My first “on foot” big cat encounter- a tale of levitation.

 

The following was taken from an email sent back home during May 2012, a few weeks after I had started working as a field guide/hostess (and just about everything else) in a private big 5 reserve in KZN. Having no guests in camp, my managers/friends invited me to join them at their house for dinner … 

Allow me paint the picture, set the scene. It was late afternoon; Dave and Debbie’s house is maybe 250m from my house, off into unfenced wilderness. To get to their house, from our staff houses, you make your way down our lodge access road. The track is very steep and winding, with thick bushveld vegetation obscuring your visual on either side.

The start of the road just outside our staff houses, as it meanders down to the foot of the outcrop where management house is situated- just to give you an idea

I had only been to Dave and Deb’s house once before. When I did so, I travelled by foot. On this particular occasion, not being sure of who might be wanting to use which vehicle later that evening and, reasoning that there was still a fair amount of late afternoon light about. I thought nothing of travelling by foot again. It would be dark by the time I returned home, but then someone could drive me back up to the house – you just never know what kind of tomfoolery one might encounter . Wandering about the wilds in the hours reserved for nocturnal mischiefs is definitely not a wise idea. So off into the wilderness I wandered, a Mozambiquan style sling bag (containing my torch, phone, lip ice, my beanie and a pack of cards) slung over one shoulder, my guitar slung over my other shoulder and a “Savanna” cider in my hand, of course!

Although +- 250 meters may not seem like much of a distance by ‘Normal standards”. When you’re actually walking it, winding your way down a little dust road crowded by acacia thicket and buffalo thorn, that’s when you realise that 250 m feels rather far- but then again any distance feels like an eternity when you have to walk through unfenced big 5 territory! I was actually thinking to myself as I walked, casting a suspicious eye from one patch of giant thatching grass to the next. I wondered what I might do if something came charging through the bushes… I wouldn’t really have been able to successfully run anywhere, because I was a bit far from anywhere to actually run to. There would be no chance of outrunning an elephant, buffalo, rhino or any other dangerous game over such a distance.

So with this in mind, I mulled over a few possible “plans of action under being the victim of someone else’s plan of attack” (still working on a code name for that one). Maybe I’d play the angry animal a little tune on my guitar, an “I’m not as tasty as I look! Promise!” kind of compilation. Or, for fear of not being able to musically dazzle under such pressure, perhaps I could offer it a sip of cider… Or, if all else failed- lob it on the noggin with the cider bottle!!??  Anyway, my musings did not progress further as I arrived at Dave and Deb’s house without incident. They welcomed me in and we sat on the couch enjoying a glass of wine, some soft music playing in the background. Curious thoughts of what may be lurking beyond the giant thatching grass soon put to rest.

The dam below management house, in the last moments of beautiful twilight

A length of maybe 15 minutes had passed when suddenly, mid conversation we all froze! Our attention captured by an unmistakable sound, all too familiar to each of us. We could hear our big male lion roaring! We were SO excited. Our reserve is large, and the lions divide their residency throughout all regions, so it’s not every day that you hear them calling so close to home. We turned the music off and listened. He called again. Sounding quite nearby now, just below the dam wall perhaps. The dam wall is a distance of about 300m away from the house. In our state of excitement, without speaking, we unanimously rose to our feet and made our way outside so that we could hear him calling “properly”.

Debbie and I were first out of the front door. We rushed out to where the cars were parked. We strained our ears, willing to hear his powerful call echo through the last moments of twilight, penetrating the impending dusk with the urgency and respect that only the roar of a lion can command.

As previously stated, it was by this stage the last possible moments of twilight. Those last few moments you have before the African night descends on you, plummeting you into a world of inky blackness. There we stood, two brave little figures, alone, vulnerable to the elements, straining our ears for suggestion of anything lion-ish. We had not ventured too far from the house ( maybe 4 meters) and we had not been outside long (maybe 5 or 10 seconds)… what happened next is a bit of a blur to me now,  but it has been and potentially could ALWAYS be the craziest and most adrenalin filled moment of my life.

The only thing I recall is the complete obliteration of the still of evening twilight. Hearing the most awful gut wrenching growl. Feeling the reverberation of deep and “meaty” guttural thunder tearing through my soul. To follow; an indescribable amalgamation of high speed action, heightened with the drama of slow motion effect.  A fearsome lioness came tearing forth from the darkness. She sailed through the grass. Directly towards us! We don’t know exactly what happened next, as our survival instincts took the wheel, a split second compulsion to “flight” rather than “fight”. We have no idea how we got back through the door of the house, or who got inside first. The scene in my mind was that from a cartoon skit (I am laughing hysterically now as I recall the events).

All I can picture is the two of us levitating simultaneously into the air, our legs moving at a furious pace before our feet even hit the ground. As I said before, we have no idea who got inside first or how we even got inside at all. I remember tearing past Dave (who hadn’t even made it out to the car park before she charged), Debbie screaming “She’s RIGHT here! She’s RIGHT BLOODY HERE”!!!  And then, I just remember being completely confused as to why on earth Dave wasn’t following suit and dashing inside… I actually think Debs and I were so fast that he didn’t even have time to comprehend what was happening! HILARIOUS!! Once we were all inside and the door had been sufficiently slammed, we immediately turned off the lights and peered through the window. We saw her then, the sub adult lioness (who is pretty close to being fully grown); standing in the car park, looking utterly confused and bewildered herself. Her face was the picture of someone who had just been dazzled and awed by the most awesome disappearing act ever to have been performed, in the history of the world!!

Once more, adrenalin took over. We charged out into the back garden-WHICH IS FENCED, hoping to get a better look at her (probably needing additional verification too, that we had in fact just been charged by a lion). Adrenaline fuelled pandemonium ensued. We burst through the back door and I immediately (and most inelegantly) collided with a large garden pot. I nearly took out both Dave and Debbie (who had just collided with one another) as I did so. Despite the awkward tumble, and the fact that D&D had been temporarily stunned on impact, we hardly missed a step. We were however,  soon forced to do some “direction correction” as we realised we had idiotically stampeded to the left (the opposite side of the house to where we KNEW the lioness was). In a state of blind hysteria, still trying to process the events which had just unfolded, we were able to view the fierce lady cat then, as she walk rather agitatedly past the back fence. She flicked her tail, communication her disdain towards the encounter we had so recklessly forced upon her. She anxiously made her way along the fence line, with heavy padded steps. From there, she melted into the darkness. Fading from view as she made her way up the two track. Towards our staff houses -THE VERY SAME ROAD I HAD JUST SO CASUALLY MEANDERED DOWN MOMENTS BEFORE.

Not to downplay what could have been a rather unhappy ending, but oh my word! Under the influence of the adrenaline drug, did we laugh hysterically. It was such a phenomenal experience actually!! It was crazy and scary and amazing all at the same time. An experience for the memory bank, most definitely.

We then, over a MUCH needed glass of whiskey, dissected the whole scenario. In all honesty, we were pretty foolish not to foresee what could potentially happen. We were obviously not thinking clearly. Completely surprised to hear the male calling so close to the lodge. We acted fully on impulse and, through our excitement we didn’t even stop to consider that there might be more than one lion around, spread out… as they do… duh! Seriously, to have her burst forth from the bush like that was the last thing on earth that we were expecting; the whole experience was just completely surreal!

We looked at the spoor the following morning. We estimated that night that she came within 5 meters of us… the spoor told a different story- she came within 2 meters of us. Dave reckons that the growl she gave us was the growl that lions give when they are in attack mode. It wasn’t a warning as per usual lion etiquette- that growl was the introduction of the “mane “event so to speak- sorry,  can’t resist a good pun (or a bad one)! It’s no secret that lions often split up when they move through the bush, especially if they are hunting. We have a total of 9 lions in our pride here on the reserve.  I think we were correct when we suspected the calls we heard to be coming from our big male. He was probably some distance behind the rest of the pride and was calling to let the females know his location. As I said before, this particular female is a sub-adult which means she is less experienced and also less confident that a fully grown mature lioness (she was about 15 kg’s off being fully grown at the time).

She was probably doing one of two things. Either, waiting in the grass (which just so happened to be located directly outside the house) for the rest of the pride. Or, she was just making her way past when we all came hurtling through the front door like a herd of  hyperactive tap-dancing wildebeest on a sugar high. We must have looked most intimidating to the poor lady, in our reckless state of excitement. She surely got a big fright and dropped down into the grass when she first saw us immerge from the house. And then, when we kept advancing directly towards her in a blinded state of elation, she probably felt that there was nothing left to do, other than to defend herself through attack. Luckily for us, due to her lack of experience and lack of confidence, she backed out. That’s our theory anyway… it could have been completely different from the lioness’s point of view, but I think the theory makes sense.

Not a great photo, but this is a pic of the very same lioness, spotted on our guest path when she, her two brothers and our BIIIIIG male decided to visit us in camp again a few weeks later!     

To explain how her pursuit concluded the night of our encounter, to be quite honest I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure exactly what happened from her side, after she came charging towards us. We all  know VERY well that one is NEVER supposed to run at times like this … but let me just tell you-  when you are caught off guard like that. When you’re a glass of wine down, and you have it in the back of your mind that the safety of the house is just behind you. Let me assure you. YOU RUN LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER RUN BEFORE! Truth be told, I think it was our simultaneous levitation exercise that stunned the living daylights out of her. Forcing her to retreat in a state of bewildered admiration. All is well that ends well, as “they” say… little did I know this was not to be my last dramatic encounter with this particular female (and her two rather scary brothers)… but that’s a tale for another time.

 

 

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