It was a Sunday morning. Last Sunday morning to be exact. And a confession… I wasn’t actually enjoying my game drive. My guests were on their last drive of their two night safari with me and the pressure was on. For the past couple of days, we’d seen scarcely more than a giraffe and half of my guests had given up hope of a ‘big-ticket sighting’ and had opted rather to stay in bed that morning. It happens.
But the guests who’d come on that final safari wanted lions. Nothing else would do. Not even the whole pack of wild dogs we’d found scattered across the road in front of us.
“Are those dingos?” asked one of my guests.
“Definitely not!” was my reply. Every guide can relate to the ‘wild dog problem.’ As guides, we get pretty darn excited when we’re lucky enough to stumble across a pack of wild dogs. They’re Africa’s rarest predator (bar the Ethiopian wolf, but those live super far away) as well as Africa’s most successful hunter. They catch nearly 80% of the animals they chase, which can’t even be compared to the lion’s paltry 30%. Wild dogs take things to the extreme; their intelligence is unsurpassed, as is their body odour. Their pack structure is unique among the big predators, with only the alpha male and female in a pack being allowed to breed. Who raises those privileged puppies? Everyone.
So what’s the ‘problem’ with wild dogs? The problem is that even after you’ve explained all of these magnificent things to your guests, they still don’t care. I’ve had very few sightings with international guests where those guests haven’t asked to leave. And Sunday was no exception.
“We want you to go,” came the request from the back, just as the dogs were beginning to psych themselves up for an early morning hunt.
“Um… are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes,” they laughed. They actually laughed. Like the joke was on me. Silly guide, stopping to watch dingos…
Very reluctantly, I pulled away. I’d been on my way to a lion sighting that had been called in just up the road from the dogs. Other guides I’d passed had reported that while there were lions there, they were really, really far away. But still, they were lions, and I needed lions.
As I pulled into the viewpoint, I did indeed see the lions, but my usual enthusiasm had waned somewhat. I kept wondering what the wild dogs were up to. What they were chasing, what the puppies were playing with, what cool noises they were all making.
As I unlatched the door and freed my guests, I casually mentioned that there were lions down in the riverbed and encouraged them to go and join the crowd that had gathered on foot at the viewpoint to watch specks of lions through their binoculars. I stayed back to make the coffee. And to grumble to myself about my seemingly ungrateful guests.
‘Grumble grumble grumble… hope they’re happy now… grumble grumble… got their lions… grumble.’
By the time I’d made and neatly lined up five coffees (OCD conquers all), the crowd had dissipated, making their way back to their cars and leaving. My guests sauntered back as well. As I handed out the coffees, Mr. Wild-Dogs-Are-Boring came up to me.
“How were the lions?” I asked.
“They were okay,” he said, “but what I really liked the most today, was those wild dogs. They were a treat for us. I can see why you like them so much. Thanks for showing them to us.”
I’m the sort of girl who’s won over easily. I also forgive pretty quickly. Say the right thing and I’m a friend for life. The situation turned around instantly.
‘What fabulous, sweet guests!’ I thought to myself. And I really meant it. See? Easy.
“Let’s go see those lions again,” I offered with a smile. Coffee cups in hand, we strolled back over to the viewpoint, all of us together. But the lions had gone. No doubt, gone off into the reeds, not to be seen again that day.
“Oh well, we got to see them nicely,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. I took a few steps closer to the edge to have one last scan for the lions, when a million things suddenly happened all at once.
…I turned to look at guests
…they’re running away
…a coffee cup hits the ground
…a hat flies into the air
…I see a flash of brown fur
…for some reason I think ‘babboon’
…dust showers my legs
…baboon is running straight at me
…does it want my coffee?
…there’s no way I’m giving it my new Stanley mug
…its growling at me
…it’s a lion
…It’s a LION
…instinctively turn away
…It’s a lion charge
…can’t run from a lion charge
…muscle memory kicks in
…”STOP RUNNING!” I shout at my guests
…I stand still
…instinctively go to chamber a round in my rifle
…I’m holding a coffee mug
…lion is less than two meters away
…guests still running
…”STAND STILL! NOW!” I scream
When I say those things happened all at once, I really mean it. The thoughts all came in a nanosecond. I suppose that’s what everyone means when they talk about how a lion charge gives you ‘tunnel-vision.’ Or maybe that’s not what it was at all.
So all of that happened instantly, but everything else that followed took FOREVER. We weren’t done yet…
…hands into air
…show my hands to the lion
…take another step back
…keep showing her those hands, like it’ll help somehow
…”We’re cool, this is cool,” I say to the lion
…the car is SO far away
…the car is SO SO far away
…”STOP RUNNING!” I scream again
…guests ran, so they’re already at the car
…lions hold ground
…I’m scanning everywhere for more
…she can’t be alone
…watches every baby step I take to the car
…The car is SO SO far away
Eventually I get to the car and stand dumbfounded at the door, the lion has followed me but she’s now 20 m away, with her head poking out from behind a bush.
“GO GO GO!” My guests are shouting at me.
Calmly, I tell them that we’re safe now. They’re on the car, we’re all out of danger, but they’re still panicking.
“JUST ****‘ing GO!”
I survey the scene. Lion. Between us and her, are a coffee cup and a rather nice hat. My coffee setup is still on the truck’s tailgate. With both eyes on the lion, I climb down and quickly pack away our coffee and snacks. We’d have to sacrifice the hat and wayward cup. The guests protested the whole time.
“LEAVE IT! JUST GO!”
Once I’m back in the drivers seat, still staring at the lion, I radioed the closest guide to tell her what happened. I probably didn’t need to, but then after an emergency, you really feel like you should do something. Anything. At least she could warn others to not get out of their cars at the lookout. And she did. Like a champion.
My guests were finished. Klaar. They wanted out. No more safari for them.
“Back to the lodge, NOW.”
“Are you sure?” I asked for the second time that morning.
At that point, we were more than an hour away from the lodge. I used the long drive to debrief the guests and try and make light of what was actually a pretty traumatizing event. It worked. Thankfully. By the time we got back to the lodge, we all had a huge new repertoire of inside jokes and anecdotes.
I’m still trying to process the whole thing. It’s three days later and this morning we had coffee again (different guests) at the same spot. I could still see the lion’s skid tracks, where she’d stopped just short of me. What I’d estimated as 2 meters on the day, was actually even closer. After visiting that viewpoint so many times in the past, the whole place looked oddly different with this new memory strewn across it.
Lots of lessons were learned on Sunday. I’ll definitely be less complacent at drinks stops in the future. But I do love how all of those simulated lion charges that we have to practice before we can walk in the bush, really paid off. My muscle memory kicked in big time when I needed it. What scared me, was the lion charge itself. It had happened from such close quarters, with absolutely no warning. She also charged from down a steep hill, up towards us, which isn’t ‘typical’ either. Nor did she turn and flee when it was all over. Really just goes to show that anything can happen out here. But hey, we’re all still here and I think I’m a better safari guide for it.
Hoofnote: Actually, let’s not play with nanoseconds. Do you know what a ‘nanosecond is?’ A nanosecond is to a second, what a second is to 32 YEARS. All that stuff that took place in a single moment, actually happened over billions of nanoseconds. Love.