If You Meet a Lion, Just Pretend Nothing Happened

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If you meet a lion on your way to the toilet block,” I was told, “whatever you do, don’t run. Only food runs. And don’t turn your back on it either. Walk slowly, back to your tent, zip it up and pretend nothing happened. Just remember that you’re not their main source of food. And make sure you have your torch with you at all times.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face a lion without it,” I said.

The Serengeti is just south of the Equator and the nearest town is hours away, and when the sun sets it just drops from the sky and the darkness is suddenly total. The piercing whistle of ten thousand cicadas stole the silence, and birds sporadically cackled and whooped as I zipped up the tent and turned in for the night.

There was nothing to stop the animals coming into the campsite, no fence, no hedge, no one ready with a tranquiliser gun, just in case. Two separate herds of elephants had wandered through that afternoon and trumpeted, stamped and flapped their ears if anyone went too close with a camera. Buffalo and wildebeest grazed around the edges. Baboons were all over the place.

Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I made the long, lonely walk to the toilet block, surrounded by the buzzing cicadas. A glow worm would have been disappointed with the light my wind-up torch gave out. The oinking grunts of the wildebeest were close at hand but they were out of sight. They sounded to be inches away. If they were nearby then, surely, so were their predators. There might have been a lion a foot from me. Remember that you’re not their main source of food. Not their main source!

Don’t run…don’t turn your back on it…walk slowly back to your tent. It is easy enough to say; but if the yellow eyes of a 400lb lion had blazed at me through the night, I would undoubtedly have turned and run, in any direction but the right one.

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Baboons began barking. It is a horrible, heart-rending sound: a sound of terror, a sound of unbearable pain. Or so it seems, at least, when you hear it when out, alone, in the sinister East African night. “If the baboons are barking,” I recalled someone saying, “it means that leopards are close”. So leopards were out there somewhere, as well. The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked, a bird trilled, but still I saw nothing. I would not have seen anything, even if something was there. With my useless torch, I would have fallen over a leopard before I saw it.

The cicadas hissed, the wildebeest grunted, the baboons barked and something howled. Hyena? Jackal? I didn’t know what it was but quickened my step until I was all but jogging and reached the toilet block and shut the door and flicked on the light and met an enormous spider.

I got back to the tent and fell into an uneasy sleep, until I was jerked awake again by the gurgling roar of a territorial lion. I would, I supposed, get used to all this in time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Poling Day

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The Okavango River was clogged with chest-high papyrus reeds and looked from the bank like a field after weeks of rain. As the polers approached, they seemed to be floating supernaturally over the ground, until they came closer and you could see their makoros through the reeds.

They were modern makoros, made of fibreglass, instead of the hollowed-out trunks of sausage trees. I had seen Malawian fishermen in the traditional sort; but they are rare, now, in Botswana. I slung the tent and my day bag inside, and the poler took my bedding roll, unfurled it with a flourish and fashioned it into a seat.

I sat between the bags and he stood at the stern and poled us away from the bank. The flat-bottomed makoro slid over the reeds with a gentle rasping sound, and into a channel where the reeds towered over us and brushed against my arms either side, and the makoro creaked and the water lapped against it and there was a splash like a pebble flicked into a pond when the poler sunk the pole to the bottom to push us along.

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We followed the small procession of makoros as it snaked along the channel. Flies droned and dragonflies hissed; kingfishers trilled and barbets chattered and lilac-breasted rollers made a sound like a man half-heartedly sawing wood.  Cape Turtle Doves kept up the chant they start at dawn and never let up all day: Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana, Bots-wana….

The channel widened further in, and water lilies were scattered across the space which the reeds had surrendered; a little further, we were out in the open river. It was a deep blue against the green and yellow of the reeds, and the poler’s reflection shimmered in the surface. The papyrus closed in on us again as we neared the uninhabited island where we were to camp for the night. The polers ran the makoros aground, and we jumped out, pitched the tents, dug a toilet, gathered firewood and sat out the heat of the day.

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In the late afternoon, we set out again in the makoros. Bullfrogs growled, hammerkops manically cackled, and a bush shrike seemed to be trying to whistle When the Saints Go Marching In. A family of hippos waded between islands in front of us. The weaver birds’ massive communal nests hung from branches over the river. They are built like city apartment blocks, with chambers for each of a hundred pairs, or more.

The sun leaked out of the sky and dripped onto the horizon and its orange effulgence spread over the water. In the half-light, as we creaked and splashed back to our island, the papyrus around us erupted with whistles and cackles, trills and chirps, shrieks and hisses and the hammer-drill grunts of the hippos.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Drive through Ngorongoro Crater

Frederick inched the jeep down the track to the floor of the crater, a huge caldera formed when an ancient volcano imploded. To the right was a salt lake pinked with all the world’s flamingos. To the left, buffalo feasted on tall yellow grass while oxpeckers feasted on their backs. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.

But the flamingos and buffalos were a distance away, half-hidden behind trees and termite mounds, and after ten minutes I was prepared to be disappointed with Ngorongoro Crater. Then a warthog waddled down the road towards us, a squat, ugly thing with a mouth like a shovel with nails hammered through it. The warthog waddled right past the jeep – just inches away – stopped briefly for photographs, and waddled off into the grass.

A hundred yards along the road, we stopped for a zebra crossing. There was an abundance of zebra, an embarrassment of zebra; they were as plentiful as sheep in New Zealand. The zebra graze side-by-side, nose-to-tail so they can swat flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They graze with the wildebeest because they eat the same grass and the same carnivores eat them and each can look out for the others.

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Hyenas!” someone shouted as three furry heads popped out of the grass and one broke cover and loped down the track at the side of the jeep. I never cared much for hyenas. They are always the villains in wildlife documentaries, nasty little things which laugh inappropriately and steal the poor cheetah’s cubs. But they need to hire a PR consultant because they are a lot cuter in person than they seem on the screen with their fluffy coats and sorrowful faces like bears’.

Simba” Frederick said.

Lions!” everyone else said, translating the one word of Swahili the whole world knows.

A coalition of four males reclined in the sun, looking pleased with themselves, as male lions will. The females do the hunting while the males strut about looking hard. Sometimes they roar; often they just stretch out and doze. But when a female comes back with the kill, they bully her out of the way and eat all the best bits themselves. There was a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra within easy jogging distance, but hunting is not their department, so they ignored them.

The lionesses were round the corner, planning an ambush. Two fanned out, crossed the road and hid while the others crouched low in the grass, just metres from us. A moment later, a dazzle of zebra strolled over the road and across the grass in front of the crouching lions. They let a few pass and then pounced. The zebras turned and bounded back the way they had come, but the other two lions leaped out of hiding and came at them in a pincer movement. Lions to right of them, lions to left of them, lions in front of them; the zebras swerved and dodged, the lions ran after them, kicking up dust as they spun, but the zebras, narrowly, got away.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Getting Stoned in Kenya

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Everything changed when the police started shooting.

High school students had blocked the road to Namanga, so no-one could cross the border. They were protesting because their school had been waiting five years for a bus to be delivered. Trucks and cars were backed up on each side of the road. Drivers stood around chatting and texting their mates. The protesters danced and chanted. One boy pogoed high in the air, as if performing a set piece for tourists. We jumped out of the bus to enjoy the mid-morning sun. Maasai herdsmen strolled along the track by the side of the road in scarlet robes; they carried traditional knobkerrie clubs in one hand, but one held a mobile phone to his ear with the other. A snake nosed out of a bush. Meerkats sat up and took notice then vanished. A vulture settled on an acacia tree.

Then the police arrived. There were half a dozen of them to fifty or more protesters, but they were just kids and the policemen were big, intimidating men; and they had automatic rifles, tear gas and riot shields. Disperse and go home, the senior one said, or words to that effect in Swahili. But the protesters carried on chanting and dancing. The drivers carried on chatting and texting their mates. We carried on enjoying the sun. The vulture left its perch.

The policemen were frustrated at being ignored and started firing over the heads of the protesters, who scattered, except a boy of somewhere around thirteen who lay on the road in a puddle of blood. Someone said he was dead; someone else said just badly injured. He had been shot; no, hit by a rock; no, trampled by fleeing protesters. No one really knew what had happened.

We got back on the bus in an orderly panic and the drivers melted back to their cars. Then the riot began. The protesters flung stones and they thumped off riot shields. The police replied with tear gas. But the tear gas ran out before the stones and the police sprinted across the plain out of sight.

The protesters, then, stormed down the road, stopping to pick up more stones, determined to throw them at someone. When they stopped level with the bus, we dived onto the floor and the stones came through every window. I held my daypack over my head while more stones hammered into the panels beneath the windows and a few landed inside. A chunk of compacted glass went down the back of my shorts; I was bleeding from a cut on my arm. More protesters passed, right by us, banging on the side of the bus as we stayed down on the floor and hoped they would not try to get in.

Then they were gone and it was quiet and we got up and abandoned the bus and walked to a nearby campsite, emptying the glass out of our clothes as we walked. The road was clear within a few hours and we crossed into Tanzania a bit later than planned and I never found out for sure what happened to the boy who was laid in the road.

No doubt the school is still waiting for its bus.

(c) Richard Senior 2014