Me Against The Lions





Lesley Mukwacha


 

Copyright 2022 by Lesley Mukwacha



Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Zimbabwe's Hwange national park is one of the best wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. It is home to the big 5 and getting a job as a guide in one of the best lodges there was a dream come true for me. The three months I had worked there had been nothing but exciting as I also had the chance to work with some of the best guides in the field. I was going to enjoy working here. My clients for the next four days would be three Japanese young men that I had picked up from the small airport about ten kilometers from the lodge.

They were so happy to finally set foot in Africa. As we drove from the airport, they had made it very clear that the only animal they were interested in seeing was the lion, especially a large maned one. I had responded with a smile on my face, assuring them that I would do my best to find them what they wished to see, even though, inwardly, I was saying, "They are wild animals in a big national park, finding them is no easy walk in the park." That night I thought about the route I was going to take; the watering holes I was going to visit. I would start with a drive up to the closest watering hole where I had been lucky with some cats a few days before, look for lion footprints, and if I found some, our walking safari would begin there.

5:30 am sharp, I was done with loading up the cooler box with our refreshments coffee, tea, and sandwiches for our breakfast and light lunch while on the Safari. With my 458 magnum in the passenger seat next to me, my safari hat and sunglasses on the dashboard, I waited for the arrival of my clients from their rooms. When I glanced at my big game hunting gun next to me, I wondered if I ever was going to use it one day. I remembered our manager's answer the previous night to one of the other clients' questions during dinner and a nerve twitched at the back of my neck.

"But, if guides carry guns on Safaris," the client had said, "why do we hear of some of them being killed by animals?"

"Well," the manager had answered, "imagine being on a safari with a seemingly very experienced, knowledgeable guide, and within the first five minutes of your safari, you are staring down at an elephant or lion or rhino, or leopard that he has just shot and killed. Even if you know that it was for your protection, it just wouldn't seem right. So, guides wait until the very last moment, praying that it's just a mock charge; and if it turns out not to be, it may be too late. And more often than not, it is the guide who dies coz he is always positioned between his clients and danger." With a heavy sigh, the client had nodded in agreement. 

My clients arrived, said good morning to me before hopping onto the open roof 4x4, and as I was about to turn on the engine, when Jonas, one of the trainee guides who had been helping with the preparation of lunch packs in the kitchen, ran up to us, signaling for me to wait.

"Lesley," he said, "I think I heard lions last night by my tent. They might still be close by."
I couldn't believe my ears. I jumped off my seat, told my clients to remain in the car, and walked with Jonas back to his tent. There were fresh lion footprints for sure. It could easily have been ten lions. My heart beating excitedly, I hurried back to the 4x4.

"Guys," I said, " we may as well start our walk here."  I snatched my rifle from the passenger seat and waited for them to gather their small backpacks and cameras, and together we headed back to the lions' spoor.

Standing in front of them, I gently but firmly reminded them, "Guys, remember our briefing last night, should we get charged by any dangerous animal, do not run. Wait for my instructions. Got it?" I looked around at all three of them and smiled when they all said, "Got it, Lesley."

We began our walk, me in front and them in a single file behind me. After walking for about five minutes, occasionally pausing to listen carefully for any noises, I saw a clearing on the ground where the lions seemed to have laid down for a bit. I crouched down and placed the back of my hand against the ground. It felt warm, a sign that they had just left. I looked up at the guys and whispered, "They just left. Keep your eyes open."

From that crouched position, I carefully scanned the area around us, saw nothing, and rose to my feet. The tall yellow grass all over the area made it difficult to see anything. Having a better sense of smell and hearing than us, most wild animals notice us long before we see them, and more often than not, if they are not territorial, they will move away, avoiding confrontation, but if they are territorial, the likes of leopards, black rhino, hippos, and black mamba, your journey to heaven or hell, may be a very short one. They protect their territories. Lions have home ranges instead of territories, so usually, they move away but only for so long, before they get pissed off.

We set off again, this time a lot more slowly than before. We had only done a few hundred yards when a movement, about three hundred meters ahead of us by a big acacia bush, caught my eye. I stopped, signaling with my right hand, for the guys behind me to do the same. I could feel my fingers tightening around my rifle. A couple of ears appeared above the grass and suddenly, I knew they were lions. I could count about five pairs of ears. They were staring at us. Very softly, I said, "Guys, lions, under that bush." I was pointing at the bush. The clients started getting their big cameras ready. The loud clicking noises as they fitted the appropriate lenses was slowly getting on my nerves and made me nervous, but there was nothing I could do. They wanted to see lions, and they surely wanted to take pictures. Then, without warning, a growling female lion shot out of the bush in a terrifying charge that shook the ground beneath my feet. In what seemed like a split second, she was standing about fifteen meters in front of us, her eyes bloodshot and her white-tipped tail swishing from side to side-a sign that I am very agitated and still thinking about my next move. The growling did not stop, and the red eyes did not leave mine for a second.

With my rifle raised and aimed at its head, I was thinking fast. Should I pull the trigger, should I not? Behind me, there was total silence, all I could hear was my own breathing below the menacing growl and grunts from the lioness. In almost a whisper, and without turning my head, I spoke to my clients, "Guys, whatever you do, don't run." I wasn't expecting any audible response, and I got none. When a lion stands in front of you, its canines showing in that unholy grin, a lot of muscles seize to function. The knees turn to jelly, the mouth goes dry and your neck stiff-the only thing one can do is pray silently, no muscles are needed there.

We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity before the tail-swishing slowed down and the growls turned to soft terrifying grunts. She laid down on her belly. That is when I told myself if we were to move, this was the time. She seemed a bit calm and composed now. So, without turning around, I started backing up slowly, whispering to the guys behind me, "Guys, let's back up slowly." The lion didn't move, it just stopped grunting and continued to stare at me. I also noticed that her eyes were no longer as red as they were before. "Don't get your hopes high yet," I told myself as I continued to slowly, and quietly back away, my rifle rigid in my grip. At some point, I thought the lioness looked around me at the guys behind and turned to look at the other lions over by the bush. From the corner of my eye, I saw tiny little ears among the big's ears and understood. There were cubs. This made them more dangerous.

I think I had put about fifty yards between me and the lioness when, suddenly, she got up and walked slowly back to the pride. It was as if the other lions had just told her to leave the poor guys alone. I waited for her to reach the pride before I could turn around. As I watched, two large males got out of the bush and stretched, yawning as they rubbed up against each other. Assuring myself that we were now safe, I heaved a sigh of relief, lowered my rifle, and turned around. Cold sweat broke out all over my body. For a moment I forgot about the lions and terror gripped me upon realizing that the Japanese had varnished. When and how I had no idea. It suddenly dawned on me that all along I had been alone and talking to myself. The lioness must have been laughing at me, in its mind going like, "Who the hell you talking to, the boys are gone?"

That's probably the look I had seen in its eyes when she looked around me and at the other lions, probably laughing and mocking me. Shaking my head in utter disbelief, I started walking back to the lodge. Realizing that I had been alone against a possible pride of ten lions was more frightening than the actual charge. Because we hadn't gone more than two kilometers from the lodge, in about fifteen minutes I was back. Up until now, I haven't gotten over the fact that the clients hadn't even alerted the management to what had happened. They were just sitting by the pool and when they saw me, they jumped to their feet and approached me, murmuring, "Lesley, are you ok?"

I was speechless. I just managed to shrug, before proceeding to my manager's office.

If the lions had decided to attack me, and I had tried to fight back, eventually they would have overpowered me because nobody was coming, no one had been informed, that alone still sends shivers down my spine.

The clients spent the next three days by the lodge, in the swimming pool, bar, and hummocks reading books or playing cards. No one wanted anything to do with game viewing anymore. They had seen enough lions.



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