Something rustles in the underbrush. My sleepy senses come to full alert. It’s an ancient world out there, full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains.
My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants. I’m afraid of carnivores, especially when I can’t see them.
A lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep just last night:
WAAA-AH-UNGHHH UNGH UNGH UNGH ungh ungh. . . .
and ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.
A lion’s roar can be heard five miles from its source. This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp. A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart. In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest. Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came. I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana. But tell that to those instincts I inherited from my ancestors.
Four days ago, I joined an evening game drive. A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the last tier of seats on the Landcruiser and held hands. They were on their honeymoon. John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp were parked next to a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.
At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll. With open grassland all around us it’s safe to descend from the vehicle. He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.
As I take my first sip a lion roars in the near distance. “That’s not far,” I said and looked at John.
“We could get lucky,” he said to the couple with us.
Our drinks were dashed on the ground and glasses stashed back in their basket. I changed lenses on my camera as we jounced over the rough ground.
And there they were: four large males lounging in the tall grass alongside the road. One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts:
WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.
John radioed the other vehicles. They will detour to our position on their way back to Stanley’s.
Light faded from the sky, disappeared. Blue velvet became purple velvet, then black velvet. Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.
John switched on a spotlight. A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.
Spotlight off. The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.
Spotlight on. Another male, on the left, folded into the grass, on his side, inert.
A distant contact roar.
Spotlight on. The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Shallow breaths through my open mouth. A commotion to our left.
Spotlight on. The third male rubbed the side of his face against the male inert in the grass, then also disappeared into the bush. A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Silence.
Then a faint roar, in the distance again.
The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.
“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.
The inert lion was gone. John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle. His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass. The skin on my arm crawled up to my neck.
The lion turned his head toward the light. The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.
He was that close. I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.
He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush. I exhaled. Had I been holding my breath that long?
The two other vehicles from camp appeared in time to catch a glimpse of him. They followed, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.
John turned in his seat and looked back at us. The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face.
“I think it is enough,” he said. “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”