‘Will I be eaten by a lion?’ I ask the ranger on the gate.
He stops writing in his register, a big book daubed with dirty fingerprints, biro poised.
‘Will I?’ I persist, ‘I’ve heard that three people have been eaten here recently’.
After a pause, he snorts, ‘that’s not true’.
Rumour has it … I persist … ‘no’, he asserts emphatically, ‘nobody has been eaten in this park’.
I grew up in man-eating country. Big maned, big teethed, long clawed man-eaters. Of the carnivorously feline kind as opposed to the sort that prey on other people’s husbands. I was raised on thrilling bedtime tales of the demise of Captain Charles Ryall who, during the building of the East African Railway, was plucked from his bed one night when one of the lions who’d been busily picking off the Indian coolies working on the line which ran through what became our farm, managed to slide Ryall’s carriage door open and, standing on the stomach of the terrified Italian in the bottom bunk, dragged him from the top. His scant remains were found the next morning. I demanded my mother repeat that story night after night, partly for the electric thrill which it sent down my spine so that the hairs on the back of my neck prickled, but mostly for the delicious expression on my little brother’s face: blanched with fear.
As cattle ranchers, lions were a perpetual occupational menace: my father was frequently obliged to spend the night curled uncomfortably into the cab of his pickup, rifle across his knee, coffee at his side, cigarette lit, waiting to see if he could put an end to the herd-executing-exercise that a pride had embarked upon. Dad didn’t enjoy lion hunts: he didn’t like killing anything. But he didn’t like not being able to pay his bills either. I listened to him grumble as he pulled a rare sweater on, gather up his cartridge belt and collect his thermos of coffee and the bar of chocolate Mum would have set aside and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about: to stay up all night and eat Dairy Milk would have been infinitely more exciting than cocoa and a bedtime story at home with your little brother. Even when that story did conjure up big cats with big teeth that made your younger siblings eyes grow wide with fear.
But age has delivered that inevitable sense of one’s own mortality, and tempered my juvenile frisson at stories about the fate of the likes of Ryall; the proximity of man-eaters is less thrilling now. I’m relieved to hear that the lions in the Ruaha have not developed a penchant for human flesh.
We are here, Ant and I, for a two day escape from the cold, corporate world we usually inhabit, where Health and Safety reign supreme, Big Brother snatching away the last vestiges of Common Sense. We are here to enjoy the sun and throw caution to the wind (except that I will sleep with my tent firmly zipped up … and a campfire burning all night, I tell Ant, … and, I add anxiously, I’ll feel better if you park the car very, very close …)
The Ruaha is Tanzania’s biggest national park. Gazetted in 1910 by the Germans as Saba Game Reserve, it became the Rungwa in 1946 when the Brits were in charge and thirty years later was renamed the Ruaha, after the Great Ruaha River which forms an eastern boundary; Ruvaha in the local Hehe dialect means ‘river’. The park is over 20 000 square kilometers and it feels it. It’s a vast sprawling space where views are long and lean and spare, unfettered by much except distant hills which carve soft curves into the horizon and baobabs which punctuate sharp profiles against evening light.
It’s October and the park is toastdry. The air is veiled with dust so that those far away hills look even further, ethereal, as ghosts, their outlines smudged. When the rain comes, in December, it will rinse the atmosphere clear and the hills will draw closer overnight, their shapes suddenly more sharply drawn. And when the rain falls, the Great Ruaha will become Great again, will fill to the brim its banks, which seem implausibly wide now, a quarter of a kilometer sporting just a trickle. The other arteries that sustain the park – the Jongomero, the Mdonya, the Mwagusi – will all rise and swell and the game will fatten and the savannah will green.
But such fecundity is two months away still. Now the grass is baked to the colour of shortbread, the heat feels as if somebody left an oven door open, the shade is thin and animals hunker low and still.
The combretum seeds are as aged, faded confetti caught in desiccated boughs, the pepper seed pods are as hollow and as brittle and as light as pingpong balls and leaves silvered with thirst skitter from treetops with the faintest breeze, fragile and winged as butterflies.
We set up camp on the Mdonya Sand River, last vestiges of water are long gone, the pits that mark where animals have dug to drink are old and caving in; the riverbed pockmarked with the tread of game. By evening the sand is cool enough to walk across. Come noon it will scald my soles. We light a fire and watch the dark settle like a blanket which stars puncture with bright holes of light. The hiss of daytime cicadas gives way to the soft call of a Scops Owl and the mournful cry of a Thick-knee.
And then I hear a lion.
An unmistakable grunt.
Did you hear that? Asks Ant. As if he needs to.
I am sitting bolt upright, wielding my small supermarket bought torch in an arc all around me.
How far away do you think that is, I whisper.
Ooooh. I don’t know? 500 meters.
I don’t know much about lion. But I do know that their voices carry.
Rubbish, I squeak.
Quite how far they carry I’m not sure.
I drag my camp chair closer to the fire.
We hear the lion intermittently until just before dawn. From different directions, but never closer. Ant complains the next morning that I behave like a meercat all night, popping up and down to peer into the gloom, amply lit now with a huge Terry’sChocolateOrange moon which hangs syrupy and melts with daybreak.
Our pre breakfast game drive takes us south of camp on cinnamonpowder tracks, beyond the kopjes which we can see from our tent, atop which we see mongoose and rock hyrax warming themselves in early sunshine, and onto the shrinking river where hippo populations look larger for the diminishing size of their watery homes. When the water gets very low they will lie in pools so thick you can see the rising give-away bubbles of fish beneath the soupy surface which are plucked neatly out by storks using the hippo’s backs as rafts. Crocodiles lie sunning themselves on sandspits or slide beneath the river’s shallow surface to stalk unsuspecting game that comes to slake its thirst; impala are jumpy and watchful, their shivering reflections amplify their drinking shapes.
From the river we head west and into the heart of the miombo. This is Kudu country; Ruaha is famous for its large numbers of these graceful antelope with their enormous ears – their hearing must be incredible’, observes Ant quietly as we watch a herd dissolve as apparitions into the grey scrub, their backs chalkstriped. When I was a child my father always exhibited excitement at a kudu sighting; there were rarer where we lived and their uncommonness elevated spotting one to cause for celebration: ‘how much will you give me if a see a leopard dad’, we’d ask. A shilling he’d say. And a kudu; if I see a Greater Kudu? Ooooh, at least another shilling Dad would laugh. We only ever spied them singly and they slipped shyly and swiftly from sight. Here they live in much bigger numbers so if you miss the first in the herd, you’ll catch the tail ender in your lens as she momentarily stops to gaze at you before vanishing into the bush.
We are plagued by tsetse fly in the miombo, they dart through open windows, attracted to our dark car and its motion. I swat futilely with my map and my hat but tsetse are armour plated, even a firm slap does little more than daze them briefly, they shake their heads and recover their composure and are soon buzzing madly and nipping viciously again; they’ll bite through clothes and leave you with huge itchy welts. ‘You have to roll them under your fingers’, says Ant, that’s the only way to kill them. Roll them? I have to catch the buggers first.
My dad said if there were tsetse about there were sure to be lion close by.
I remember the tsetse in camp.
Which we return to when the heat is too punishing to do anything other than follow the game’s example and lie inert in the shadows cast by the acacia behind our tent. Even reading a book is too arduous a task. I doze and listen to the hum of the bush and every now again, I sit myself in the washing up basin and pour mugs full of tepid water over my head and then I stand, arms out, like a cormorant spreadwinged, to dry in the breeze which feels briefly cooler than it really is against damp skin. By 2 in the afternoon it is 40 degrees in the scant shade.
By five though, energized and rehydrated with a mug of smoky tea, it is cool enough (cool being relative; the mercury has dropped from 40 to 33) for an evening drive up the Ruaha to where it meets the Mwagusi in a confluence that in the wet will surge and in the dry is a giant sandpit where I watch elephants carefully kicking up small clods of green grass where water once rushed, and coiling it in their trunks to eat. It must be as the most delicate appetizer: a plateful of tender young asparagus spears, sweet with butter. Like the baobab bark which they strip for the pithy moisture beneath. Baobab all over the park at this time year wear elephant wrought wounds, but they will heal and their trunks, polished over centuries as if the gods had wielded a giant can of Mr Sheen, will take on a slightly different more sinewy shape. On account of that same captured moisture, these giant Tolkeinesque upsidedown trees host, I am astonished to note, thousands of citrine-spotted leopard orchids.
We drive through woodland of thron trees which stand as a forest of parasols, shielding dozens of species collectively from the sun: impala and fatbottomed zebra, giraffe and buffalo, baboons and elephants all hunker lethargically and in proximity of one another, waiting for the blessed, brief cool of evening to descend. Anticipation hangs in the air, a dead, hot weight. My skin feels sinfully scorched and my eyes gritdry, I squirt Natural Tears from Boots the chemist into each one and they run down my face and leave two tracks on dust dredged cheeks.
When the sun begins to slide it does so in earnest, as if in a hurry to escape. We hasten back to camp before dark envelopes us. Lengthening shadows tiger-stripe the road and just before it tips over the western edge, the sun is snagged, ever so briefly, in the branches of a baobab. I catch the moment on camera.
I hear the lion again that night. And a hyena’s whoopwhoop. But the tent is zipped, the car is close by and the campfire will smoulder until dawn.
Are lions scared of fire I ask Ant. But he is already fast asleep.
When I get home the next evening, I empty the contents of my bag into the washing machine, I strip bedrolls and fill the laundry basket for a second load, I empty the cool box of a six pack of warm beer which I restore to the fridge, I download the photographs from my camera.
And into Google I type a question, ‘from how far away can you hear a lion?’.
Five miles says Google.
Not near. But near enough.