THE FIRS T TIME I tracked lions, it was from the relative safety and comfort of a large — although open-topped — Land Rover, with a loaded rifle situated handily next o the driver. At that time our guide had assured us that as long as we didn’t wear brightly colored clothes,
make noise or stand up, the animals would perceive us as part of the
vehicle, and therefore not worth eating. His logic was not entirely
convincing. Lions have been making their living — for, what, several
million years? — by figuring out what is, or is not, edible. And we
were going to fool them by sitting instead of standing? I was sure
the big cats were smarter than that.
But this safari was different. We were going on foot, and the strict
policy at Camp Okavango was no guns. Big cats, no guns, traveling on
foot — hmmm. Why was I doing this?
Adding to my trepidation, our guides, Rodgers and Robert,
explained that if we saw lions this morning they would be hungry,
because big cats usually hunt at night. If they were still out stalking
prey in the morning, it meant they hadn’t found anything to eat the
night before. A crazy thought wriggled into my mind: the guides were
using us as lion bait. They thought we were clueless American tourists,
foolish enough to follow them deep into the big cats’ territory with no
means of protection. We were. And we did.
Our guides’ plan was to travel from our camp — located on remote
Nxaragha Island in Botswana — by motorboat through the vast
Okavango Delta to another island, and from there to proceed on foot in
search of the big cats. Many miles out, through the winding, papyrus-lined waterways, Robert announced excitedly that he had spotted
dust in the trees. I didn’t see it, even with my binoculars. And I didn’t
understand what dust had to do with lions. But I went along with the
program. We anchored the boat, disembarked, and walked into the
remote island’s open forest.
This was no Sunday stroll: the tall brown grasses hid treacherous
obstacles. Elephants had eaten the relatively tender bark and roots of
trees, leaving dead branches and uprooted stumps scattered everywhere. Aardvarks had dug large holes in the ground. Thorns caught
on our clothing, and greedy vines grabbed at our legs. And the dung.
Every where we had to step over dung — all kinds of it, large and small,
round and elongated, fresh and dry, in varying stages of decomposition.
I could tell the difference between rhino middens and elephant
dung, and I was learning to differentiate buffalo from giraffe. Then I
saw a new kind of dung: smaller, rounder, fresher — glistening, in fact.
Was it lions’? I wondered just how far away the lions actually were, and
Robert reminded us to walk in single file, always staying together.
how close we intended to get. Checking my field guide, I found that lion
droppings “are similar to that of the leopard, but larger.” This was only
marginally more helpful than the entry for elephants, which read, “A
good way of testing the freshness of dung is to thrust your hand into
the center of it. If the dung is fresh, it will be warm inside.”
We were a noisy bunch of Americans, and Rodgers admonished us
to “do shhh” and to “talk silently.” I noticed that Rodgers and Robert
did indeed talk silently, communicating with their eyes and hands
that they had heard a noise in this direction, or that they wanted us
to walk that way. They reminded me of a TV SWAT team, moving
swiftly and efficiently through the bad guy’s hideout just before the
big shoot-down. Our group, on the other hand, moved like a bunch of
Keystone Cops, zigzagging randomly, tripping in the aardvark holes,
backtracking around fallen trees and fighting back with all our might
when vicious vines attacked.
If we fell back or got out of line, he warned, we’d look smaller and be
“on the menu.” As if lions haven’t had plenty of experience in picking individuals out of a herd. As if they would look hungrily at a line
of humans hiking single file and think, that’s just some giant, nasty-tasting caterpillar, seriously overburdened with indigestible cameras
and binoculars, stumbling slowly and vulnerably through my sovereign
territory. Forget it — no chow there.
Most important, Robert said, if a lion did come toward us, “Don’t
run! Stand your ground!”
Stand my ground?
In the face of a charging lion? What kind of instruction was that?
My heart pounded at the thought of it; my legs stiffened, and I wondered whether it would be a good thing to be frozen with fear. My
hands began to sweat, and I remembered reading somewhere that
humans, dogs and other mammals whose paws sweat with anxiety
do so because the sweat increases friction between the paws and a
substrate, allowing for quicker getaways. I was built to run then, not
to stand my ground.
Destinations / JOURNEY