Having survived the Peter Debacle, let’s move on to yet another debacle.
Lions are much much scarier than snakes. But I think what I really want to talk about here is not so much lions or snakes, but fear itself.
I never would have thought I’d be ‘fraid o’ lions. I’ve seen them on TV and by the time this field season started I’d see them in real life in various game parks in Africa. Lions are majestic, impressive, cute, all of what you would expect from large carnivorous kitties. I figured I’d get along with the lions in the Semliki and I never expected to fear them.
Then I had my first lion one-on-one with nothing between me and her but five feet of cool night air. And I was afraid.
I’ve told that story elsewhere. If you recall, I resolved the problem of me standing on the hood of a Land Rover in the middle of the night with a full grown lioness staring at me within paw-reaching distance by teletransporting myself into the truck somehow.
Honestly. I don’t remember the details and not because it was a long time ago. I didn’t know even then what happened.
Years later I was to visit a park in South Africa that had a lot of black rhinos. Black rhinos are thought to be very dangerous. At one point, we (a group of archaeologists and geologists) were going to walk to a remote archaeological site where vehicles could not go but where the rare elusive black rhinos were common. My daughter, Julia, remembers this as the time she had to stay in the car with Lynn‘s mom, because the rangers would not let her (six years old or so) continue even on my shoulders, where she usually rode on our bush wacking expeditions.
“If you can’t get into the tree, you can’t go into the rhino-bush” the heavily accented Afrikaner ranger had said.
“But what if I can’t climb a tree … I’ve never done that before” one of the German geologists had asked.
“When you see the rhino charging,” the ranger, a short and wide wizened woman of about 35 intoned “You will be in the tree. You won’t know how you got there and you won’t mind the thorns.”
I laughed to myself when I heard her say that, because she was so totally, undeniably correct. You won’t know how you got there. And you won’t mind the thorns.
So one day in the Congo it was Catherine’s birthday. Catherine was a member of the Ishango expedition, and a dear friend of mine. When Julia was little, her mom would go away for months at a time, and Catherine’s husband would go away for months a time, and Catherine and her daughter (a few years older than Julia) and and Julia and I would go around and do stuff and everyone would assume we were one big happy family (with one child who looked a lot like dad and another who … did not.)
Anyway, we hosted a party for Catherine up at Senga, and the Ishango whole crew came with their chairs. You needed chairs to sit on, and each camp had just enough chairs for the people in it. So for there to be a big social event like a birthday party, you brought your chairs.
They came with the chairs, and Catherine (who can bake like no one I know) made a birthday cake on the camp fire, and made it look easy. We had home made beer and home made liquor and extra beer we had scored at the village and probably something to smoke (I’m not saying). And the sun lowered itself behind the Rift wall and darkness fell.
But Joan missed the whole thing. You see, early that morning, we heard the lions roaring not far away in the bush, which they sometimes do when they have a kill. When we drove out we found that the lions had just killed a cape buffalo. A big one. This meant that the lions would remain at this location for at least two days turning this giant buffalo into a bunch of bone and lion poop. Joan, as a taphonomist, was thus obliged to park a truck facing this carcass and sit there taking notes around the clock until it was all over.
So, the sun was down, and Biker and I were starting to feel sorry for Joan and we were a bit drunk, so we ‘decided’ to do something really stupid. We grabbed a couple of beers, and went for a walk. Into the bush, in the general direction of Joan’s truck and the buffalo.
I don’t know exactly what we were thinking.
So we were walking along with no flashlight, and that was actually something we did a lot. I had learned years earlier that it is not at all uncommon to find oneself in the African bush without any light at all. Batteries were hard to come by and flashlights often disappeared or broke. So it was a good thing to occasionally practice doing this, using a sliver of moon light, or the scattered star light, and the natural phosphorescence of the ground mosses (which was much more common in the rain forest than in the savanna). This way, when one really needed to see in the dark one would be prepared.
So Biker and I were doing that. We were walking in a straight line, avoiding thorn trees, avoiding holes in the ground, quietly wandering into the bush, did I mention a bit drunk, with no flashlights and two 750 ml beers.
Then something, I don’t know what, made us stop. And as we stood there silently, probably wondering what had made us stop, the landscape right in front of us exploded in light!
Joan had been observing these lions in the headlights of the truck, but she could only do this for a few minutes each hour in order to avoid running down the battery. So, she had a timer, and every 15 minutes she would flip on the lights (the lions got used to this quite quickly), make rapid observations, turn off the headlights and turn on the interior lights, write down her notes, then turn off the interior lights. And this is what we were observing….
… Joan had just turned on the high beams and some 50 feet ahead of us, bathed in that light, was a large male lion sleeping with his head upright and his tail slightly swaying. A tiny cub sat near the tail and swatted it whenever it passed by. An older cub sat on the hood of the Land Rover, somewhat blocking Joan’s view. Two or three lionesses were in sight scattered around in the swath of headlight, on their backs or sides, bellies distended with meat, sleeping.
Then the light went off. Total darkness. Total lion-filled darkness.
That is when I noticed that I could smell the lions and the buffalo. If I could smell them, they could not smell us. But they would be able to see us, if they happen to open and eye and glance in our direction, which a lion would do if it heard us.
So Biker and I took a step backward. And another, and another. Step by step, as quietly as possible, about twenty meters. Then we turned, and walked calmly and carefully back to camp, finishing off the beer on the way. We were cool. And still alive.
As we approached camp, one of the guards, a new guy recently assigned to our expedition, had sensed our absence. figured out what we must be doing was standing there, on the periphery of light just barely visible, waiting for us.
“Gentleman, I’m guessing you just walked out to the truck.” Lula, the guard, stated.
“Ah, well, yea, kinda” one of us said.
“Do you know that if you are eaten by a lion, I get fired?”
“Ah, well, no, that wouldn’t happen, would it? I mean, the you getting fired part. Right?”
“It doesn’t matter. If you get eaten by a lion, I get fired. If I shoot you, I get fired. One requires more reports to headquarters, but I can’t remember which one. I’ll find out and let you know.”
And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Lula the guard and me. But that’s another story.
There have been times when I’ve felt abject fear, and there have been times when I felt utter calm in the face of danger. The calm at the time of the danger would eventually give way to post-event reconsideration of the situation, which is a lot like fear that has been put on ice and wakes up, in your psyche, very suddenly. But in looking back at all these times, those instances in which I felt real fear as things were happening were never times when I was really in danger (as it would turn out) and the times when I felt calm and collected were the times that true danger loomed. Then, of course, there are the times when fear is not really a factor. You just find yourself in the tree. And you don’t mind the thorns.
After the party, the Ishango group drove back down to the lake in the dark. One of the trucks made it without incident, but the other, the one with Catherine on it, did not. As they drove, with 9 or 10 people in and on top of the truck and the same number of chairs loosely tied on the roof, up and away from the river, they were struck by a hippo.
You see, hippos become enraged by headlights, and they become enraged by the sound of a truck. So a truck driving along with headlights is a problem. One of our Senga hippos must have been grazing close to our small makeshift road, saw and heard the truck, and went after it. The truck was going about 20 mph, and the hippo hit the truck in the back left quadrant at an oblique angle, going about 35 mph. The Land Rover was lifted into the air and dropped, stalled, swaying, and rocking several feet away, and some of the chairs and people flew off the roof. The hippo ran away and for the next two days we heard sounds of agony as it slowly died of its injuries. Later, we found it on a sand bar in the river, corpse rotting, scavengers working him over.
No humans were harmed in that particular hippo-human interaction. That would come later.
But first, I need to introduce a new topic, one that also involves both fear and adventure: The African bush fire. This is one of my favorite stories ever.