Close Call (1)
Along with the inevitable questions that came from the guests, relating to the guides best or most exciting sightings, comes the dreaded – What was your closest call? Or, when were you the most afraid?
These questions are stock standard, and should be expected by the guides. After all, they usually follow from the international guests’ first encounter with a wild, African animal, usually at really close quarters.
To put the “Close Quarters” into perspective is very difficult through words, images, or even explanations, and cannot accurately describe the experience. These need to be lived first-hand, to get a sense of the actual proximity that these animals are usually viewed from at the Luxury Private Game Lodges dotted around the country, and all over the continent.
Most guests arrive with new binoculars, and super telephoto zoom lenses in the hope of maximising their chances of catching a glimpse, or image, of the rare, shy, and wild creatures that roam the reserves. But reality soon dawns, and the benefit of visiting private lodges where off road driving is permitted becomes clear, when a nocturnal, “shy” leopard saunters past the game viewing vehicle, flicking its tail, which thumps against the body work of the car.
Breath is held in unison, not a movement made, and the most amazing photo opportunities pass by, with guests frozen in state, too scared to even move their eyeballs, lest the wild creature lunges towards the movement.
|Guests enjoying close up Game Viewing of a Leopard|
The reality is, that the animals, although wild, and living and surviving naturally, are very habituated to the vehicles and know no life, other than the one where they have the regular presence of a guest filled game viewer accompanying them on their daily lives.
They are not persecuted, hunted, shot at, pestered or their behaviour altered. The respect shown is what they have grown up with, and realise that the presence of the vehicle poses no danger to their safety or survival.
What I wanted to share this evening, was what my response would be to the question posed to me over the many many years.
Starting off, I would stress that never in my 15 or so years of guiding, have I ever needed or been tempted to lay a hand on the rifle that sits neatly on the dashboard of the vehicle.
So, my story goes: The year – 2001, on a dark and stormy night………… no no no.
The morning game drive with my guests at Motswari had been fairly productive already, producing elephants, a honey badger, rhino, and a lot of general game along the way. My guests though were less than appreciative, and kept hinting from the back that they had not yet seen a leopard. This went on and on and on, and after a while, my guest empathy skill and diplomacy was starting to wear thin, and in Safari Language I spoke to my Tracker – Isaac, asking him to find some fictitious tracks for us to follow, so that I could just vent a little, and calm down with the help of much needed nicotine in the form of a secret cigarette away from my demanding guests.
Isaac whipped up his arm a few minutes later, indicating male leopard tracks in the road. Closer inspection of the tracks revealed that they were old, depressed in wet soil. This had, and could only have happened 2 days earlier after some rain. 2 days of sunshine had dried the tracks to the point of cracking and deteriorating, but they were tracks, and the guests did not need to know just how old they were. My cigarette, and some peace and quiet were at the top of my list of priorities at that point.
I discussed the tracks with my guests, mentioning that Isaac had found Leopard tracks, and that the two of us needed to follow them on foot, to establish a direction, and a possible location of the leopard, after which we could drive them to the sighting. My instructions were clear, “stay seated in the vehicle, and enjoy the silence for 10 to 15 minutes”.
There was no way that the leopard was going to be found, firstly, we were 2 days behind the cat, and secondly, at that point in time, the Timbavati had no Leopard Males that were habituated, or could be viewed, let alone found during the day. That all being considered, I foolishly left my rifle on the vehicle, knowing that I would not be needing it, and it would just be a heavy load to cart along my little personal hike.
I had walked alongside Isaac for about 100m down the road, when I moved to my left, ducking behind a thick stand of mopane trees, where my guests would not see me, and I was also far enough away that they would not smell the wafting smoke from my little sinful pleasure.
I had weaved my way about 50m into the tree line, watching Isaac proceed down the road. Feeling I was concealed enough, I took my packet of cigarettes from my pocket, and lit my method of demise.
A deep drag, and exhale was all that I could manage before all manner of hell broke loose in front of me.
2 ferocious, blurred, yellow growling balls of fury came barrelling out of the bush towards me, teeth bared and saliva flying as they came, intent on teaching me that smoking really does kill.
The language of choice was rather graphic and vivid, and the volume high enough that the guests later commented that they had never thought their polite ranger could curse an irritating fly, let alone tell lionesses off so convincingly, that they go and bury their heads in shame, at the string of flowery language they had just been subject to.
Shouting, screaming, lunging towards them in the hope of intimidating them, both lionesses slammed on brakes, showering me in gravel, grass, leaves, and the really unpleasant slobber of stinky saliva landing on my chin.
We stood in a state of stale mate for a few seconds, before the expected lunges kept coming over and over again from the girls. The growls, snarls, and my shouting was luckily enough to get Isaac to react, and my most vivid memory is that of Isaac, running up the road towards the car, with his right hand holding his trouser pocket, to keep his bunch of keys from rattling too much.
Thankfully I had left the keys in the ignition, and after what felt like hours, I eventually heard the whine of the diesel pump starting on the brand new TD5 Land Rover.
My precious cigarette was burning out between my fingers, but I dared not move a muscle that may induce a full charge from the angry felines.
In situations like this, which I had faced before, the secret is to keep eye contact with the lions, stare them down, do not show weakness, but most of all – Never turn your back on the threat, as this will be seen as an attempt to flee, and instinct will dictate that the predator will attack.
I was slowly inching backwards, literally an inch every 10 seconds, shuffling my feet as slowly as possible, to emulate smooth fluid motions that cannot be recognised by the lionesses as an attempt to flee.
For every 5 inches I moved back, I would lunge a step forward at each new, “rev” as we call it in our game, by the lionesses. I was going nowhere fast, and that was no lie.
The forever became an eternity, and eventually I left my concentration zone and heard the drone of the engine nearing the point of entry into the tree line.
Then came the comforting crack of branches and tree stumps as Isaac drove the vehicle closer. It was thankfully all coming to an end. All I needed to do was keep my eyes glued to the wild cats until Isaac inched up behind me and I would jump into the vehicle, or onto the trackers seat where I would again be safe, and not end up the processed eliminated faecal matter deposited by fat lionesses.
BAAAAAAAAAAA BAAAAAAAA BAAAAAAAAAAAA
Isaac had gone insane!!!!!!
Hooting at me!
“Yes Isaac, I know you are getting closer, but you should know I cannot turn around. Turning around will get me killed faster than you can reach for that horn again.”
BAAAAAAAAAA BAAAAAAAAAAA BAAAAAAAAAAA
Engine revving, lions getting agitated, fangs being bared. I actually saw the pupils in the eyes of the lionesses get smaller, the attack was here! This was it, and all I could hope for was that once on top of me, Isaac would be able to shoot them off, without hitting me in the process, and before I was totally ripped to shreds.
A final tree flattened, and the miracle happened, both lionesses broke off their stand, and ran away, disappearing back into the thickets from where they had emerged. As quickly as it had started, is as fast as it ended.
Isaac must have been about 5m behind me at this point, and relaxing my shoulders I made the turn for the first time to see how many steps it would take me to get to the safety of the car.
The very last thing that I wanted to be confronted with at that stage was to come face to face with 2 Male lions that were in the pounce position, ready to take me from behind. But, that is what I was faced with, less than 2 meters from me, slap bang between me and my escape were 2 of a coalition of 3 male lions we called the Sohebele Males.
|Sohebele male Lion from the Story.|
The immediate eye contact with them let them know that the element of surprise had been lost, and they fortunately followed the decision made by the females, and fled the scene, scattering, almost colliding with the vehicle as they turned tail and ran.
I jumped onto the tracker seat, shaking, out of breath, and simply indicated to Isaac to take us back to the road. We got to the road where I jumped off the seat, silent in my shock, and walked behind the vehicle where my fingers started burning as the cigarette burnt and spluttered its last.
No words were spoken, not by me or the guests, and there, in their presence I lit another smoke, took a few drags, and looked up at the guests, staring at me wide eyed.
I opened my mouth to let them know that I needed the smoke to calm my nerves, but before I could get close to finishing, in unison they all agreed, two guests even joining me.
Putting two and two together, I realised that Isaac had been hooting in the hope that I would turn, and see that I was being stalked by the male lions. His actions were not as questionable as I had initially believed, and had he not hooted, the females may not have departed, not giving me the chance to see the males and confront them head on.
I enjoyed my short respite on the road, but being the ranger I am, was back in the saddle in 4 minutes, and lumbering again through the same bush I had just left, luckily in one piece, and still breathing, to locate the pride of lions that had been intent on destroying me 5 minutes earlier.
20m from where I had stood, we found the lionesses, with a freshly killed Kudu Bull, and even fresher additions to the pride, in the forms of 5 cubs that had been introduced to meat for the first time that day. They were barely 6-8 weeks old at that stage, and thus the aggressive nature on the parts of the lionesses could be justified. 1) Protecting their offspring. 2) Protecting their food source, and 3) unhappiness at the presence of the males so near their new offspring.
This was certainly the closest I have come to being killed in the line of my duty, and a story that I hope will be told over and over. One which I would want my grandchildren to tell of their Grandfather and his bravery, to their friends and family once I am no longer around.
The most scared that I was, is a story for another day.