HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

October 18, 2010

Close Encounter of the Feline Kind

This incident happened a few weeks ago but as it was my closest and most perilous encounter to date, I think it deserves to be my first official blog...

As I'm sure some of you are aware (especially those of you that have been to the lodge), walking is an integral part of the bush experience.  For those of you less fortunate people who have not visited a lodge, one of the main attractions is a do a walking safari.  In other words, its just you and bush.  The experience is  worlds apart from the vehicle based safari - no humming of engines, no radio crackling in the background and most importantly, no peace of mind that you're in a land rover capable of outrunning all the dangerous animals tht you encounter!

Most of the times, walks produce no animal sightings and its just a chance to get up close and personal with the bush.  Listen to the orchestra of bird calls, watch the insects go about their busy daily schedule, learn about trees and their medicinal uses etc.  However, there is always the chance that around the next corner, a member of the famed big 5 is awaiting you...  To ensure the safety of our guests, we are trained in approaching, though more often bumping, these animals.  And the only way to do this is practise, and by putting ourselves purposely in harm's way!

Anyway, to the story...  On an afternoon off, myself, Rika (my fioncee), Margueriet (a fellow guide) and Malcolm (our walking encyclopedia and bush mentor) decided to walk to an area where we heard that a male and female lion were seen mating that morning.  The is not a good idea under general circumstances as imagine how you would all feel if 4 people walked in on you whilst you were enjoying...well, lets just say, each other.  However, this is a very real possibility and whilst every situation is different, experience is key.

So, off we go, armed with two rifles, that myself (leading the walk) and Rika are carrying, and a bag of nerves.  The only info we had was that they were close to the road by a 2-track left by an off roading land rover.  I have to admit my heart was pounding the adrenaline was beginning to flow like a beer funnel at a frat party!  Its amazing how acute your senses become when you're placed in a situation like this - your pick up every movement of the grass in the wind, rustlings in the bushes around you become deafening as you strain for a clue to their position.  Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the lions lying under a tree about 30 metres from us.  Luckily for us they had not seen us and because our view was limited by the vegetation, we decided to walk in a big loop and check fom the other side.  Thus far, everything had gone according to plan - we had seen the lions and not been seen, and more importantly my boxer shorts were still unsoiled!

We took note of their position under a small clump of trees and made our way to the other side as planned, stopping every 10metres of so to make sure we were not being hunted by 2 animals quite capable of ripping us apart in seconds.  This might be a good time to point out to the safari virgins amoungst you that a male lion can weigh up to 250kgs (I weigh about 80kgs....no fat jokes please!) and can run about 60mph (I cannot run at 60mph...) and lets not forget their teeth and claws (I have 4 fake teeth and bite my fingernails...on paper I'm the slight underdog!).  However, after finishing almost a complete circle around their last known location, finishing in the cover of a similar cluster of trees, we had not seen them.  This led us to the conclusion that they had moved off without our knowing it.  A sensible assumption.

We all started to relax and I, as lead rifle, turned around to Malcolm, and in a normal voice instead of a whisper asked what we should do.  What happened next is a bit of a blur as it all happened in the space of a few seconds, but the expression on his face will be etched into my mind til the day I die.  He froze and his eyes went so wide, his eyelids almost folded themselves over the top of his head.  For a moment I thought he was joking.  Then I turned around...  Looking at me from a distance of about 4 metres were the 2 lions.  The distance is not an exaggeration and I suggest that you all take a moment to pace out 4 metres from where you sit reading this and imagine a male lion standing there in all his maned glory.  Also bare in mind that a fully grown male lion would come up to about my chest with his head raised.! 

Obviously I am writing this so you can probably work out that we survived.  In short, the lions were so fast asleep they had been completely oblivious to our stealthy approach and only woke up when I spoke.  Mercifully, we gave them such a fright that they took one look at us, turned tail and ran.  I would like to put this down to us being an intimidating sight but I can't.  We got very lucky.  I could embelish this with graphic details of bowel movements and screaming like (manly) girls but as I said it all happened so quickly that we didn't even have time to raise the rifle to our shoulders, let alone compute what was happening and what we should do!  The ran about 50 metres away and turned back to watch us and we made a controlled but hasty extraction from the area.

It was a close call but an invaluable lesson to never drop your guard on a walk as you really don't know what is around the next corner.  All it took was for there to be some knee high grass in front of us and we were totally unaware of these mighty cats slumbering in the grass!