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NINJA LIONS AND PERFORMANCE ANXIETY
By Vandit Kalia
October 2004

[This is the original version of the article, an edited version of which was printed in "Adventure World", Jan 2006 issue. The story is absolutely true, incidentally - and represents the highlight of my first 4-month trip through Africa.]

The blind was too small to accommodate my 6 foot plus frame, and my head, feet or arms kept sticking out. Between visions of hyenas nibbling on my appendages, my lack of comfort caused due to a large stone jabbing into my back and a vague but firm conviction that snakes were lurking nearby, I was not sleeping to well.

Around 11:30 at night, I woke up and turned over, hoping to find a better position. As I opened my eyes, my heart lurched and I almost jumped right out of my sleeping bag – less than 3 feet away from me and close enough for me to pluck her whiskers in case I so desired (I did not), peering over the stone walls of our blind, was the large and unmistakable silhouette of a lioness’s head!

Rewind a few weeks. It was September, and I had already been travelling in Africa for over 3 months. My budget was running low, and much as I wanted to, it seemed as if I would have to give Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe a miss. It was quite by chance that I ended up a Bulawayo cafe, having a coffee with Mike Scott of Khangela Safaris, whom I had met earlier, who told me of an experimental plan to photograph rhinos drinking water during full moon. It sounded very interesting and a welcome change from the run-of-the-mill tours, and I needed no convincing to jump in.

Thus it was that midnight found me getting off the Vic Falls-Bulawayo train at Lukosi station. Mike had warned me to watch out for wild animals, as the station was in the middle of the African bush, on the outskirts of Hwange NP, with only two people – the station-master and the caretaker of a hut where I was going to stay the night – in the area. However, I wasn’t prepared for what I got.

Two dim lights and a second set of rail lines were all that indicated that this was a railway station. There were no platforms, no signs, no houses and quite definitely, no people. As the train’s lights faded away, I realized that I was standing in the middle of the African bush, hundreds of miles from civilisation, with no human settlements in sight. I was seized with a very strong sense of “What the Hell Made You Do Something So Stupid As This” (a feeling I seem to get far too often for comfort).

Thankfully, the full moon meant that it was quite bright. Unfortunately, the full moon meant that I was a very visible target for anything that was looking for a man-sized snack. This state of affairs meant that standing around cursing myself, satisfying though it felt, was not a viable Long Term Survival Plan. So as per Mike’s directions, I summoned up the courage to get away from the meagre comfort of the lights and walked along the tracks for a few hundred meters where I found turn off which did lead to the hut where I was supposed to stay.

Unfortunately, of the caretaker there was no sign and the hut itself was locked. Grumbling a little to myself, I decided to set up my tent in a clearing next to the house, and turned in to sleep. Just as I was nodding off, loud grunts and growls woke me up. Poking my head cautiously out of the tent, I could see several large shadows not too far away from the house (and my tent). A large herd of elephant was passing through the very clearing where I had set up my tent, making a tremendous racket as they did so. I lay very still in my tent, not daring to make a sound and hoping fervently that my dome tent would not offend pachyderm sensibilities. The elephants stayed in the area for a long time, and finally, despite their loud bellowing, I ended up falling asleep.

The night somehow passed, and early the next day, the caretaker showed up. He had decided to sleep in the station-master’s house (wherever that was) the previous night. No harm done, as it turned out, and besides, I was feeling much better now that the sun was out and nothing had decided to make a Man-Sized Snack out of me. A little later, Mike and his spotter, Bernard, drove up in his Land Rover and we were off to Hwange. We stopped for a while at Sinamatella Camp to complete entry formalities and to have some brunch, enjoying a glorious view of the Hwange plains as we munched on our meat pies. Next stop: our campsite, from where we would then walk to the watering hole.

After an early dinner over a campfire, Mike and I packed some essentials for the night and departed for the blind, which was some distance further downriver. The river itself was dry, and on one side, the riverbank rose about sheer 15 feet off the sandy riverbed. At one place, there was a cutting that led up this bank, and it was against this cutting that Mike had erected a semi-circle of rocks, about 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter, which was to serve as a blind. The rear of the blind, which was open and set against the cutting, was our “escape route” in case “things went sour”, as Mike put it.

A sheet of green netting and tarpaulin, thrown over a couple of planks, made up a roof of sorts. There was a 2 foot gap between the tops of the stone and the “roof” – ample space for us to observe game without being seen.

After setting up our camera equipment, we went out to inspect the waterhole, which was about 30 feet away from our blind. It was a bore-hole dug by elephants to access the flowing underground water, but used by other species of wildlife as well. Looking around, we saw spoor of several types of antelopes as well as a solitary set of rhino footprints, a day old. Cheered by this, we returned to the blind and settled in.

From Mike’s experience, the rhinos usually came to drink around 2am, and were quite noisy when they did so. Since we also had a full day of game tracking on foot ahead of us the next morning, we decided to get some rest.

Thus it was that I lay tossing and turning, with a particularly sharp-edged rock digging into my back and visions of snakes tormenting my dream psyche. And it was in that delicate frame of mind that I opened my eyes to see the lioness staring right back at me.

Initially, my brain just registered the shape and nothing else - I actually closed my eyes again as I completed the process of turned over. Then my sleep-numbed grey matter decided to stop worrying about snakes and process the image it had fleetingly glimpsed. “Hyena,” was its first (and rather feeble) offering. “Nope, not the right shape…. Bigger… feline…<Click>…oh BLEEP.”

Suddenly, I was no longer sleepy, no longer worried about snakes and no longer bothered by the sharp-edged stone digging into my back.

I sat up and yelled, at the top of my voice, something that went “EEEEAAAAAHHHOOOOOO” (which roughly means, “I hate to bother you, Mike, but there is a lioness trying to get in. Would you terribly mind shooing her away, old chap?”). My ever-so-suave squawk shattered the stillness of the night, and the effect was electric. The lioness leapt back a clear 15 feet, probably more startled than me. Mike, who had been sleeping, woke up with a start and a “wha.. huh.. eh?”

By now, my vocal ability had recovered, although my heart was still trying to leap out of my chest cavity. I yelled again, a little more coherently (and a lot more gracefully) this time, “LION.”

Then followed a short period of frantic activity in our little shelter. Lacking the adrenalin jolt that I had received, a still-groggy Mike started fumbling around for his rifle and looking around to see what the situation was. The lioness was standing about 20 feet away from us, haughtily ignoring us and doing her best to to convey the impression that she really *meant* to leap backwards 15 feet. I was fumbling around myself, trying to simultaneously reposition my camera, grab a weapon with which to defend myself and convince my heart to stop trying to run away from my chest.

Suddenly, Mike started yelling at something on his side of the blind – a something that turned out to be a large male lion that was heading towards us in a very determined hunting crouch. The lion leapt back startled but very soon resumed the stalk. This time, Mike threw some stones at him and he retreated and hid behind a small plant, still fixated on us.

Imagine, if you will, a three hundred pound plus lion, hiding behind a 2 foot tall, half inch wide plant stem, smirking and thinking “I am totally concealed. They cannot see me. Hell yeah, I am a rocking, cool ninja lion”. Were it not for the fact that my testicles still hadn’t dropped, I would have probably found it funny.

Now Mike borrowed the torch and was fumbling around for some fire-crackers, with which to scare the cats in case they decided to attack. I was supposed to keep an eye on the cats, but as I did, I noticed the lioness looking off into the distance – on the side away from the male lion. Borrowing the torch, I shone a light – it was too far away to see the animal, but 2 bright green eyes stared back at us. Great – most likely another lion. The one time in an African safari when we would have been happy with a few less lions, and what happens? We’re hip-deep in felines.

So – it was us sitting behind a 2 foot wall of stones, one offended lioness ahead of us, one ninja lion stalking us on the left and a third animal, most likely a lion, on our right. We had a shotgun, but the lions had claws and teeth , and neither said "Replica" (with apologies to Vinnie Jones and "Snatch") - this really was an impasse. So we stared at each other for a while.

The lions finally lost interest in us and decided to have a drink at the waterhole – right where my camera was pointing, pre-focused and ready to shoot.

I was a little nervous about how they’d react to a flash, so it was with great trepidation that I fired off a shot. I was ready to apply my jujitsu skills if the lions had charged (on Mike, of course – not on the lions. I don’t think jujitsu works well on lions. Their joints are different). Anyway, the flash elicited no reaction whatsoever. Encouraged, I took a few more shots, but I always made sure Mike was within an arm-bar’s reach of being held out as a Scooby Snack/peace offering, just in case. Mike, if you are reading this, nothing personal, eh?

The lions then moved off to the other side of the river and proceeded to indulge in territorial calling, also known as roaring.

About the roaring – let me put it this way. A lot has been written about the awesome power of a lion’s roar, but mere words incapable of describing the visceral impact of that roar. It hits you like a large wave, and beats against your chest cavity. Your internal organs quiver – partly from the force of the roar, and partly from a genetic memory that reminds you that man was not always on top of the food chain.

It was at this point that Mike decided to go back to sleep, which ain’t right or normal. I sat up for a little longer, replaying the adrenalin of those few minutes and waiting for my goose-bumps to settle down, when another by-product of adrenalin kicked in: I had to go relieve myself. Waking up Mike, I asked his opinion.

“Huh? What? Mmm.. yeah, go ahead. No sudden moves. They know we are humans, and won't bother us anymore. It isn’t a big deal.”

Isn’t a big deal? Isn’t a BIG deal? We were in a small hide, surrounding by three large lions who felt our presence was enough grounds for them to have to reaffirm their claim on this land, and it was no big deal? I was (and still am) very curious to learn what would meet Mike’s definition of a “big deal”, but hey, he was the expert and I was just another person with no thought of snakes on my mind – and besides, I really had to go.

So, showing a level of blind faith that would do a missionary proud, I stepped out of the blind, acutely aware of the two moon-lit lions I could see on the other side of the river-bed (about 25m away), and also the third lion, which I couldn’t see. They were lolling about, relaxed... until I stepped out of the hide, that is. Two (or possibly three) pairs of heads snapped to attention, and two (or possibly three) interested pairs of eyes locked onto me. Two (or possibly three) heads turned and followed me, step by step, as I walked. Anyone who has seen wild lions knows how they can go from "relaxed kitty" to "bad-ass predator" mode with the smallest of change in expression and posture, and as I walked a few paces out of the hide, I was acutely aware of this shift in their demeanor.

There I was, standing on a sandy river bed in a forest at night, being watched by two (or possibly three) lions. Two (or possibly three) large lions. Two (or possibly three) large, big-clawed lions. Two (or possibly three) large, big-clawed, big-toothed—STOP!

There are times when it is appropriate to mentally review the various killing instruments with which nature had endowed lions. This was not one of those times. If anything, I cursed Mother Nature for her excessive and wholly unnecessary generosity in endowing lions with all those weapons. Why couldn’t they just have settled for sarcasm and irony, instead of those big honking teeth and claws?

I turned around for reassurance, expected eagle-eyed Mike to be sitting in a state of full alert, gun ready and covering my back. Instead, going by the snores emanating from the hide, Mike was fast asleep. It was at this point that I also remember that a lot of predators, when they kill, typically tend to eat the victim starting from their anus, where the tissues are softest.

Most men have stood in line at public toilets and can relate the concept of performance anxiety. Well, let me tell you something: that isn’t squat when compared to trying to answer Nature’s call with with two (or possibly three) large, big-clawed, big-toothed lions two leaps away from making your backside the first course of dinner.

After what seemed like forever, my business was done and I returned back to the blind. The lions applauded my performance by letting off another set of blood-curdling roars. Thankfully, they had the decency to wait till I was back in the blind, otherwise I would have probably have suffered deep psychological trauma.

After serenading us for a few hours, the lions departed. In the morning, we saw the pug marks all around our blind, confirming Mike’s theory that the lioness had been watching us for some time. Next morning, we tracked the lions on foot and found them an hour later, resting under some bushes. By the time we found them, they had brought down a kudu – and yes, they were eating it rear-end first.

Side note - if anyone is interested in an outstanding trip in Africa, one that goes beyond sitting in a jeep, please contact us and I will give you Mike's contact information. His trips are flat-out amazing experiences - participatory safaris that bring you close to the real wild Africa and also give you a real in-depth understanding of animal behavior. Mike is one of the most experienced Africa hands I have come across and an all-around solid guy. He really knows his stuff as well as knows how to run a safe trip: you can go for as much or as little adrenalin as you want. Needless to say, I get no commercial benefit from this recommendation.

 
     

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