I’ve mentioned lions before. There was the first time I encountered one in the wild when a lioness came within a couple of feet of me one dark night while we were lost in the savanna. There was the time Biker and I nearly walked into a pride of sleeping lions, again in the middle of the night. One does not encounter the lions, on foot, during the day, very often. This is because they are adapted to be invisible to things with eyes at about the height of the human. Their coloration and their behavior (i.e.,sleeping in the shade during the day) make them very hard to find.
So, while one does not encounter lions very often during the day, they are out and about at night. And it is at night that lion encounters have the tendency to be … rather exciting …
I should mention that while it is difficult to see lions in any habitat in which they live, including the relatively open Kalahari (where I have seen quite a few lions), the Semliki is one of the hardest places to spot them. If you stand there in the average randomly selected spot on this savanna (and I know this because I purposefully went and stood in randomly selected spots as part of my research) you will have grass coming up to your knees. If you look around a very short distance, you’ll be able to find grass going up to your shoulder or higher (the so-called “elephant grass”). There are a lot of trees, and most larger trees have a handful of bushes near them, and the grass tends to be taller and lusher near the trees (the reasons for this are complex). Therefore, there are many spots where there is a very thick area of vegetation surrounding a very shady spot. If a lion is in one of those spots, you can’t see it unless you go in there looking for it, or it comes out of there looking for you.
One time Joan and her crew were excavating a site on one side of one of these trees. Suddenly, they heard a loud scary noise, so they ran for the Land Rover and got in. From there, they could see that just on the other side of the tree … maybe 10 or 15 meters away, a lion had taken down a waterbuck. (This is a bit unusual because lions strongly prefer to not eat waterbuck if they can avoid them.) That ended the excavation for a while.
You’ve also heard my story about the Earth Watcher, the Lion and the Tent. That was an instance where we made an Earth Watcher think that a lion might step on his tent during the night as he slept, even though this would be absurd. So when the lion actually DID step on his tent, we were rather surprised.
Which brings me to tents. The typical person in Canada, America or Europe who likes to camp will buy a nice Northface (or whatever) tent, and every year bring it to the forest for anywhere from one to four weeks in total. Such a tent might last ten years before you start to see real wear and tear, if it’s a good model and you take care of it. Other tents will start to fall apart in five years. But think about this: Most of the time the tent is not in use. the total number of weeks a typical American camper’s tent is actually set up and in use might be one year over a twenty year period, if you use it about two weeks a year. And this use, as I’ve mentioned, is in the forest, maybe a northern damp forest like the Adirondacks or the Pacific Northwest, where the tent is not exposed to hours of strong tropical sunlight. Campers in these areas may find mildew to be their biggest problem.
Those of you camp in the desert will know that mildew is not such a problem, but rather, punctures (because of thorns and sharp rocks) and, eventually, deterioration of the fabric from exposure to ultra-violet light, are bigger issues. So you will understand our dilemma in Africa rather well.
Some of the tents we had in the Semliki had been in use for a few months the year before, and a few months the year before that, so as we neared the end of this particularly long field season, these tents had been in use for a total of about 11 or 12 months, under the equatorial sun the entire time. My tent had been in Africa for a couple of years already, so it was about three years exposed, but much of that not in such a sunny setting. Other tents had been used by the park, to rent out to tourists, for much of the time the science team was not on site, so they had been in the sun for 30 or 40 months.
Under these conditions, it is possible to go over to one of these tents, press one’s finger against the fabric, and have it go right through like it wasn’t even there. That is the power of UV light.
So, my tent was not quite as bad as that yet, but it was badly worn enough to require significant compensation. Some of the fiberglass poles had split apart from deterioration, and I replaced them with new poles I cut out of nearby brush. I also had one of those big blue plastic tarps over the tent, stretched out using a bunch of ropes, to cover the deteriorating fabric of the two-person Eureka. Also, I had the tent backed into a big thorny bush, so that passing wild animals would be more likely to go around, rather than through the tent, like what happened to Rudy. Finally, I had a mondo trench dug around the tent to move water away during downpours. The soil here did not absorb water very quickly, so a major storm would always cause a great deal of surface water, until it ran down hill to the nearby gorges and into the river.
Then one night, it happened.
This is what I remember:
I had been fast asleep, but suddenly I was not. I was sitting up, but in a crouched position, with my k-bar (a giant knife used by Marines) in my right hand and my left hand holding the large weapon-like police style Mag Light, but the flashlight not turned on. This was one of those “you’ll find yourself in the tree when the rhino charges” moments. I had no recollection of going from being asleep to being in this position. It just happened.
My heart was pounding, my breathing was stopped. My memory was replaying the event that woke me up … the tent being shaken violently as though a giant had grabbed it in his hands and was about to roll it like dice in a crap game. I could still hear the twanging of the ropes to the left side of me. There were many ropes holding up the tent as well as the blue plastic over-tarp, and they were all singing and swaying.
And suddenly, right out in the front of the tent was a lion-vocalization. This is one that is hard to describe. It is the sound a lion makes as it grabs a prey or jumps. It’s like the lion is saying “uffda” … or like the sound a weight lifter makes on the first rep lifting a bar that has just a little too much weight. And with that sound came a huge crash, some more giant kitty cat noises, and the awful baying of a cape buffalo in distress. Which quickly stopped as I heard the thundering of a half dozen hooves in the vicinity as a number of cape buffalo ran away from the scene.
Over the next several minutes, the tent stopped swaying, my heart slowed down, and the sound of ripping and tearing began. I imagined two or more lions (from the kitty cat noises of a moment earlier I could clearly hear two different animals) descending on the carcass of a cape buffalo and starting the process of tearing into its flesh. I heard sounds that reminded me of crunching bone. The last time we observed a cape buffalo kill, the lions stayed on that kill … joined over time by more and more members of the pride … for a couple of days. Indeed, if this kill was where I thought it was, this very tent would be one of the shady spots the lions would choose to sleep between courses of Cape buffalo.
After a half an hour, the crunching and tearing sounds more or less stopped, but I could hear the breathing of the lions and an occasional rustle. It was still too dark to see outside, and I certainly was not going to use my flashlight. I figured that Kununzu, the guard, and Zorba and his crew, who had their tents not far away, probably heard the ruckus, and perhaps they would come over in the daylight and chase off the lions so I could get out of here. I would then abandon my spot, close off my tent and sleep in the cook’s tent for the next couple of days, and we’d see if we could live uneasily with the lions taking over one half of the camp while we lived cautiously in the other half. Or maybe we would chain the carcass to the truck and drag it away from camp for the lions to eat in peace and in the wild. Or maybe this would be a good time for a couple days off … drive down to Ishango and go fishing for two/three days.
These and similar thoughts ran through my head as I also listened for signs of the lions … and occasionally was rewarded with auditory evidence that they were still there. I also considered sleeping. Eventually, I convinced myself that the lions already knew I was here in this tent, because in their acutely olfactory world they could smell me quite accurately. Lions had walked by this tent at night, to go down and get a drink, fifty times over the last several months. The lions did not care about me or this tent. Were I to get out of the tent, they might become upset and that could be quite dangerous. But as long as I stayed in here, I would be fine . I could sleep if I wanted to.
But I knew I must not make noise. No, I must remain perfectly silent. Did you ever have one of those dreams, especially when you are a kid, when “the monster” … whatever your habitual scary bogeyman was in your particular dreams .. was after you, and you were hiding (like, hiding under the covers) and you knew that if you did not move or make a sound the monster might go away? But eventually you wake up and the whole thing was a dream …
This was exactly like that but not a dream.
Eventually, I did go to sleep, slept fitfully, woken up a couple of times by the sound of lions, and eventually woke fully a half hour after sunrise.
What I heard outside at that time was rather unusual. I could hear the sounds of the river not far away. I could hear the morning birds and insects, and a light breeze coming up. I could hear the occasional hippo in the distance. I could hear the fish eagle across the river call to its mate. Eventually, I could hear the Goliath Herons re-engaging in their daily mating ritual.
But there were two things I could not hear. I could not hear any sign of the lions, and I could not hear any sign of Zorba and his crew. Kunuzu would sleep all day if you let him. The other Wazungu (white foreigners) would sleep late if they could, and were probably doing that this morning. But Zorba and his crew would be up, clanking around in the kitchen area, telling stories, singing. Zorba’s booming, gravelly, jovial, challenging, welcoming voice would be wafting back and forth across the camp as he told one person to get working faster, asked another person about his sick uncle, remarked on the weather, complained about the police back in the village, pontificated on the philosophy of monogamous vs. polygynous marriage, and so on and so forth.
But there was nothing. I was in the wild with no auditory sign of human culture anywhere.
So I did this. I looked through the tiny side windows of the tent, using the smallest movements to open the zipper a little tiny bit, to see if there was a lion sleeping next to me. No lions.
I very slowly opened the front of the tent a tiny bit to see if there was a lion in front of the tent, over where I heard the ruckus last night. I could see nothing. I actually got out the binoculars and used them to inspect every patch of grass and brush to see if I could spot the tawny field of lion fur that might belie a sleeping beast.
I carefully opened the tent door a little more, and reached outside and grabbed my spear. My spear was standing, like a flag, stuck in the ground in front of my tent. I quietly dislodged it and drew the weapon into the tent, with the blade facing outwards. I was thus imitating a large male warthog with one tusk.
I strapped my scabbard to my belt and sheathed my knife, but did not button down the safety strap. In fact, I left it 15 percent out of the sheath. I had practiced this move before. At a moment’s notice, the knife would be between me and any attacker, held in close to my body, my arm positioned to maximize leverage. I had learned this technique from a friend who was army special forces. He told me “almost everybody who gets stabbed gets stabbed by his own knife” and suddenly pushed me away and magically had my own knife up to my throat. “Like this” (but I digress).
I then opened the tent all the way, so there would be no struggle or noise in getting out … or back in. This took five or six minutes because I unzipped the tent without making a sound.
I then exited the tent, standing suddenly and briskly to see if I could see the lions. I did this quickly so that any lions watching me would not see me in a crouch. Never let the large cat see you in a crouch.
I looked around. No lions.
I stepped two meters forward, and spun around, to check for lions on either side of the bush my tent was backed into … no lions … and then, spun forward again to see if there were lions over by the source of last night’s noise, in case my new position would offer a better view. No lions.
So I stood there, barefooted, wearing only shorts weighed down by a 12 inch K-bar knife, spear at 45 degrees, and did not move anything by my head and eyes for a full ten minutes (well, maybe five), taking in every sound and smell.
I could smell buffalo. They had been grazing here for a couple of hours. They leave a smell.
I could not smell blood. I could not smell lion. Usually you can if there is a fresh kill.
I saw marks in the grass and on the dirt where two lions (likely lionesses) had lain the night before. One next to my tent, under the blue tarp, so close that if I had bumped into the side of the tent I would have also bumped into the 220 pound tawny beast. The second lioness had lain next to the bush, on the same side of the tent, a few feet away.
I could see the tracks of a buffalo that wandered from my left (and thus past the lionesses) almost to the exact spot I was standing, and right there, almost underfoot, was the very spot that the buffalo lunged away, realizing that the lions were after it.
This gave me pause and caused me to look around again to see if there were any lionesses laying in wait … but no, no sign of them.
I could then see the tracks of the lioness heading for the spot the buffalo turned to run, and all three had headed off into very tall grass out in front of my tent. I could clearly see, from where I stood, two pressed down groves where the lionesses had run. This was classic lion spoor.
Now I was thinking more of what I was looking at than my own safety. I had previously, as part of my research, deciphered dozens of ‘events’ via tracks and other spoor, and I simply found myself doing this one more time. A little like a detective suddenly switching from outrage and fear on discovery that his home had been invaded to clue-collection and deduction mode despite the personal nature of the insult.
So I stepped forward and followed the she-lion’s tracks into the bush.
The two lines representing lions continued for a while, and one of the very clear pushdowns suddenly disappeared. This is where a lioness leaped into space, probably landing on the top of the buffalo, who’s tracks, showing a run, were still quite plain.
Four meters later, there was an impression showing that this same lioness was thrown from the back of the buffalo, hitting the ground on her side, but leaping suddenly to her feet and pursuing further. Four meters farther on (and by this point, I’m almost at the spot I had heard the noise from) I could see where the buffalo made a very hard right turn, about 90 degrees, under a large euphorbia tree.
These euphorbias have roughly the shape of a saguaro cactus, like in the old wild west movies. So they have branches that are succulent (not woody) in nature going out from the trunk horizontally, and then turning roughly 90 degrees upward. The branches are covered with thorns, and if you break one, a nasty white caustic liquid comes flying out.
As it turned, the buffalo had struck, probably with its left horn, one such branch of this euphorbia tree, causing the branch to break off and fall to the ground. By the looks of it, the branch hit one of the two lions (the one that had not leaped to the back of the beast).
Here is where the trail of deduction gets tricky, because what happened next was quite complicated. Clearly, the buffalo had run off unharmed, except possibly getting some euphorbia juice in its eyes. It would survive.
I think the lions had run into each other, the branch, and the tree, in a keystone cop comedy.
Then they got pissed. Over the next couple of hours, these lionesses stayed right were they were and ripped this tree to shreds. That was the sound of ripping and crunching I had heard; The sound of a lioness clawing and biting at a euphorbia tree is, it turns out, not too different from a lioness ripping apart the livid and writhing flesh and bones of its typical mammalian prey.
I imagine that the lionesses were angered at the tree. Not because the tree foiled the hunt (that’s a little too high level for cats), but rather, because they were sprayed with the caustic fluid. This caused them to attack the tree. Which sprayed more fluid. Which caused more attack. And so on and so forth for quite a while.
Have you ever seen a kitty play, annoyed yet fascinated at the same time, with a stream of water coming from a faucet? Like that, but with lions and a euphorbia tree.
Clearly, the lions had gone away by this time, and the scene was safe. I could relax. So I went over to the kitchen area to get some coffee, forgetting for the moment about my earlier observation that there were no noises coming from that direction. As I walked over towards the kitchen tent, I heard one person shush another, and a low rumbling word or two being said. Then it dawned on me: Zorba and his crew had made the same guess I had. They assumed the camp was filled with lions just having feasted on a first course of buffalo. They heard me and did not know if I was human or feline.
So I stopped, stood perfectly still, and tried not to snort or chortle. This was very difficult. I waited. I waited five or six minutes, and when I could not stand it any more, I leaped at the tent, grabbed the pole on one corner, and shaking it wildly back and forth let out the best imitation I could of a lion roaring!
Immediately, the sounds of laughter emanated from the tent. Clearly, Zorba knew it was me (my imitation is not that good…). Out came the crew, and within moments coffee was brewing, breakfast was being made, and the story of what had just happened was already being told, retold, and crafted into the form appropriate for the local folklore. The story of the lion, the tree, and the anthropologist was destine to replace the mud-hippo in the local mythology.
Ten minutes later, Kunuzu came out of his tent, and was forced to admit that he had spent the night with his gun pointed at the door of the tent. Added to the story. We got up the other wazungu, and they each told their version of the night of terror. Added to the story. I told all the details I deduced from my observations of the tracks. Added to the story.
And for years after, this story was retold again and again. Until the troubles of war and famine finally caught up with the story tellers, and there was no one left to tell it again.