The African bush doesn’t get much more remote than up on the Chizarira Plateau, northern Zimbabwe, in 1991.
On a freewheelin’ camping holiday that took us through South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, six of us crazed advertising types crammed into a Landy and set off.
To date, we had seen enthralling sights, and met interesting people ( the North Korean trained 5th Brigade of Robert Mugabe, for example – more about that another time) but had not yet had a good view of the icon that would have underlined our trip, the African lion.
That was soon going to change.
Chizarira is beautiful, and wild. It lies on the escarpment above Kariba, and even today, is not on any popular tourist route. There are few facilities – all camp sites, in scattered parts of the reserve.
Lots of the habitat is broad-leaved woodland, or miombo, in the local parlance, with some open sweeps of acacia savanna, patches of mopaneveld, and clusters of rocky koppies.
Our campsite was on the banks of a small seasonal stream, that still had a pool of water in it at the beginning of winter.
Following the stream were some tall apple leaf, jackal berry and fig trees, and we happily sited our tents under these for the pools of shade they provided.
The best, and only structure in the camp was the A frame toilets. Near them was single tap, which still gushed fairly clean water for boiling tea etc, so we were happy.
Tired after a long journey through rough roads from Mana Pools, where we had had some great encounters, we were happy to take it easy.
As the sun set, we got to making a potjie and sitting around our fire, shooting the breeze and letting the African night cloak us with stars.
Around about tea-time, well after dinner, the whirring of crickets was shattered by the thundering roar of a couple of lions in unison, further down the stream bed.
Whilst the sound is scary when you’re sitting a few hundred metres from the epicentre, the rolling waves created by multiple roars is also melodic, and in its own way, beautiful.
We were all silent around the campfire as the roars softened, and the crickets once again took the podium.
Then we heard the hunting ‘woofs’ of the lions. This is a low, but distinct call, when lions communicate with each other,particularly on the hunt.
Everything was so silent, we could hear these intermittent woofs, drawing closer to our location.
Well, we all told each other that they were hunting past us, and would soon detour around us pesky humans, and move on.
And so they did. After a period of silence,we heard their ‘woofs’ on the down side of the stream, and moving away, so they had passed us, silently.
It was time for tea, and so I took the kettle to the tap. As I got near the tap, there was a loud ‘woof’, that stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t taken my torch, which was my first mistake.I could dimly see a low, crouching form in the darkness, and could see the agitated flick of its tail, followed by the solid thump as the tail smacked the ground rhythmically.
I now proceeded to make my second mistake.
I reversed rather quickly, my feet kicking up a rustle of dried mopane leaves. And the lioness charged, keeping low, almost shuffling on her crouched legs, and with the charge,she gave the grunting snarl that comes with rapid, aggressive movement.
I now did something right, by pure instinct. I stopped, swore at the top of my voice, and threw the teapot. The lioness, I could hear, more than see, skidded to a halt in the leaves.
‘Paris’ I called, my voice no doubt tremulous, please get to the Landy and shine the light on this bitch.’
The Landy was near the fire, and we always plugged a spotlight into the cigarette lighter as a precaution.
As you can imagine, my friend Paris was not too keen on the idea, but did it, because I heard the Landy door open and close.
In the meantime, myself and the lioness were in a staring contest, and I was pretty sure I was losing.
Then a bright, beautiful shaft of light stabbed out, highlighting the lioness, her eyes glowing fiercely, crouched flat and low. As the light touched her, she stood nonchalantly, and turned gracefully on her tracks, then walked away slowly as if she was out shopping.
Which she was. She had stopped and checked us out while the rest of the hunting party had moved on. Because she was curious. And that curiosity nearly gave her a meal.
Well, two of our party, who shall remain un-named, managed to fit into the very cramped toilets, and myself and my girlfriend at the time, Kerry, settled un-easiliy into our tent, alongside two of the others in their tent. Kerry, an ex Zimbabwean, was soon fast asleep as though all this was normal, but I was wide awake, listening to the surreptitious sound of leaves mating, and every other noise, for most of the night. That’s when I figured out that curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Curiosity helps the cat kill.