It was late in the season and the setting sun cast a golden glow on the long dry stems of the grass growing beside the road. There was a rustle of bird activity as they settled down for the night, for here far north of Kariega Park there is little or no twilight but, when the sun sets, just a mantle of darkness that spreads across the land. Although out of sight, the swish and gurgle of the water in the nearby river was a soothing accompaniment to my stroll along the powder-dry road. I had first alighted from the car to investigate some tracks in the dust, but the peaceful scene enticed me onwards, delighting in the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding bushveld. I meandered on around a bend, the car now out of sight behind me, my footsteps raising small explosions of dust along the road.
Suddenly the tawny figure of a lion emerged from the grass only metres away. With my heart in my mouth I stood rooted to the spot. Incredibly he was at first unaware of my existence, his head facing away from me. Then he turned and with what seemed a visible start noticed my presence. I stood motionless, not because I consciously believed it to be the ‘right’ thing to do, but because I was incapable of movement. For what seemed an eternity we stood and eyed one another. My whole attention was rooted on the magnificent animal before me. I was no longer conscious of bird song or of the nearby river, only of my pounding heart and of the creature that held me in thrall. Then with a shake of his maned head he turned and disappeared once again into the tall grass.
Torn between an urge to run for my life and the fear that to do so would attract the attention of the lion, I edged slowly backwards, my eyes fixed on the point where last he was visible. Then came the fear that he might now be behind me, and I whipped around, but the road behind was as empty as that which had been in front of me. Gradually the racing of my pulse subsided and, periodically looking back over my shoulder, I made my way back to the car without further incident.
Later I recounted my experience to an old-hand. He suggested that my encounter had been with a lion that had recently fed. “They are opportunistic hunters, and if hungry enough will take whatever comes their way”, he informed me, “but males particularly will not go out of their way to attack if they have recently had a meal. You were also lucky to have met up with a mature male. Young males tend to be far more aggressive than older, wiser lions, and they are also far more inquisitive. A young male wouldn’t have just turned around and gone back into the bush, he’d have approached to find out exactly what you were and whether or not you were edible”.
All of this came to mind as we came up with the Kariega pride where they were lying in the shade of a crimson-flowered boerboon tree – ‘farmer’s bean’ tree or Schotia affra. At the approach of the open, game-viewing Landcruiser, the male lifted his massive head and stared in our direction. The vehicle came to a halt some distance away from the animal. Sitting where I was next to the driver I was at eye level with the lion and not much further away than I had been on the earlier occasion beside the river, yet I experienced none of the dread associated with that unexpected meeting, and I was even able to raise my camera and take some shots of the king of beasts as he yawned prodigiously showing a fine set of canines, before he flopped down once again to snooze surrounded by his family.
What a difference a Landcruiser with a responsible game-ranger at the wheel can make!
(The first encounter, on the dusty road beside the river, took place many years ago in what is now Zambia.)