January 2013

Story by Tony Weaver, Assistant Editor: Opinion, Cape Times

You are truly alive when you’re living with lions

THE two male lions began first. Short, grunting roars that came from the darkness a few hundred metres to the east of our camp, near the Mushingashi River. Then the female began, roaring back at them, but from the west, somewhere in the hundred or so metres of low scrub that separated our camp from the Kafue River.

We killed our camp lights, and pulled some of the logs out of our fire so our night vision would return. There was one other party in the campsite, a young Dutch couple on their first visit to Africa. My friend Mike Garnham walked across to them to warn them about the lions – they were oblivious, they thought the grunt-roaring was hippos. They were terrified, and immediately piled wood on their fire and made a huge blaze, and turned on every single light they had.

So much for our night vision.

It was Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, who wrote in Out of Africa that “you know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” I remembered that quote later that night as I lay in my flimsy tent – not much more than a dome of mosquito netting – as the lions moved in and out of my conscious hearing until I drifted off to sleep.

There is something deeply primal and visceral about the roaring of a lion that cannot be explained to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It is at once both deeply terrifying, and deeply satisfying, and experiencing it when you are on foot, in the bush, without the protection of a vehicle, is even more satisfying and terrifying.

Our intention the next morning was to track the lions on foot, but when we gathered before sunrise, Chris and Charlotte McBride, two legends of the lion world (Chris wrote The White Lions of Timbavati and Liontide) and at whose eponymous camp we were staying, said it was too dangerous, the lions were just outside camp, and we would go by vehicle instead. Indeed, we found pug marks in the sandy track 20 metres from my tent.

We hadn’t even gone 400m out of camp when we came across the two males staring at the female across the dambo. She was in season, and the males were competing for her attention. The one male stood up, peed all over the other male, and sauntered off. The peed on male, not to be outdone, stood and let out a vehicle-shaking roar before marking his own bit of territory and strolling off into the dawn.

Just another day at McBrides, just another day in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, just another day in paradise.

It’s an extraordinary place and the McBrides are extraordinary people. We had the rare treat of being given a slide show by Chris, mainly of pictures he took in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Botswana’s Savuti Marshes during research that culminated in his landmark book, Liontide. There were some astonishing images, and his commentary on the different levels of danger posed by lions as related to their posture, threat stares and general demeanour was fascinating.

He’s in a Monty Python frame of mind at the moment, and when we arrived, someone asked him about the camp’s old pontoon boat, which was lying on the bank of the Kafue on its side. “Oh that,” said Chris, “was horrible. We lost 20 tourists the day she sank, the screams as the crocodiles picked them off one by one were terrible, terrible.”

Mike asked him how his new laptop was performing. “A bat peed on the keyboard,” he replied, “and bat pee and Microsoft are not compatible.”

After three nights at McBrides, we meandered across to their next door neighbour, the Mushingashi Conservancy, some 65km to the east. Mushingashi is an 85 000 hectare bloc of land owned as a hunting sanctuary by the son of the assassinated Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. It is run with almost military efficiency and the game scouts have all but stamped out poaching in the conservancy. As a consequence the area teems with game, and the Zambian Wildlife Authority, Zawa, has sub-contracted law enforcement in an adjacent area of the national park, and control of the park access gate, to Mushingashi.

This almost forgotten corner of Zambia has a real “old Africa” feel to it, from the old-fashioned thatched square- and rondavels in the Mushingashi camps, to the ever present wildlife that wanders in and out of the completely unfenced camps. Bush buck are almost always present, hippo are a constant hazard, and we had lion and elephant in and around our camps almost every night.

You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.

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