will do, Sir.'

Jacob, my assistant who had heard everything from the safety of the kitchen tent, and chose to stay put, came out and sat with us by the fireplace till daybreak.

What the hell had happened? I had never known lions or any other African wild animal, especially cats, to enter inhabited tents or houses, unless they were fleeing danger themselves.

In the morning, during breakfast, they were ready to share with me what could have happened.

One of the guys had decided to hang the remaining carcass of the roasted impala from the roof poles supporting the tent overhead, by way of a piece of wire, right at the head of the tent, to which they had all agreed. Now, because it was hot, they had left the tent door open and had fallen asleep. The lioness must have been hunting nearby and had picked up the sweet smell of roasted meat. Realizing it was coming from inside the tent, she had looked for the door, found it, and walked right up the aisle to where the meat was hung, not minding the sleeping humans on either side of the aisle. When she sprang up and grabbed the impala cacass, her weight had pulled down the whole tent over it, and the boys and all hell had broken loose.

Sadly, all seventeen of them did not recover from the shock. We had to break camp, find a high spot with a cell phone signal. I called the main camp and requested two extra vehicles to come to take everyone back home. The tent, full of lion and human waste, we had to burn.

Lesson learned, never leave your tent open in the wilderness. Zip up and stay safe.

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