Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cat Food

It's the day after the elephant stampede in Hwange National Park.
My wife Jacky and I are at a small tented camp in the bush, not far from the park gates. One of the rangers - Elliott, a tall ebony skinned Zimbabwean who wears John Lennon spectacles which lend him a distinctly scholarly air, asks us and two other guests - Bill and Janet if we'd like to go for a walk. We all readily agree and he collects a heavy bore rifle and some ammo from the office before leading us out of the camp. It's late in the afternoon of a perfectly clear late September day - towards the end of the dry season. The sun is low and swollen and the air is beginning to cool rapidly. There's the spicy scent of dust and the crunch of dessicated, butterfly shaped mopane leaves underfoot.

We walk away from the camp in single file, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Bill brings up the rear and is somewhat clumsy by nature. Now and again we hear a crash as he drops a piece of equipment, his camera or his binoculars followed by a soft curse. Picking our way down the slope towards the dry river bed we come across a disused termite mound that has been taken over by a colony of dwarf mongooses. The feisty little brown animals, not much more than thirty centimetres long scamper about and then suddenly sit upright to glare at us and issue there sharp, high-pitched alarm calls. They're angry at having their preparations for the night disturbed by our unwelcome presence.

We continue down to the dry river bed and walk along for a while. It's darker here, shaded by the high banks that rise uo to five metres on either side, colder too as the sun sinks lower. The soft sand of the river bed pulls at our feet and makes the going slow and we follow the river as it winds to and fro through the dry scrub. Then, at the apex of a bend Elliott stops so suddenly that the rest of us almost crash into his back. He holds out one arm by his side, but keeps his eyes fixed ahead. His rifle is still slung on his shoulder. We look up to follow his line of vision. Not ten metres away and perhaps three metres above us are three lionesses, silhouetted against the twilit sky. We shouldn't be out this late. Predators are in hunting mode. The big cats are standing there peering down at us but showing no sign of aggression, just curiosity. At Elliott's bidding we stand stock still and silent. Even Bill manages not to drop anything. Then one of the lionesses crouches and looks for all the world as though she is about to leap into the river bed with us. Elliott turns and hisses at us. "Walk slowly upstream." Bill, Janet, Jacky and I look at each other. It's a dry river bed for Christ's sake. How are we to know which way upstream is? Elliott sees our indecision and hisses again. "Back the way you came - towards the camp."

We turn and walk slowly back the way we'd come. Elliott unslings his rifle and follows us a few yards behind. Up on top of the bank the lions follow, never taking their eyes from us, not exactly stalking us but showing an unnerving amount of interest nonetheless. Quite literally, the last thing you do in this situation is run.  Elliott reiterates this but we are all only too well aware that we're cat food if we do. So we walk slowly and casually back the way we came towards the camp along the river bed, with the lions walking equally slowly and casually with us. At last we come to the place where we'd climbed down into the bed. Fortunately it's on the opposite bank to where the lions are. They stop and watch us walk away and make no attempt at further pursuit.

Back at the camp Elliott joins us at the bar for a stiff drink and pronounces that he had been worried that if he'd had to fire even a warning shot he would have been severely reprimanded. If he'd had to shoot one of the lions he could possibly have faced the sack, and if the lions had eaten us he would certainly lose his job, and if he lost his job he would also lose his wife. We tipped him well when we left.  

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