There is a type of silence, in Africa, which speaks louder than the loudest noise. But, being silence, it is heard only by those who have lived in the African Bush for long enough to understand its language.
This type of silence, you will be told by hunter and soldier alike, is always a warning. And the price you pay for not heeding it, often, is death.
Such was the silence which, on that hot, dry November morning, caused me to halt my group of students. We were taking a break in a Tamboti forest, on trail. There were nine students, all on course to become trail guides. Guides who can safely take tourists on guided walks in dangerous game areas – “dangerous game” being the elephant, lion, buffalo, both rhino species, hippopotamus and spotted hyena. They were about three quarters through their four-month course.
I motioned them to stay put in the relative safety of the Tamboti while I investigate the route ahead. Tamboti is a jealous sort of tree; grass and other plants do not grow easily in dense Tamboti stands.
I left the forest and tried to plot a route – the silence, by now, deafening in my ears. To the north and east of the Tamboti, there were thick grass and dense black thorn Acacia; to the south-east, equally dense sickle bush. Black rhino country.
Now, there are a few reasons why one should avoid walking unexpectedly into black rhino. Unlike white rhino, they are very inquisitive animals, and like to investigate any sound, smell or movement. The problem is, they are really GTi rhinos – very fast and agile. And there is a certain feeling of uneasiness when, suddenly, a 1200kg black rhino with two horns of nearly a metre apiece decides to investigate you, approaching at an alarmingly fast pace. This has led to them getting a somewhat unfair reputation of being aggressive. Another reason to be extra careful when dealing with them is that you do not ever want to have to shoot one on trail. The black rhino is a critically endangered animal, and most guides worth their salt would rather take a hit from one than shoot it.
For these reasons I chose to take the southerly route. The grass was really too tall, but it was open grassland. No chance of surprising a black rhino there.
With instructions to stay close to me and walk quietly, I fetched the students and moved carefully into the open grassland.
We progressed for about seventy metres when, suddenly, twenty metres ahead, a Harley Davidson started to “rev”, and a yellow bolt of lightning exploded from the grass – straight towards us.
The growl of an angry lioness is something which you cannot fully explain to someone who has not been exposed to it before. You feel it as much as you hear it. From seven metres – where she stopped to stand and swear at us – the earth around you, and your body, trembles with the sound, like standing in front of a speaker at a rock concert. You don’t, however, feel like cheering, much. There is a subtle, yet important, difference between a serious charge from an elephant, buffalo or rhino, and that of a lion. All of them could easily kill you; but it is what happens afterwards that makes the difference. Most people would like their relatives to have something to bury or cremate after your departure from this world. The other animals might kill you. The lion, having killed you, will then proceed to feast on you. This is not a comforting thought.
I engaged in some urgent conversation with the lioness, pointing out to her the obvious advantages of leaving quite soon rather than risk being shot. Scary as it was, I was pleased that the students had been offered a great learning curve.
And then, somewhere to the left, another Harley started. A big one, this time. At times like this, you seem to observe the world in slow motion: his long, dark mane waving, his big, yellow eyes, filled with hatred, focused on my throat, the most magnificent male lion came charging through the long thatch grass. The earth vibrated with his growling. I spoke to him with far greater urgency than I had to his female companion, and he stopped at four metres, continuing the conversation. It was not without some trepidation that I met, and maintained, his gaze. A 500 grain monolithic solid bullet was chambered in the CZ .458, and I took great pains explaining to him that we would both be far better off should he just call it a day and allow us to leave.
Somewhere in the course of my conversation with the big male, the lioness turned 90 degrees, faced east, and started roaring. She is calling in reinforcements… I had never seen this before.
Meanwhile, the male was standing his ground. One does experience a certain feeling of inferiority whilst having a conversation of this nature. Despite the .458 rifle. Suddenly, another Harley came rushing in, growling loudly as she did; and presently I was facing two really grumpy lionesses at seven metres, and a 230kg male lion at less than 4 metres. What a learning opportunity for the students, I thought. You deal with a lion charge by facing them off, bullying back the bully. Safety lies in numbers.
But something was wrong with this lion charge. Normally, lions will charge, you face them and try talking some sense into them, then they back off, you back off, they charge again, you repeat the procedure, and after a number of charges they decide it’s OK and you leave, knees trembling. But not this time. Despite my best means of persuasion, they would not back off. If anything they were inching ever closer. “Can’t they count?” I found myself wondering. Ten of us, three of them… never seen lions this brave before.
Then, suddenly, another Harley. She came at great speed. A small tree close to me caused her to miss the reason for the commotion, and, as women do when all else fails, she sort of attacked the male, gave him a smack. As he turned to scorn her, I saw the gap to start the retreat. I turned my head to tell the students: “We can start…”
There was no-one.
I felt, at that moment, exactly what Chief Seathl had meant, two centuries ago, by “great loneliness of spirit”. You are very alone if four really angry lions, metres away, are busy planning your demise – with not another human in sight. I remember, vividly, thinking how these lions were probably saying to themselves: “Can’t he count? Only himself, and four of us…”
There was no option. I had to start backing off. Slowly. The sights of that .458 were straight between the eyes of the one with the black mane… but there were four lions, and only one rifle. My hat got hooked on a black thorn Acacia, and I still fumbled to get it loose for a few moments before deciding to leave it there – I paid seventy bucks for that hat, mind you! – and continue the slow march. For about forty metres, all four of them followed me step by step, growling all the way. The two later arrivals then lay down, but the male and the first female followed me until I reached the Tamboti forest, upon which they started pacing up and down, roaring and defecating until I was out of sight.
I did find the students again, much further back. As it turned out, they had left – by no means slowly – even before the third lion arrived. Led away to desert me by the back-up… Their main concern, whilst waiting in the safety of the Tamboti, was apparently who had to go get the rifle from the feeding site, and who had to inform my wife of the manner of my demise. The latter being, undoubtedly, the more dangerous of the two courses of action.
The next walk I took those students on lasted for eight hours, on a day with a maximum of 42 degrees, including seven of the highest mountain peaks in the park.
I am of the opinion that none of those individuals, should the opportunity arise again, will dare desert me on a lion charge ever again.
The featured image is that lion, four years later. How sad it was to see him old, frail and weak – he, who’s power had once vibrated through my chest; he, wh had shown me mercy, on that day. His memory and genes live on!