It always seemed astonishing to me that, should you be lucky enough to locate them, you can simply drive up to dozing lions and take their photographs. Even if you sit doing this for half an hour or more, they will barely deign to register your presence. These big cat shots were all taken in Kenya, but it was while we were living in Zambia, and visiting South Luangwa, that our young South African guide briefed us on the proper protocol when encountering lions.
At the time we were driving around a Luangwa salt pan where we had come upon a pride of lions lying about in the thorn scrub. The guide told us that as long as our profiles remained within the frame of the vehicle (in this case an open-topped safari truck) the lions would not give two hoots about us. To them we would appear to be part of the truck and from which they perceived no particular threat.
Out on the Luangwa salt pan, me in the back seat. The lions had been spotted earlier before the sun came up.
Not a good photo, but the light was poor and I had only my Olympus trip.
However, I was scarcely reassured by this newly acquired knowledge of how-not-to-upset-a-lion when the next day, at 5 a.m., the same guide took us on a hike through the bush. It is all so very different on foot. For one thing, it can be hard to see far ahead, what with all the tall grasses and potato bushes. The guide, though, seemed perfectly relaxed. He had already led us to within thirty paces of a browsing elephant, and assured us that it was entirely peaceable since its ears were not out, nor its trunk thrust to the side in charge mode. He had explained, too, how elephants move silently, in effect walking on tiptoes, the backs of their feet cushions of fat. For a time I kept looking behind me. It had never occurred to me before that something as large as an elephant could sneak up on me.
Our guide then spotted a herd of buffalo. This pleased him because he said that in Luangwa lions preyed on buffalo and the big cats were thus never far behind. And so keeping a careful watch on which way the wind was blowing our scent, he and our accompanying park ranger, White, set out to find some. This involved much careful manoeuvring, first around a small group of passing elephants, and then around the buffalo herd.
Clearly, being on foot, the keeping-one’s-profile-inside-the-vehicle strategy would be quite useless. We had no vehicle. Instead we were told to stake out likely trees to scramble up. I eyed the leadwood and sausage trees doubtfully. A few decades had passed since I had done any tree-climbing. I did not think I could do it – not even to escape a charging lion or buffalo.
Later I was to read a white settler tale of how if you were ‘treed’ by buffalo, they would lick any appendage you had not managed to haul high enough into the branches, and go on licking until your flesh was abraded to the bone. I’m glad I did not know that then. I already knew that buffalo were probably the most dangerous beasts in Africa, and it did not do to cross them- ever.
In the end we did not find lion. I was both disappointed and relieved. By then we had been out walking for several hours, and had only stopped for a tea break. The late morning sun burned down overhead, and we headed back to camp along the Luangwa River, me thinking mostly of breakfast. The members of our small party chatted amiably, enjoying the shimmering meanders of the river. We might have been walking in a city park for all the care we were taking. It was lucky, then, that we had White, the park ranger with us. It was he who drew our guide’s attention to the big bull hippo further along the track. The great beast was attempting to negotiate a shelving river bank, and having some difficulty. Several times he slithered half way down, but could not bring himself to take the final plunge.
The guide said it was most unusual to see a hippo out of the river so late in the day. They liked to be back in the river before sun-up, this after the night spent foraging for grass. He was clearly upset, but we were still some way off, so we stood and watched. Some of us were even laughing at the hippo’s dilemma. The bank was simply too steep. His huge bulk gleamed an angry red under the sun.
Then someone must have laughed too loudly, for suddenly the bull gave up trying to slide into the river. With a bellow he swung towards us and came charging down the path. While White took up a position behind a thorn bush, the guide urged us to move several hundred yards back along the path, across an old lagoon to where a fisherman’s big dug-out had been beached. We were to stand behind the dug-out until he came for us.
We did not need to be told twice. The boat looked reassuringly substantial, although it reminded me of the guide’s earlier tea break tale. We had stopped at a fisherman’s old campsite, and it was there that he told us how a fisherman had recently been mangled to death by a hippo. As we reached the dug-out I vaguely wondered if this boat had belonged to the poor man.
Meanwhile the ranger and the guide, held their position behind the thorn bush, and began to clap very loudly.
For too many seconds the bull came on. The ranger had his rifle at the ready. The guide kept clapping. Then at the last moment, the hippo ran out of steam and veered off into the undergrowth. There were sighs of relief all round. When the guide came to round us up, he informed us that White had been more than ready to, as he put it, part the bull from his brains, but they were nonetheless glad that this had not been necessary. Apart from being scared, the incident made me uncomfortable. I saw then that safari-going had its responsibilities, and was not simply an exciting jaunt. If White had been forced to shoot the hippo it would have been because we were intruding at a moment when the bull saw himself at great disadvantage. Who could blame him for charging?
The hippo when first sighted. You can just spot him under the tree on the right. Thereafter, I was running not snapping.
The dug-out refuge point, and White leading us back to the path, the hippo now vanished from sight.
Watching more peaceful hippo near our camp.
Back in camp it was of course a case of ‘travellers’ tales’. We could sit around over a late breakfast, talking of all the things we had seen that morning, and especially of our near miss with one very angry hippo. At such times, and as so often happened in Zambia, life did not seem altogether real.
The dining room at Tena Tena camp, beside the river and under a rain tree
© 2013 Tish Farrell