Maasai Mara Game Park, Kenya. January 1-2, 1983
You may have heard the vintage 1961 tune, The Lion Sleeps Tonight. A nocturnal sleep schedule for big cats might be true in a zoo. In the wilds of East Africa, lions are opportunistic hunters and roam widely after dark. During a low-budget, self-organized Kenyan safari, my travel buddy, Andy, and I joked about camping surrounded by wild animals. Had I looked into a crystal ball, the foreshadowing of a lion stalking me would have appeared in the orb’s cloudy mist. In reality, it was dead of night when the large-maned lion came so close, I heard him sniff the air.
I stared at the map, then looked at the road. Although Highway C13 is indicated as a major thoroughfare on the map, it had disintegrated into a rough-and-tumble dirt track, not many kilometers out of Nairobi, Kenya. Never mind. We were loving the adventure of starting a safari. Rented a little Suzuki jeep, two-man tent, non-perishable foodstuffs, field glasses and were bouncing along to the massive Serengeti plains that straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
When meeting other safari vehicles, the drivers waved greetings to us. Hmm, friendly people. We energetically waved back. It wasn’t until the rock flipped up from a passing Land Rover and shattered the entire windshield that we understood what was really happening. Other drivers and front seat passengers were placing hands on inside of windshields, not waving, to lessen the shattering effect should a flying rock hit it. Fortunately, Andy had a small scratch on his nose as the only injury. Broken glass covered our legs and jeep floor. Safety glass had not made its way to Africa yet. Luckily, this happened not far from Nairobi, near the tarmac road. But, as we picked up speed, large bugs and butterflies were being sucked through the open windshield space. We looked like boxers dodging punches to avoid getting splatted right in the face.
Over the four-day safari, a comfortable pattern developed. At first light, we head out for a game drive, then breakfast at a nearby lodge. Search for another camp site, set up camp, take a siesta. End with late day game drive and eat crap out of a can for dinner. The wildlife viewing was amazing. We’d come across animal kills, lazy lions sunning themselves, and Maasai herders. Between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli game parks, we “bagged” four of the Big Five. Never did see the elusive leopard but a thousand other unique animals and birds more than made up for it.
On the afternoon of January 1, 1983, we camped near a ranger station located not far from Governor’s Lodge on the Mara River. I don’t remember any official campsites in those days, just put your tent out. Setting up in a clearing, a ranger warned us that lions had killed a giraffe nearby a few days earlier. He pointed to a spot on the other side of the clearing. “There are more lions and hyenas around at night,” he said. “Just don’t get out of your tent after dark.” Then he walked away.
After the sunset game drive, we stopped by the Governor’s Lodge for multiple bottles of “carbonated courage.” Seeing groups of hyenas slinking around on the short drive back to the tent didn’t ease the tension either. Andy announced he was staying in the jeep. Not me. I recorded my thoughts before climbing into the sleeping bag.
— Audio recording night of January 1, 1983 near the Mara River, Kenya —
Other campsites had been out in the open (see photo). This was heavily wooded, close to the river. A condensed microcosm of East Africa. Everything was here. The sounds of the night orchestrated themselves into a beautiful symphony. Elephants trumpeted, hyenas howled, crickets chirped, along with other unidentifiable animal and bird sounds. And there was that lion roar that sent Andy back to the jeep. Dog-tired from the safari experience, sleep came surprisingly easy.
Peaceful slumber did not last long.
Awakened and instantly alert, I clearly heard soft, slow padding in the grass just beyond my head. All there was between me, and whatever was lurking out there, was an ultra-thin layer of nylon fabric. It’s big. Lion? Could be something else? Hyena? Jackal? It stopped moving and started sniffing. Is it sniffing me? Seconds later, the padding started again. Then silence. Earlier there had been so many exotic sounds and now . . . nothing. It gets quiet when lions are around.
Lions are massive animals. Males can weigh more than 400 pounds, reach a height of 4 feet with canine teeth the size of your index finger. For generations, Maasai adolescent boys killed a lion with a spear as a rite of passage to manhood and warrior status. Due to a significant reduction in lion numbers, eager young men are now encouraged to participate in spear throwing contests instead. My rite of passage at same age was getting a drivers license.
Would like to share that I knew exactly what to do that night. Be still, stay calm. Truth is, I was too scared to move. Thankfully, the critical moments passed before panic set in.
I’d have been thrilled to hear the rangers raise a ruckus and move the animal or animals on their way. But there was nothing but silence, maybe crickets chirping. After a couple of minutes, I inched down to the screened end of the tent to see Andy smoking a cigarette in the jeep. A minute later, Andy spotted me and partially rolled down the window. Following is an expletive-deleted version of the ensuing conversation.
Andy: “Don’t want to alarm you but there was a male lion just by the tent.”
Me: “I know. Where is he now?”
Andy: “I can’t see him right now.”
Me: “Move over. I’m coming in!”
The jeep was strategically parked as close as possible to the tent just for this situation. In a second, I was in with the door closed. Spent rest of night watching and listening. A hyena came up and sniffed the tent, a jackal or two passed by. Finally, birds announced the beginning of another day.
While we devoured a Governor’s Lodge English breakfast, park rangers saved our tent and belongings from a nosy family of baboons. A large female was still grunting loudly and dragging my towel around the clearing when we pulled up to the disheveled tent. As we thanked the rangers, I asked one how he slept the night before. “Well, my friend,” he said. “Very well.”
There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne — bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.
Karen Blixen – author of Out of Africa
Top Image Credit: VideoHive