Wednesday 24th May 2017

"Start your engine"
By G.M.Howes

Photos by Paddy Howes

“Start your engine”, the urgency and panic palpable, broke the icy silence (-8 degrees Celsius), emanating from the lips of our female travel companion; our night of camping at Kidney Pan in the Mabuasehube Reserve was irrevocably disturbed.

We had arrived at the game guard camp late that afternoon and whilst filling in the requisite forms to register our presence, I had in conversation with the staff remarked that I had never seen lions in this area and only heard them on my previous visits. An American Zoology exchange student happened to be present, he obviously got one of the more remote postings with little or no facilities and a 6-ton lorry as his form of transport, and upon hearing my comment he recounted his experience from the previous evening.
 
He had been part of a work group building toilets at the very camp site we would be spending the night. At the end of the day the staff had gone to sleep on the back of the lorry and he had retired to his “one man bicycle” tent. During the night he woke up with a large weight pressing down on him and without much thinking involved smacked the amorphous lump, the lump happened to be a lion. When his head cleared sufficiently to recognize the fact that he had slapped a lion, he shouted out to his staff, “start your engine” and they had come to his rescue.

With this piece of information we headed to our campsite, set up camp, cooked and ate our dinner then retired to our respective tents, my wife and I in a roof top tent and our friends in a small dome tent on the ground.

The urgent and panicked call came at approximately 02h00, when I enquired exactly how I may assist them they asked if I could help them get into the back of their Landrover. Out I went, through the two zips which enclose the tent and onto the roof where in the beam of my torch’s light I spotted 3 lions behind their tent. I informed them that the lions looked to be pretty relaxed, with that the husband exited the tent, in the freezing conditions to say he was inadequately dressed would be an understatement, t-shirt, shorts and barefoot he sprinted the 10 metres between his tent and his vehicle, armed with a duvet and a torch. Once the back was open he called his wife, she emerged in a nightie and carrying two pillows. Now all they had to do was get warm on the metal base of their bakkie which by now would have been as cold as ice. Finally my wife insisted she needed to pee and so I had to climb down from the safe haven of the tent to fetch a basin, I returned to discover she was having attacks of nausea from the excitement.

The lions watched this pantomime with obvious interest but not fully appreciating the effort it required and upon its conclusion did not even bother to applaud, there really is no pleasing some critics.

After a rather uncomfortable night we awoke with a rather pressing need for coffee, but our visiting pride was still very present in our campsite. We watched what could be described as very large kittens playing with our belongings.

They pulled our socks of the washing line and played tug-of–war with them until they got ripped apart, attacked my wooden camp chair and completely destroyed the cushions on all the chairs. One of them even decided he wanted my kettle and ran off with it and took the spade just in case.

Eventually they moved off and we could begin to collect our belongings from the veld. Coffee was made, in another kettle as mine was nowhere to be found, and we moved down to the pan to watch the antics of the resident meerkats. Our reverie was interrupted by yet another urgent call from the campsite, as fast as we could without running we headed back to find my friend’s wife smoking a cigarette with the need for some serious calming.
 
In time she explained how she had walked just over the ridge to attend to a call of nature and as she was finishing this call she turned around and found herself staring at a lioness lying on the ridge with its head resting on its paws, lazily studying the behaviour of the females of the human species.

Needless to say we packed up and left this campsite.

When we left the reserve I asked the game guards to keep an eye open for my kettle As I was due back in a couple of months, I thought that if by some miracle they found it, it would be a nice story to have my lion chewed kettle back. To incentivize the guys I promised to reward them with some shirts.

Months later when I did return, the game guard was by my car before it came to a stop, kettle in hand.

This kettle was restored and used on several more trips into the Kalahari until it was completely destroyed by a spotted hyena one fateful night. Such is the life of a camping kettle, primal, brutal and savage, never boring.


More lions

By G.M.Howes
Photos by Paddy Howes

We found ourselves at Bosobogolo, in the Mabuasehube Reserve, sitting around the fire on a typically crisp Kalahari evening, the hardwood fire had reached its peak and the potjie pot (3 legged iron pot) produced a magnificent lamb stew.

I decided that little more light would do justice to the meal and so walked to my Landcruiser to find a candle for the camping table. As I walked back one of my travel companions shone a weak light in my direction to simplify my task. Having earlier unpacked several plastic crates from the back of the bakkie, I knelt down to scratch in the boxes, my attention was diverted from the task at hand by a rather strained “look out” coming from the camp fire. I looked up and in the poor light I could see a male lion standing broadside to me no further than 10 metres away. Slowly I sank to my haunches and kept as still as humanly possible; an eternity later he turned and walked away.

The fire was built up and the meal was eaten in less than ideal circumstances, tension and food do not make great companions. Upon finishing I suggested to the occupants of the other vehicle in our party to take the spotlight and inspect the surrounding area to see if they could find our now departed visitor, or at least that is what I thought.

The pan is 9km around so I could follow their progress by watching the spotlight swivel to and fro spotting whatever game was in the vicinity, which turned out to be jackals and springhares.

My wife and I decided to retire to the roof top tent and were approaching a deep slumber when a noise at the back of our vehicle rudely interrupted. Peering through the mesh window of the tent I saw our visitor chewing on our empty water container and washing up bowl. In the harsh environment of the Kalahari, for more than half the year water is a rare commodity and he could obviously smell the water residue in the containers.

Having disturbed the beast he glared up at me and proceeded to stroll alongside the bakkie which is the precise moment my wife chose to look out, the sheer size and proximity of the lion left her completely traumatized. She lay back down and started to shiver, the cold coupled with intense fear has a tendency to cause this type of reaction.
 
Having been raised to be the protector of the family I felt it my duty to do something about the situation. I moved to the front of the tent and opened the flaps a touch and shone my torch directly into the eyes of this magnificently intimidating animal, biting back the dread I clapped my hands and shouted “voetsak”. It proved to be rather ineffective as the lion simply stood his ground and looked at me with contempt, his stare spoke clearly and it said, “Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone, this is my territory.” Unable to solve the problem my next act was one best described by the old saying, discretion is better than valour, and so I closed the tent flaps and slowly lowered myself back on the bed.

Eventually the other vehicle returned and I informed them to be careful as the lion was still in camp. The problem was that the occupants of the vehicle tended to snore rather loudly and during the course of the trip, upon my encouragement, had moved further and further away. This was the last night and their tent was a full 60 metres away and on the ground, this was a risk they did not deem worthy of taking, which left them with the option of sleeping in their bakkie. One crawled into the back (it was covered with a canopy) and the other lay across the two front seats, having no blankets or pillows it turned out to be not the most comfortable of nights.

The remainder of the night proved to be uneventful, other than the fact that my wife insisted on sleeping inside the bakkie with towels over the windows to be safe from the scrutiny of the large shaggy lion.

Dawn found us walking around the campsite, much needed cups of coffee in hand, inspecting the spoor of our friendly neighbourhood lion. As it turned out he had a friend and their presence was everywhere, we found where one of them lay down and in the impressions left behind the sheer size of him was very impressive. Following their movements we found that one of the two had shown an obvious interest in the vehicle of our companions, with footprints right next to the door of the bakkie, curious as to what was inside.

When these encounters happen one is extremely apprehensive and intimidated by the experience. The lion is the alpha predator in his environment and not only are they big, much bigger than one would expect, they are also wild animals and what they may do is guesswork.

Thankfully in my experiences so far they seem to be simply curious, long may that last.