Extract from 'Traversa'

'I saw the lion just
in the act of springing upon me …
  Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat ...'
                                                          David Livingstone
                                                                                                                                                     

portrait_7.jpeg Although many people I meet on this journey assume I’m reasonably brave, in fact I’m scared of most things, including dinosaurs. The truth is I’m worried about crossing the West Caprivi Game Reserve on foot, so I visit Rundu’s Nature Conservation Office to get some up-to-date information on lion attacks. The staff here are extremely helpful; we consult a map of the park, which covers an entire wall. 

'You will have to be careful over the last forty kilometres – all the reported lion incidents have been in that area,’ the officer tells me. I never realized before how sinister the word ‘incident’ can sound. Lions recently killed a road worker in the reserve, leaving only a soggy scalp for his colleagues to bury.

Equally unwelcome is the prospect of unexploded landmines in the game reserve, a legacy of the bush war. I’ll have to stay close to the road and be bloody careful about wandering around in the undergrowth. The guy also warns me of former UNITA soldiers out poaching in the park, still armed to the teeth; at night they cross from the Angolan side of the Kavango River, taking any spoils back with them.

‘For safety you should camp on the south side of the road through the game reserve,’ he tells me. ‘And if you get into trouble with the locals you should pretend to be a witch doctor. Man, you think I’m joking? I tell you, even today some of the local people are still that superstitious.’ I’m not entirely convinced by this – and even if it’s true, I didn’t come to Africa to cure people of their spiritual ailments or raise the dead.

But the big cats are causing me the most anxiety. It doesn’t pay to act too cavalier in one’s attitude towards lions – enough people have died over the years through doing exactly that. I’m still not sure what I’ll do if I meet a lion along the road. I could always try the springbok ploy of making balletic leaps in the air to show I’m fit, healthy and hard to catch. Springbok leaps of this nature are known as ‘pronking’; but how do you pronk with a heavy rucksack? I can hardly compete on equal terms: lions themselves are excellent jumpers, and when charging can easily leap twelve metres in their final bound. Quite apart from its teeth and claws, a lion can deliver a blow with its paw of sufficient force to break the neck of a fully grown buffalo.

Some people advise me that if I’m attacked I should distract the lion by sticking my arm in its mouth; as soon as the lion gives its full attention to my arm between its teeth I should stab it behind the shoulder. Resistance to the bitter end is recommended, as lions occasionally turn away or release their prey. This sounds wonderfully straightforward in theory, without the lion in question crunching my arm to splinters.

Other people insist passive behaviour is the key to surviving a lion attack: apparently the laid-back approach spares the body stress without encouraging the lion to further unpleasantness. Either way, one factor may work in my favour – like most wild predators, lions haven’t yet realized that humans can’t smell properly. So if I pay attention to the wind I’ll have at least some idea from which direction an attack might come – downwind.


livingstone_and_the_lion.jpgIn the most famous lion attack in history, David Livingstone opted for a mixture of both the aggressive and the passive response, resorting to the latter only after the more traditional approach of shooting the angry beast several times at close range had failed. On this occasion Livingstone was helping a party of Tswanas hunt a troublesome lion; only a short way into the hunt he found himself in the jaws of the very beast he’d come to find.

Livingstone’s life was saved by the timely arrival of a native teacher, Mebalwe, who courageously seized a gun and attempted to fire it at the lion. The gun misfired; the creature immediately dropped Livingstone and attacked Mebalwe, ripping his thigh open, and then bit the shoulder of another native who entered the fray. Eventually the bullets originally fired by Livingstone took effect, and to great relief all round the lion dropped dead.

A lengthy and excruciating convalescence gave Livingstone ample time to reflect on his lucky escape. He remained convinced his tartan woollen jacket had prevented poison from the lion’s teeth infecting his wounds. Even so, he never regained proper use of his badly set arm; a false joint formed, and for the rest of his life he had to set his rifle against his left shoulder. After his death, when Livingstone’s African companions carried his body over two thousand kilometres to the coast, the corpse’s distinctive damaged shoulder proved beyond doubt the body was indeed that of the great explorer.

Another celebrated survivor from a lion attack was the Victorian traveller-sportsman Lord Delamere. Like Livingstone, he owed his life to the courage and prompt action of his native companion, in this case the Somali gunbearer Abdullah Ashur. Delamere’s first shot merely enraged the lion without killing it; while Delamere prepared himself for a second shot the lion seized him by the leg, breaking the bone. With almost suicidal courage Abdullah distracted the lion by grabbing its mane; at this unexpected move the lion turned its fury on its new assailant, who then went one better by seizing it by the tongue. The lion took a few moments to recover from the shock of this gross personal affront, by which time Delamere had recovered sufficiently to shoot it again, driving the creature away.

Both Delamere and Abdullah survived their severe mauling, and Delamere showed his appreciation of his employee’s bravery when, on a later occasion, the captain of the ship on which they travelled spoke abusively to Abdullah; Delamere punched the man so hard he fell overboard into the Gulf of Aden.

Sipping a cold beer in a lodge bar on the banks of the Kavango, I reflect that getting killed by a lion would certainly prove a sensational exit from this world - and an extremely uncomfortable one.

Lions usually hunt at night to frighten and confuse their prey, to me a deeply unsettling image. But I should be reasonably safe asleep inside my tent. Many hunters have considered lions far more dangerous during storms, when their usual laziness vanishes: having no fear of thunder and lightning, they hunt aggressively while the storm disturbs their quarry. Thankfully the weather forecast for the next few days is good.

There’s a significant difference between myself and most visitors to Africa: for purely practical reasons, right now I don’t actually wish to see a lion at all – especially without knowing if it’s hungry or not until it sinks its teeth into me.

Statistically the chances of getting eaten by a lion in Africa are pretty low. Yet someone has to get eaten once in a while for such statistics to exist. As I set out to cross the game reserve on foot, I have to remind myself that most accidents happen at home – though not, admittedly, accidents involving lions …

fellow_traveller_west_caprivi_game_reserve.jpg
© Fran Sandham 2007