This photo records my first close encounter with lion-kind. I still find it hard to believe I was there. I’d not long arrived in Kenya, not so much tourist as camp-follower to Graham who was out there on a short-term consultancy. He had recently returned from Mexico where he’d been studying the habits of the Larger Grain Borer (LGB), a tiny maize-devouring beetle which had been imported into Africa from the Americas in a cargo of food aid. The alien beastie had by the 1990s spread across the continent along the lines of rail and road and was busy infesting grain stores in Taita near the Tanzanian border and also in Ukambani in southern Kenya.
Graham was there to provide technical support to a British funded project that was planning to introduce a predator-specific beetle to control the LGB spread. For several months we had no home base. Instead there was an endless back and forth along the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the coast, Graham spending two or three days at a time at research sites in Kiboko, Taita Hills and Mombasa. I went along for the ride.
At the coast we stayed in beach cottages. At Taita there was a rest house in the hills, but when it was booked up, we stayed at the extraordinary Taita Hills Hilton, a four-star safari lodge in the middle of nowhere. It came with its own private small game reserve, a former colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. (For anyone who’s read William Boyd’s An Ice cream War this was the territory – between the Mombasa railway and the Taveta border).
And so, one Saturday afternoon when Graham had finished working, we took ourselves for a game viewing drive around the Taita reserve. Left to our own devices we would not have seen the lions. But some rangers on patrol stopped us. ‘Have you seen the lions,’ they said. No? ‘Come. Follow us.’ They hived off into the bush in their sturdy truck. We followed (carefully) in the works’ Peugeot 307 saloon (!) And there they were, two lions under a thorn bush. Who’d have thought it!