Trip to a Game Park
The driver suddenly turns right, bounces off the dirt road, and into 4-foot high African bush. A little way in he cuts the engine, and the sound of the savannah intrudes into our senses. Before we had been hearing only the sound of our guide, the crackle of his old walkie-talkie, and the soft purr of the engine of the Land Rover. Now the sounds make us realize we are in the wild, and danger lurks somewhere out there, or everywhere out there. For a moment my thoughts go to the zebra that stand near the water hole in groups, with sentries facing every direction, ready to run at the first indication of danger. The guide turns toward us and in just above a whisper he announces,
“Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t get up or move your arms or legs. There is a lion just over there.”
Our hearts start beating faster, and I wonder if a lion “over there” can hear my heart beating with the thunderous roar I feel it is making. We all seem to freeze in position with only our eyes moving left to right, right to left, as we strain to see “over there.”
Then suddenly, nearly invisible in the rain starved, brown bush of the savannah, he raises up not 12-feet from the side of our open, defenseless vehicle. With the engine dead, and the lion only a single leap away from landing directly in my lap, there is nothing to do except sit very still, whisper not a word, and stare down at the beast who can slit your jugular with a single slash of his razor sharp teeth.
He stares toward the game vehicle. He was asleep, and unaware of our approach. He must have awakened only after we came to a stop just feet away. Now he is wide-awake and obviously not happy.
Working Team Takes a Break
This is not the first lion we have seen since reaching the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Teams working with the Malawi Project often take a day or two away from the action, and visit one of the nearby game parks. Just a day ago this team traveled to Zambia to one of their major parks, arriving in the late morning by way of a Zambia Airways Commuter from Kamuzu International Airport. Everyone is paying their own way, and really hoping to get their money’s worth. So far they are not disappointed.
Two hours earlier, and just minutes away from base camp, we had turned off the path in a small clearing, the driver had stopped the vehicle, and turned off the engine. It was not hard to see why he had made this sudden move. About 15 – 20 feet to our left lay a magnificent lioness with a very young cub. It was our first lesson in being able to be perfectly motionless. The guide had given us instructions on how to act in case we came upon a lion. He had said if we sit very quiet, keep our arms and legs inside the vehicle, do not stand, and do not speak loudly, a lion will not see us as a threat. At this moment we were all stone silent, and hoping the lioness agreed with his directive. I was able to turn my camera slowly toward the lioness and begin snapping pictures. Then, suddenly something seemed to set off alarm bells, and we slowly turned and looked to the right of the Land Rover. About 15 feet away, at the edge of the clearing lay two adult male lions. We stared. They stared. After what seemed like half a lifetime the lioness got up, walked away with the cub, and the driver decided it was time to go. He started the engine and backed out of the clearing. Away from the danger we talked lively about the lion sighting we had just experienced. Over the next hour or so we passed kudu, elephants, impala, baboons, Cape buffalo, zebra and giraffe. Then, another lion sighting is reported over the radio, and we rush to this point and the “lion over there”.
Somehow this sighting does not feel the same as the earlier one. This one seems more fearful from the onset. Perhaps it is because he is hidden from sight. Could it be that he is preparing to pounce? Or maybe there are other lions nearby? The earlier sighting had come suddenly, but this one is developing, and it gives us more time to think about the danger.
Then suddenly, from a spot where he is disguised by the grass, he raises up to face us. The abruptness of his appearance, and the fact he is even closer than the others turns our hearts to cold stone. His eyes focus on the back of the vehicle, and for a moment locks on the people in the back row. Then his gaze moves slowly forward a row, and with the same gaze he studies the second row. Then to us, and the same questioning, exploring, intense, fearful gaze. There is something about the stare of a lion 12 feet away, with no protective fence that turns your blood to ice cycles. His stare sends cold chills up and down my spine. I freeze. Even my eyes are not moving, nor are his.
Then his gaze moves to the driver. Suddenly his ears turn back, and the expression turns to intense anger. There is no question. The driver means something different. For a long moment he stares with anger and hatred. Then he looks away, gets up and ambles over to a spot 20 feet further in the bush and lays down, again hidden completely from sight.
The driver turns to us; “Guess he knows who drove you here, and disturbed his sleep.” Then he turns around and backs onto the road, and continues the exploration of African wildlife.
Break from the Mission
For the team working in the various programs in Malawi it is a welcome diversion, and time to relax from the intensity of their work. South Luangwa makes it possible to combine serving people, with some time to explore a different side of Africa, the wild side.