I can never watch a nature show without thinking: Everybody’s somebody’s lunch. And every time it occurs to me, I find myself glad not to have to spend my life avoiding being gobbled up by something higher on the food chain.
The closest I’ve come to being eaten was on my first trip into the African bush. Even as a child in South Africa, I had never seen animals in the wild. My parents went; we stayed behind. But now, decades on, here I was at last.
We were seven in the Land Rover: the guide and I in front, my sister and brother-in-law behind me, and, on a raised bench at the back, an Israeli paratrooper and his wife. On a platform behind them sat the African game spotter. It was late afternoon and the sun was about to sink. The African sun does not subside gently through a dramatic sunset; it simply plunges to the horizon in about 30 minutes, sending the world quite quickly from light to dark.
It was during those 30 minutes that we were parked on a high river bank, watching a lion and two lionesses roll around on the dry riverbed. All afternoon we’d been driving around in search of game, but had seen little more than a few springbok and some birds—no sign until now of any of the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, Cape buffalo), the Mona Lisas and Last Suppers of the bush.
We sat in silence, watching the trio laze in the last of the sun. Believe me, it can be boring watching animals not eating each other. One forgets that they have to eat at all, or what, or whom. “How long are we going to stay here?” I said to the guide. He clenched his jaw. His job was to delight us, this much I had gathered. Still, it really was boring sitting there in the chilly gloom, watching lions doing nothing much.
I looked back at my sister. She was an old hand at the bush. She’d paddled down the Zambezi in a canoe, slept in tents, gone on bush treks. I’d done none of this. In my 15 years in America I’d seen nothing more menacing than a small black bear. And so, until now, I’d never really experienced the boredom of the wild except in the 8mm cinés my father had taken—lion, leopard, rhinoceros—mostly out of focus, and, very occasionally, a chase, a kill.
The light was almost gone, casting the world in silhouette. One of the lionesses stood up, stretched, glancing toward us. The spotter turned on his flashlight. In its beam her eyes seemed to catch fire. She loped casually toward the river bank, and then was up it in a few leaps, stopping at the top to look around, about 20 feet away. The other lioness followed, leaping the bank and settling herself on the other side of us. Then both, as if in a ballet, sank to a crouch.
“Uma eqa, ngizomshaya,” the spotter said softly. I looked back at my sister. We understood some Zulu. “Shaya” means “hit.” “What’s going on?” I said to the guide.
Slowly, he unsnapped the rifle from the dash. Holding it ready with one hand, he turned the key with the other. As soon as the engine came to life, both lionesses were up in a flash. So, he switched it off again, reached for the walkie-talkie and pressed the button. “Ons is omring. Waar is jy?” This, too, we could understand: “We’re surrounded. Where are you?”
“If one of them jumps, you duck and I’ll cover you,” my brother-in-law said to my sister. “And me?” I said to the guide, “What do I do?”
All we could see as the flashlight swung from one side to the other were two pairs of yellow eyes, one left, one right. The lionesses were down in the crouch again. “You must shut up!” the guide hissed.
‘He unsnapped the rifle. The lionesses were up in a flash. ‘We’re surrounded.’’
I shrank as low as I could go, hardly breathing. The radio crackled on. The other guides were too far away to help, it seemed. So there we were with the night noises of the bush, a huff from the lion down on the riverbed, the arc of the spotter’s light, left to right.
And then suddenly, without warning, the guide reached for the key again and the engine roared to life. Instantly, the lionesses were up, but this time he didn’t back down. Still holding the rifle, he gunned the engine and plunged us precipitously down the river bank, down toward the lion. Before we reached him, the Land Rover swerved left and roared up the riverbed. No one looked back to see if the lions were chasing us. And no one spoke, not even me.
Not until we were safely back at the camp, showered and changed and sitting around the fire as the guide took orders for drinks, did the Israeli paratrooper speak for the first time. “I have landed behind enemy lines,” he said, “I have hidden all night in a tree. But never until now have I known such fear.”
“Agh no,” said the guide, flashing me a look that clearly said, You keep out of this—my job is on the line. “Those lions were only bluffing. They don’t go for human flesh.”
—Ms. Freed is the author, most recently, of “The Last Laugh” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and “The Romance of Elsewhere: Essays” (Counterpoint Press).
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