Introduction: With the last rays of the sun glinting on sleek, tawny and awesomely muscled bodies, the sighting that had seemed unbelievable to the two watching tourists, turned into a nightmare. The large pride of lions began moving on a broad front towards the tiny car.
The two tourists were wildly excited about their trip to Namibia. They had planned to drive to Etosha on the same day they landed, and so, on a Sunday morning early, our two German ladies, loaded with cameras, map, brochures and a variety of paraphernalia, climbed eagerly into their small hired car at Hosea Kutako Airport. Their African dream had come true and they were embarking on their first safari experience. They had planned the trip down to the last detail, even to the extent of dividing the driving into equal shares.
Late on Sunday afternoon the ladies entered Etosha and drove to Ombika waterhole to view the first truly wild African animals they had ever seen. What a sight awaited them! A herd of elephants was at the water, drinking, the calves squealing, youngsters shrilling and mothers trumpeting whilst they jostled and bathed in the mud. The two ladies were spellbound, forgetting the time of day, and each expending a digital card into their cameras. Some of the pictures would be good, others not, because of tilted horizons caused by their sheer excitement. This was Africa! They had imagined many things but this exceeded all their expectations. Thus they sat enraptured as, one by one, the other vehicles moved off to return to Okaukuejo before sunset.
Fifteen minutes before the sun would disappear in a red glow behind the dust layers suspended in the clear winter sky, the ladies realised they were the only ones at Ombika waterhole. “Ach, du meine Güte!” They would have to hurry to reach the rest camp before the gates closed. Having studied the regulations fastidiously beforehand, they were aware that one of the cardinal rules was the ‘sunset to sunrise’ restriction on vehicle movement. They also knew about the 60 km/h speed restriction, and so the good ladies set off on the road to Okaukuejo at maximum speed. They certainly didn’t want to be late on their very first night and it was with rising anxiety that they watched the sun sinking towards the horizon faster than they were covering the 18 kilometres to camp.
Then it happened. Around a slight curve, spaced across the entire surface of the road, were more lions than they had ever seen together before, neither in the zoo, nor at a circus. Skidding to a halt, the little car ended up far closer to the lion pride than the ladies would have liked. There were two big males, a host of lionesses and several small cubs. With mounting apprehension they watched the sun disappearing below the horizon, while the lions looked at the little car, indolent and unmoving.
Then, what had seemed like a bad dream to the two tourists, turned into a nightmare. “Oh jeh!!” The lions began moving towards the tiny car. Were they being stalked? The frightening thought flashed simultaneously through the minds of the tourists. Yes, that is what was happening! Somewhere they had read of how lions lost all fear of humans when it became dark. And wasn’t there also a lioness with small cubs? During their armchair travels in African literature they had learned that, when provoked, a nursing lioness was one of the most dangerous animals. They were being surrounded by hungry lions apparently intent on procuring their next meal.
As the light began to fade, so did the ladies’ hope of reaching Okaukuejo that night, indeed of surviving this dreadful ordeal. Then a brilliant thought occurred to the driver: “Reverse, reverse!” But the engine had stalled and only after several attempts did it come back to life. Crunch followed resounding crunch as the panic-stricken driver tried to engage reverse gear. When she did, her foot was still jammed so hard on the brake that the engine stalled again. In desperation she managed to start reversing, by which time the lions were only metres from the car, their heads level with the eyes of the two women, fast approaching hysteria. The reverse lights made little impression on the gathering darkness, and the driver switched on the headlights. Horror of horrors. The beams reflected numerous pairs of feline eyes, the orbs glowing like coals in the darkness.
Almost simultaneously, one of the males began to roar, beginning with a long, low, drawn-out grunt that gained in volume with each successive breath until the little car vibrated, its occupants cowering in their seats. As if acting on cue, the other lion and lionesses joined in, until the night reverberated with one of the most impressive and mind-chilling sounds in nature – a lion pride in full chorus.
That was it! The ladies’ nerves gave way completely. The little car had been reversing for hundreds of metres with the lions following it, padding resolutely along the road. Now it surged forward and swung around in an arc, which took it jolting and bouncing over the roadside rocks and bushes, its occupants wide-eyed and clutching to keep their balance. Finally it stopped its sideways drift, the wheels spinning on the loose gravel. Almost unseeing and close to fainting, they sped back to Ombika waterhole. The lions followed on sure, silent pads, leaving their telltale pug marks in the fine limestone dust.
At the waterhole, to their unspeakable relief, the tourists found salvation in the form of a calm, bearded man, complete with uniform and rifle, who had arrived from another direction. The Chief Warden sat in his four-wheel-drive truck and watched the second herd of elephant come to drink, until it was completely dark. He had been about to drive back to Okaukuejo when the sound of a vehicle approaching at high speed, the 60 km/h limit well exceeded, made him wait. To his amazement a small car came careening towards him, only just managing to stop short of colliding with his truck. From inside the car – its windows tightly closed – came a babble of voices accompanied by wild gesticulations and shouts of “Löwe, Löwe!” at rapid intervals. Only when the pride came into the line of his truck’s lights did he see the cats. They swept past both vehicles unconcernedly, their attention fixed on one thing only: a long, satisfying drink of cool water after a successful hunt and feast on zebra in the late afternoon.
Text by Dr. Hu Berry