Somewhere beyond our comforting little circle of firelight the lions were hunting. In the hour before sunset we had seen the East Side Pride rise lethargically to their feet and wander off to begin their bloody nightshift. By first light the springboks would be pronking playfully again, kicking up their legs in apparent joy at having survived the night, but while we nursed our drinks and warmed our hands, terror and death ruled out on the dark savannah.
An almost solid canopy of stars hovered over us. In the entire 52,000 sq km of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve there was little, beyond the ineffectual flare of our fire, to detract from their brilliance. A pair of jackals whined – worried by the smell of our braai steaks – at the edge of the little colony of ‘civilisation’ that we had created. As inevitably happens on long evenings around an African campfire, the conversation turned to close-shave animal encounters. Six years as a Botswana Wildlife ranger and more than a million miles as a 4x4 safari guide had equipped Bart Vandepitte with a supply of dramatic campfire yarns that looked set to outlast even our stack of mopane wood.
There was the time when he wandered to the edge of his camp at night to ‘mark his territory’ (doubtless a side-effect of several bottles of Zambezi) and spent many long minutes face-to-face with the King of the Jungle himself…with only his ‘trouble-shooter’ in his hands. The different philosophies for dealing with such animal confrontations are well known but I had never met anyone who had been forced to test them out under such horrifyingly vulnerable conditions.
In the event of a lion attack, Botswana-based wildlife writer Clive Walker warns in Signs of the Wild, ‘one’s inherent desire is to flee…but this carries with it the certainty of a permanent end to lion-watching.’ Instead, the thing to do is to stare into the cat’s eyes…unless the cat is a leopard in which case this can be fatal and you should watch its tail instead. If you’re being charged by a rhino or buffalo, climb a tree. If it’s an elephant that’s after you the tree probably won’t last long and some experts advise that ‘casting off clothing and other items has been known to delay elephants.’ What they omit to point out is that it’s impossible to outrun an elephant with your designer khakis around your ankles. There are few times in the normal run of everyday modern life when such a breach of local etiquette could be punished by stomping to death by a three-ton herbivore, or by being eaten by a living nightmare from the cradle of mankind.
A long – and no doubt terrifying – collective experience has taught the San Bushmen how to deal with these threats and how to befriend the desert. Bart and I had just spent a few days learning what we could from these greatest of survival experts. (As I understood it, if I was ever lost in the Kalahari, my first priority would be to kill an eland bull with a knobkerrie root club. Then, using its leg sinews as a string for my bow and its scrotum as a pouch for my stash of wild dagga, I would surely be able to survive indefinitely.) I kicked another mopane log into the fire and opened the last bottles while Bart recounted the time that he and a Botswana Wildlife colleague trekked through the southern-Kalahari desert hunting game for their pot. They had completed a six-mile circle when they finally spotted a steenbok…which had cunningly positioned itself so that the first narrowly-missed bullet shot out on their Land Rover’s headlamp. It was strange to think that, here in the centre of the world’s most extensive sand desert, we were also only a hundred miles from its largest inland delta. The Okavango, with its population of crocodiles, hippos, swamp antelope and millions of water-birds, is Botswana major tourist draw-card.
A friend of Bart’s had recently been paddling a Spanish tourist through the waterways of Moremi Reserve when a large bull hippo took violent exception to their trespassing. Guide, client and £3000-worth of Nikon metalwork went into the drink …but a delighted tourist got on the plane to Madrid, vowing that it was the best holiday he had ever had. Unless they actually leave some part of themselves behind in The Dark Continent, you never hear anyone complain about an unnecessarily close animal-encounter. There is definitely a temptation for journalists to sensationalise – not to say invent – accounts of animal-human conflict. Even among the overland truck community (where a good story is known to travel like wildfire) I was unable to find any firsthand knowledge of a crocodile attack on a girl in a crowded campsite in Chobe Reserve. According to one Botswana newspaper, ‘a crocodile – estimated to be three metres long – dragged her tent, in which she was asleep, to the water’s edge.’ Apparently the reptile came out of the water again later…and ate the hastily vacated tent! With mopane and Zambezi supplies exhausted, I climbed into the Toyota’s rooftop tent to listen to the snooker-ball click of the Kalahari’s famous barking geckos. I had only been asleep about an hour when sixth sense awoke me and I grabbed my torch in time to see the bright eyes and powerful shape of a leopard prowl past the camp. Buzzing with adrenalin I lay awake thinking of all the spine-tingling close-encounter stories that I’d heard from Botswana.
There’s the ranger who tells about a freezing Kalahari night that he spent trapped under his Land Rover kicking at the paw of, what he still has the good grace to refer to as, ‘a playful young lion’ that was trying to hook him out. There was the guide who was forced to shoot a rhino at point-blank range while it was trampling him and yet another who spent a full twenty minutes wrestling with a large croc that was clamped onto his leg.
By a campfire, on the banks of the Limpopo River, another guide told me about the time he woke up to find a hyena chewing on his boot.
“You were lucky she didn’t run off with it,” I laughed.
“Bloody lucky – I was still wearing the bugger!”
By Mark Eveleigh