There is an old hunters’ saying that a man is afraid three times in his life: the first time he sees lion tracks, the first time he hears a lion roar and the first time he sees it in the flesh.
When I first moved to Zambia, I was lucky enough to join a seasoned crew scouring the Kafue River for crocodile eggs to be taken to a farm in the Southern Province. It was the adventure of a lifetime for a young wildlife enthusiast: four months exploring some of the wildest areas in Zambia, sleeping under the stars, cooking over the open fire, with my whole life packed into a leaky banana boat with a single 10 horse power outboard engine.
It was a dark, hot night next to the remote Lufupa River that I had an encounter I will never forget.
I had seen wild lions before of course, but always from the safety of a closed vehicle or the deck of a Kruger camp with electric fences between me and the wildlife. On egg collection, we were camping wild. All our equipment and food fitted into these little banana boats: a bag of maize meal per person, some dried fish, maybe a change of underwear and a blanket. All other space was occupied by egg storage boxes, fuel and shortwave radios.
I had been the subject of a lot giggling and head shaking from my more experienced companions, as instead of a blanket, I had brought a sleeping bag. The first night I was approached by the team leader, Abel. He recommended I ditch the sleeping bag. He pointed out that if lions came in the night, I would not be able to run away as my legs would be hobbled by the sleeping bag – it would be the deadliest sack race in history. After pondering this thought for a moment, I decided that considering everybody else was planning to run, my strategy would be to lie very very still in my sleeping bag, in the hope that any hungry lions would chase after the guys running into the bush and leave me alone! Very unheroic, but even now, I would still say it was the wisest strategy.
So, we finished our evening meal and prepared for sleep. We threw some extra wood on the fire, and all lay down with heads pointing to the fire and feet out to the bush forming a star formation, the idea being that if anything approached the fire, they would encounter your feet before your head, and any experimental chewing would be less likely to be fatal.
In the dead of night I was awoken by frantic activity all around me: we were surrounded by lions.
The fire had died down to glowing coals and all we could make out were shifting shadows and the low grunts of the cats maintaining contact with each other. I forgot all about my plan to remain safely wrapped up in my sleeping bag! Instead I leapt out and joined in the frantic efforts to stoke the fire. Quickly we had a large blaze and began waving fiery logs into the darkness. The fire brightened and we could see the reflection of eyes as the lions continued to circle us no more than fifteen metres away. I am sure they were just curious, but that knowledge is cold comfort when you are being eyeballed by a lion! Eventually they disappeared as quietly as they had arrived and we spent a sleepless night obsessively feeding the fire and thanking our lucky stars.
Every night after that we stuck to a strict schedule of guard duty. We heard the lions often, sometimes very close by, but they never approached us again. Maybe the fire being kept alive helped, or perhaps they had simply satisfied their curiosity! Whatever the lions’ story, the egg collection was a great success and I came away with an experience and a sleeping bag that would stay with me for a very, very long time.