SAFARI OVERLAND - ENCOUNTERS WITH WILD BEASTS
We stopped dead in our tracks. Exactly what we’d come looking for raised itself above the waist-high grasses. The tops of the ears first, then the crown of its head, followed by the bloodied muzzle.
‘Don’t move,’ Gordon, our guide, hissed.
The lioness gave a deep roar, like a seismic rumble that echoed in my skull.
‘Looks like they’re on a kill,’ he said.
When two more sets of panting, canine teeth poked above the husks, I felt Gordon’s hand grasp my shirt, gently drawing me backwards.
‘Step back very slowly,’ he whispered.
I was momentarily transfixed by the amber eyes, my legs rooted. Nevertheless, I felt assured our guide had the situation covered. Even when the lionesses began to circle us, and the bullets inexplicably tumbled from the scout’s Mannlicher, I never once doubted Gordon’s ability to lead us back to safety. It had proved an intoxicating moment.
In the past, whenever my encounters with Africa’s wild beasts have veered towards the intimate, thankfully there has been an experienced guide to intervene, ensuring the correct course of action meant the event became no more than an embellished, fireside tale. Of course, when heading off into the African bush it is incumbent upon each of us to maintain a level of vigilance. Though, ultimately, it is the guide, or scout, or both on who we rely entirely. They are the watchers, the knowledge and, hopefully never necessary, the firepower. Except, our modus operandi was about to change
I’ll admit, thoughts of wild beasts had been occupying my mind as we’d forged into the wilderness at the start of our overland safari. We’d shipped our camper to Durban, South Africa, for a six month tour of Southern Africa. The route involved as many of the national parks as our budget could afford, only this time we were to be responsible for our own safety. No guides or scouts would be looking out for us. And it wasn’t long before we were put to the test.
KOSI BAY NATURE RESERVE
As well as being the cultural capital of the Tsonga Tembe Kingdom, Kosi Bay, located in the east of KwaZulu Natal, is also a large wetland area teeming with wildlife. It had been a cold night in our roof-top tent and at first light a heavy dew coated the vehicle. It was quiet in camp, the only other rig belonging to a South Africa party, who had left early on a fishing expedition. After coffee, Christine made for the ablution block and was mid-way through her shower when the green head poked beneath the plastic curtain. With a flicker of the tongue, the one metre long green mamba slithered through the soap suds to join her. These normally shy and reclusive snakes are highly venomous. The poison, brimming with neurotoxins and cardiotoxins, may prove fatal in under thirty minutes, if you’re unlucky enough to be bitten. Initially emitting a suppressed yelp, Christine unravelled her towel from the curtain rail, gingerly stepped outside and, once beyond striking distance, let rip with a screech of relief.
LIWONDE NATIONAL PARK
At Mvuu Camp, in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park, the monkeys had taken stealing the campers’ food to an art form. Whilst the vervets scurried back and forth like a troop of racketeers, the position of capo di capo was undoubtedly reserved for the baboon. With a few well thrown sticks, by lunchtime we’d pretty much got the measure of these ruffians. That was until I made the error of leaving open one of the passenger doors.
“Can you fetch the eggs,’ Christine asked, preparing to make an omelette. ‘They’re on the back seat.’
With my mind half focused on the job, I pitched forward into the car. And there, on the backseat, I came face to face with a baboon the size of a heavyweight wrestler, egg yolk dribbling over his chin. I recoiled in horror.
‘It’s eating the f*****g eggs,’ I cried, balling my fists.
I made ready to assert my authority. And yet, in spite of the verbal exertion, the beast remained quite immovable. Sitting amidst the mess of crushed shell and yolk smeared across the seat, he simply turned his head and flashed his fangs; the baboon was going nowhere until the carton of eggs in his leap was empty. Prudence got the better of me; omelette was definitely off the menu.
RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
‘The camping here is very good,’ the guard at the entrance to Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park assured us. ‘You’ll find it beside the river.’
Following a prolonged search, one hour later we pulled into a clearing in the trees, switched off the engine and took a look around. A quick search uncovered how the rickety shower had no water and the wooden door to the long-drop leaned drunkenly from a single hinge.
‘Not such a very good camp,’ I muttered.
There was no sign of the river the guard had promised us and the clearing we’d stopped in remained littered with woodland debris and balls of elephant dung. Just then a herd of elephants actually crashed from the undergrowth and we hurried to the side of the camper until they’d lumbered through. Either standards had fallen at Ruaha or we hadn’t yet found the right campsite. In any case, the sun was fast dropping beneath the treetops - it was a good moment to make camp for the night.
By the time it was dark, Christine had a stew brewing on the tailgate and I’d arranged our chairs beside a small fire, ready for a cosy supper. I returned from some distant undergrowth where I’d gone for a leak and mentioned how I probably shouldn’t have strayed so far from camp, on account of the lions.
‘What lions?’ Christine scoffed. ‘There are no lions here.’
I was about to reply when the most enormous roar proved there was no need for me to ever challenge her assertion.
“Oh, shit,’ I said, rather loudly.
We gawped into the darkness as the roaring intensified.
‘I think they’re getting closer,’ Christine said.
What would Gordon have done, I wondered, fumbling with the night scopes. I hurriedly gathered all the weapons we possessed - two pepper sprays, a Rambo-style hunting knife and a collapsable spade - though against a pride of lions, Lord knows what I thought I should do with them. As yet more roaring ripped through the woodland I stoked the fire and made another one a short distance to the side of it. As Christine dished up supper, I patted the hunting knife at my side, absolutely ready to make my stand.
‘I think we’ll eat up in the tent,’ she suggested.
‘I think that’s a bloody good idea,’ I replied.
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK
Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is over 14,000 square kilometers of glorious grassland, savannah, riverine forest and woodland. And it is almost completely overrun by tourists. Lines of safari vehicles will converge on a single cheetah, until the rumble of engines, the clicking of cameras and the constant chatter lays waste to the pleasure of the African bush. From then on we made it our challenge to seek out the furthest corners of the park. On just such a mission, after seeing not a soul for almost one hour (or much wildlife, for that matter), we came upon the largest herd of buffalo I’d ever seen. There are estimated to be 53,000 African Buffalo in the Serengeti park and it appeared that every single one of them had converged on exactly the same place. The little used, parallel wheel marks we were following vanished beneath their collective flanks.
We stopped some distance short of them and weighed up the situation. Displaying their gnarled bosses and curled horns, I felt we might be confronting an unruly hedgerow of muscled bovid flesh. Of course, we all believe the buffalo is a placid, retiring creature, because they look it. Except they’re not. Some call them the Black Death, for it’s said that more big-game hunters have been killed by buffalo than by any other African animal. They stand over two metres tall and weigh more than six hundred kilograms.
‘I could try and nudge our way through,’ I suggested rather unconvincingly.
Being one of the most aggressive animals in the park, with a mentality of charging instead of fleeing, I made a quick mental calculation. If just four buffalo took it upon themselves to charge the camper, reaching their average speed of fifty kilometres an hour (2,400 tonnes x 50 kmh = *?!£), the ballistics suggested they would flip us over. And that would have been an expensive end to our safari.
Reluctantly, we fired up the engine, turned the camper around and joined the hordes of tourists.
James Marr is the author of the recently published SHORT STORIES FROM A LONG CONTINENT - THE AMERICAS OVERLAND.