It’s difficult to accurately describe what lions sound like when they call each other, as it’s not the classic roar you might think. Rather, it’s more of a “whuh whuh whuuuuuuhhhh” sound that pushes out from the deepest depths of a lion’s diaphragm and with such force that it can be readily heard from five miles away. There is a great example of what it sounds like in this YouTube clip. For those on Facebook, there’s a fantastic clip of The Ngamo Pride’s Milo calling to his lionesses.
Along with the lions roaring to preoccupy our dreams, the night sounds of the bush are alive with a cacophony of insects and amphibians calling out, interrupted occasionally by vervet monkeys dancing across our tent roof as they run from tree to tree. It is a much welcome change from the sirens, cars, rain, and other urban noises we’ve left behind in Seattle.
Around 4:30am the roars finally die out for good, and the night sounds are replaced by the incoming day shift of birds chirping their morning reveille. My watch is reminding me once again that, while I may be awake, I’m still in bed. So I pull off the covers and step onto the cold, cold tent tiles – hurriedly putting on the kettle, turning on the small (and mostly ineffectual) space heater, and pulling on warm clothes. This is, of course, after I do a flashlight sweep of the tent; looking under the beds, behind the dressers and toilet, and under the wooden platform in the shower for any slithery things which might have curled up with us overnight. A ridiculous gesture towards my snake paranoia, and something Kim will be thankful to see I’ve given up in a few days time.
Unzipping the tent, I poke my head out into the cold, early morning light. A delicate, almost invisible sheet of fog is resting on top of the river, and I pull my head back inside the tent just long enough to grab my camera and step back out to take a shot – a ritual I’ll perform each morning we’re here. There is a brief window as the sun rises and sets when its light pours sideways across the landscape, illuminating everything in golden (in the morning) and ruby (in the evening) hues. I’ve taken to calling it “the magic hour,” and being witness to the flora and fauna standing in the sun’s cathedral during this time is a majestic thing to behold.
So every morning, camera and cups of steaming instant coffee in hand, Kim and I watch the sun come up over Africa while we get ready for the day’s events. Then it’s off to the vol lounge to see what’s on the agenda for the day, first stopping by the dining hall to top up our coffee and offer cold and bleary “good mornings” to the other staff and volunteers who are also slowly coming to life. First up this morning is a walk with the L’s. Their excitement at being taken out is equal to ours because, really, what else would you rather be doing at 6:30am other than walking two lion cubs in the morning light of Africa? Eeoww – good morning to you, too!
We take Lewa and Laili up a hillside north of their enclosure, letting them bounce precociously up the path in front of us. Both are feeling exceptionally lively and spend several minutes chasing and pouncing on each other until Laili gets distracted by a large piece of elephant poo, which immediately takes hold of her interest. (There are no small pieces of elephant poo, btw.)
“Elephant poo?” you ask. Elephant poo. It’s like catnip for lions, and they absolutely love it. Elephants apparently have a poor digestive tract, so much of what comes out from behind is what went into the front. Yummy, tasty, nutrient-rich, grassy dung. So don’t pooh-pooh the ele poo. It’s a guaranteed hit maker and the best treat you can offer a cub if you don’t have any tasty impala heads, zebra legs, or other cuts of meat to offer.
We continue on, arriving eventually at a favorite climbing tree of the lions here. Laili immediately storms up the trunk with Lewa hesitating, unsure. After some coaxing, she’s soon up in the branches. We’re joined on the walk by Leigh-Ann, one of the volunteer managers and, more importantly, also the Lion Manager at Antelope Park. Only in her early twenties, but having worked here for years now, Leigh-Ann is the Queen of the Lions at AP, and has the scars to prove it, literally, having been attacked by a male lion while on a walk during the filming of ITV’s first series of Lion Country. The incident didn’t deter her love and dedication to the cause, and no one knows more about the individual lions in the program here than she. Point out a lion and Leigh-Ann can tell you its name, lineage, characteristics, probably even what it last ate and when.
Finishing up the walk, we drop the L’s back off with an obligatory “goodbye and thank you for the walk, ladies!” and head back to the vol block in time for our snake induction session.
Snakes. Have I mentioned that I don’t like snakes? Seeing them up close and personal behind glass, however, is fine. We cram into a small room behind the vol lounge where AP keeps a few snakes and get hands-on with a non-poisonous brown house snake, while keeping the more dangerous ones – like the puff adder, spitting cobra, and black mamba – safely under lock and key. The induction is led by Liwale, a well-traveled son of two English teachers who seems to take particular delight in riling up the mamba so it flairs its hood and blindly attacks the glass walls of its case. Liwale is one of the funniest, and funnest, staff members at AP, and with his blessing I start calling him “Johnny Cash,” due to his habit of wearing nothing but black from head-to-toe, except when there are clients in camp forcing him into a more respectable shade of khaki. (Liwale: If/when you’re reading this, I would just like to take the opportunity to remind you that your black mamba fighting skills are no match for my ninja lion cub technique, and that if we weren’t already outside we’d be taking this outside already, knowwotimean?)
Following lunch the first session of the afternoon is a data induction course led by Kirsty, another Brit who has been the research intern at AP for the past several months and who is soon to be replaced by Niki. As nice as Kirsty is, the data collection session is a snooze-fest of which paperwork to take on what occasions, and how to properly fill each out. The data collected is very important, as it’s the only way for people to accurately create metrics on each lion, and how they perform by themselves and with each other over time and across various activities. It’s something we understand, but having to learn what codes to use for the different grass types is a practice in yawn suppression. The fact that similar information is collected in different ways on the various forms is a bit of a head scratcher for us, but not Kirsty’s fault. Like the rest of us, she’s just working with what’s at hand.
Having survived data collection with only minor scratches, the late afternoon session has us booked on boundary patrol, wherein we get dropped off at the front gate of Antelope Park and walk our way along the property fence line the six or so kilometers back to camp while looking for, and fixing, any breaks in the fence we find that are the result of animals or poachers. It might sound like fun, if it weren’t for the six kilometers and blazing afternoon African sun that stands between us and camp. Having just watched the truck that dropped us off driving away, we have only our feet to carry us back. No way out but forward go!
Leading us is Jabulani Moyo, who’s been a guide at Antelope Park almost 18 years, and who proudly proclaims that he was “the first person here to walk with lions!” His name is a mixture of Ndebele and Shona, meaning “happy heart,” which he softly but proudly taps his chest and repeats. “Happy heart.” Jabulani (or Jabu, or JB, as we would also call him) has an infectious smile and is a fountain of information regarding lions, tracking, and anything and everything having to do with the bush. We’re also joined on boundary patrol by Gillian and Liz, both British. Gillian is a widow from Leeds, having previously been to Antelope Park in the spring where she was lucky enough to have bottle fed the P’s. She’s also the de facto vol mom. Need the inside scoop, to remember a guide’s name, to know what equipment’s needed for an activity, or just need a cigarette? Gillian’s the lady. Liz is from Darlington, near Newcastle, and arrived last night sans her luggage, which is spinning on some luggage carousel between South Africa and Zimbabwe, if it hasn’t been stolen. She has only the clothes on her back until her suitcase arrives, a predicament which a six kilometer walk on a dusty trail doesn’t help much. Poor, poor Liz. Kim and I will find ourselves paired with her for most of our sessions over the next few days, and every time we discover we’re on something together we’ll shout, “we’re getting the team back together, maaaan!” Or, when we’ve been split up, “they split the team up, maaaan!” It’s funnier to hear it first person, trust me. At least, funnier than it is to read it here.
As the walk begins we dutifully scan the aging fence for holes, finding two early on. But as the walk drags on and our concentration meanders, we start talking about the spoor (animal tracks) on the road, which JB helps identify for us. Halfway into the march we’ve completely forgotten about the fence and I am in deep discussion with JB. He’s the father of eight, and with a salary of only US$150 per month it’s difficult to make ends meet, much less afford to put his kids through school. JB supplements his income by making lion walking staffs for volunteers and clients. He can’t outright sell them – as that could land him in trouble with AP, I assume – so instead he asks for tips. It’s difficult to gauge what he considers a fair tip for a staff, but a plan starts to hatch in my mind. This is our honeymoon, after all.
The sun has started to dip low on the horizon when a call comes over the radio to JB informing him that there will be a night encounter tonight and that Kim and I are scheduled to be on it. This means that we need to be back at camp by 6pm to meet up with the trucks going out, and it still feels like we’re far out from anywhere. Someone asks JB just how far we have to go. “400 meters,” he says. I can see at least twice that distance, so I start counting off the steps in my head (high school marching band habits still firmly ensconced in my noggin’ after all these years). “100 meters!” I say, jumping on the roadway in a poof of dust to mark our distance. “200! 300! 400! 500!” Looking at JB, it’s obvious he wasn’t prepared for someone to call him on this. “Okay, okay! It’s a little farther.” After about 700 more meters another call comes in asking where we are. It looks like they’re going to have to send a truck to collect us if we’re going to make the next event.
Soon enough, a truck appears over the horizon and Leigh-Ann collects us and takes us back to camp, which we were about another kilometer from. Hot, sore, and tired from the long walk, we’re told we have five minutes to grab some warm clothes and anything else we want for the night encounter, so we rush back to our river tent, pull on pants and hoodies, and rush back out just as the trucks are starting up. Everyone else is already on the back of the trucks when Kim and I climb up looking for a seat. Hege, a large Norwegian lady, has room next to her. “Mind scooting down so my wife and I can sit here?” I inquire. She doesn’t say anything, not wanting to give up her aisle seat. She doesn’t even make eye contact. Okaaaay. Everyone seems a bit territorial over the seats. Me and Kim: we’d just like to sit down, somewhere, anywhere. Period.
Liwale is running the spotlight in our truck and he beckons us up to the front row, asking Peggy – a petite Asian woman from New York – to slide down and make room for us. Thanks, Johnny Cash! Seats sorted, with me on the left outside of the front bench and Kim just to my right, we’re off towards BPG, following the lead truck. At the compound, with night now fully embracing us, the handlers jump out. Flashlights shining in an epileptic light saber battle, they wade into one of the lion enclosures, bringing out two males and a female: Tsavo, Thulani, and Meggie. How they are able to sort out the lions in all the darkness and commotion, much less separate those who are going on the hunt from those who aren’t, remains a mystery to me. All the other nearby lions are roaring. They all know what is happening and, I’m sure, want to go hunting.
With the MT’s sorted and the handlers back in the truck, we set out away from the main compound. Headlights off, flashlights off; the only light we have on is the red spotlight in each truck being waved from side-to-side in the hopes of catching the glimpse of an animal’s eye flashing back at us. It is quiet. A hush has descended over the bush and everyone, predator and prey alike, knows why. We catch glimpses of the lions flashing alongside the truck, but it’s difficult to follow them in the dark. The lions know that the trucks are there to help them, so they generally keep near us, but occasionally one of the handlers will have to whistle and call them back.
After about 15 minutes of driving slowly through the dark I realize my leg muscles are starting to stiffen up from the cold, after the long walk earlier. Hege’s knee is digging directly into my lower back, as the benches on the back of the Land Rovers here aren’t quite safari-grade in terms of comfort and leg room. Annoyed with both, my attention wanders. Our truck stops. That’s when I look to my left and, five yards away, see either Tsavo or Thulani staring very intently back at me – pupils narrowed.
The naughty look.
Time stops. I’ve been in this odd time closet before. When I blew out my left knee and broke my right leg during a soccer game about eight years ago, it slowed to a tortoise-like crawl. I had movement and space to think about everything and everyone around me. I could walk around the moment: hear the ACL in my left knee giving way, watch the MCL and meniscus being torn like paper. And when I stepped back around I found myself a full step forward and could hear another pop, like a wet carrot snapping, and could pause and reflect on it. “I think that’s the sound they say a bone makes when breaking. I think I’m really fucked here.” Then my right fibula collapsed underneath me, and time, similarly collapsing back on itself, sent me sprawling forward onto the pitch screaming in pain.
That’s what I’m thinking in the moment after I lock eyes with the lion, as time warps around us. The naughty look. I’m supposed to do something here, something very important. But all I can do is keep staring in his eyes, lost and paralyzed in its depth, everything else a peripheral blur. The lion’s not looking at me, he’s looking through me. He can see my heart racing, hear my blood pulsing wildly, smell my fear. At the bottom of this moment, just below the lion, a TV news ticker is scrolling by, parading the obvious and only thought I can keep in my head right now: “I think I’m really fucked here.”
The shout fires from the back of our truck, breaking the spell and sending the lion padding off to rejoin the hunt, leaving me staring at the empty space left behind. It’s been maybe two seconds since the whole thing began. It takes a few more for my head to come back ‘round. Exhaling deeply, I say to no one and everyone, “I think I just got ‘the naughty look.’” I don’t think anyone was even paying attention, except Ephraim, the lion handler on our truck who shouted. Thank you, Ephraim.
A half-hour has gone by now and somehow we’ve ended up circling back around to BPG. The remaining 82 lions there are none-too-happy others have been let out for the night, and they roar their disapproval. Tsavo and Thulani take umbrage and race up to the enclosures to join in the chorus, with Meggie right behind them. In short order the T’s are racing from enclosure to enclosure roaring, while the lions on the other side charge the fence and invite the pair to come inside for a proper dust-up. The handlers have jumped out of the vehicles, along with the drivers, and everyone is once again trying to separate the MT’s from the rest and get the hunt back on track. The roars are deafening, dust is flying, and confusion is in abundance.
It takes about 20 minutes to sort out the scuffles, get the MT’s back down the road and their noses back in the hunt. Two or three times, Liwale or Dan (who is spotting in the other truck) flash across an impala or other small antelope, and the lions give chase; but they are so worn out from the roar-off at BPG that the chases seem half-hearted at best. We continue driving around the bush but everyone seems tired and worn out. At some point someone calls out “impala!” and Liwale swings his spotlight around to nothing. Hege remarks, “No, no. I saw it, too!” This makes me curious. For awhile now she seems to have been seeing prey no one else has, and is adamant about what exactly it is only she can see. Bored, cold, stiff, and annoyed at her knee in my back and her lack of politeness when Kim and I were trying to find seats, I wait about five minutes before pointing out to my left. “Impala! Three of them, about 70 meters away!” Liwale swings his light around, to nothing. “I saw them!” Hege says. A few minutes later I again point off in the distance. “Impala! Do you see them?” “I do,” Hege responds. “How many?” I ask. “Three or four, I think.” Liwale, frantically shining his light around in the distance, keeps asking, “Where? Where?” He turns and gives me his own version of the naughty look. Sorry, Johnny Cash! A few days later I’ll apologize to him for what I did and explain why.
The trucks roll into camp around 9:30pm, the night encounter officially a bust. Stiff and cold, Kim and I pile out of the truck. Everyone else in camp has long ago eaten, but the staff have left behind plates for those who went out. The only problem is that they have to be re-heated in a microwave, one-by-one. I find myself third or fourth in line. After heating up my plate I hand it to Kim, who had gone off to use the bathroom and found herself near the line’s end upon returning, and tell her to sit down and have some food, while I step to the end of the queue and start the wait all over. Kim’s unhappy with what she thinks is my ill-placed chivalry. I’m unhappy with it as well. The microwave carousel continues slowly turning, unaware and uncaring.
We leave our half-cooked meals half-eaten and make our way back to the tent. 10pm. 16 hours of busy, busy, busy. People’s personalities are starting to bubble out, for good or ill – as are ours. The days are going to be long, and not all of them are going to be happy, picturesque, or otherwise end up with a successful hunt at the end. It’s a bit of a reality check for me, but it doesn’t make me want to be anywhere else. I walked with lions today! I drift off thinking back on the moment when I locked eyes with the lion during the night encounter, wishing I could’ve recognized if it was Tsavo or Thulani. Dan was right: you can’t describe it, but you definitely know what it is when you get it.
Like the night before, just as sleep comes the lions begin to roar.