Destinations / JOURNEY
I had chosen my place carefully: surely the hot-pink-windbreaker vari-
I stayed near the front of the line, just behind Maureen, a psychiat-
ric nurse from Pittsburgh. Maureen walked with her shoulders slightly
hunched, took each step slowly and deliberately, and shaded her eyes
from the sun as she scanned the distance. I thought she looked like
a professional tracker, except for her bright white Asics Gel running
shoes — obviously bought new for the trip — and hot pink windbreaker.
ety of meal would be most tempting. If a lion charged, I would simply
maintain my position behind the primary bait.
Maureen’s left shoelace was untied. Should I tell her? If I did, she’d
stop to tie it, and the whole single-file line would crash into us like a
row of dominoes. I would be trampled by my fellow travelers, and perhaps sprain my ankle or fall into a pile of warm dung in the process. If I
didn’t, Maureen might trip and fall, and be eaten alive.
I kept my mouth shut.
A large, lone bird circled the sky above us. Robert identified it as
a white-backed vulture (Gypus africanus). Our guides had amazing
eyesight. Born and raised in the delta, they could identify all the birds
and animals from far away. Soon a second vulture appeared, and then a
third. Apparently the vultures knew something we did not.
As we hiked deeper into the forest — way too far in to run for the
boat — Robert still saw dust. We kept walking, single file, assiduously
staying together, not falling back or getting out of line, doing shhh,
going deeper into the forest.
At one point I was tempted to stop and photograph a little bee-eater
“Listen!” Rodgers and Robert both heard the lions.
(Merops pusillus), a brilliantly colored bird with an emerald back,
golden throat and brilliant blue “eyebrow.” Bee-eaters feast on bees,
wasps and hornets, removing the stingers first by repeatedly hitting
the captured insect on a hard surface. These exquisite beauties often
make their homes in excavated dirt at the entrance to an aardvark den,
and I wanted to stop and hunt for nests. But when I considered the pos-
sibility of death by lion, I decided to stay with the group.
We kept walking. At first we didn’t hear anything, but a ways farther in we heard a low rumbling sound. “It’s the lions! Yes, and they are
chasing buffalo!” The rumbling, our guides explained excitedly, was
the sound of a thousand hooves. We proceeded, still in line, straining
to get a look through the trees at a buffalo or a lion. Suddenly Robert
hurried back into our midst, eyes wide and round, and bulging so the
whites showed around their whole circumference. “They are coming
this way!” he shouted hoarsely.
“We are too close! Go back! Go back!”
Finally I saw the dust, a huge cloud of it, about 200 yards away
and coming toward us fast. It was swirling above a herd of several
hundred cape buffalo, and they were coming toward us fast, too.
We had been told to stand our ground in the face of a charging lion,
but what was the protocol for a buffalo attack? There was no time to ask.
Our careful, single-file line disintegrated into chaos as we ran back —
hats, cameras and binoculars flying. No more zigzagging to avoid holes
or backtracking around fallen trees; we leapt them all heroically. Several
of our group turned out to be talented sprinters, and I personally tested
the freshness of five or six piles of dung in the space of 20 seconds.
As suddenly as the stampede began, it was over. It’s interest-
ing, what goes through one’s mind at a time like this. As soon as
“Escape! Escape!” had run its course, I was overwhelmed with the
perfection of Nature’s Grand Plan: elephants knock down large
trees, allowing grasslands to develop, which attracts grazing ani-
mals, which provide food for the lions. The aardvark holes create
natural traps for the lions’ prey; the monumental, nutrient-rich
elephant droppings fertilize the tall grasses …
Lost as I was in the beauty of the Grand Plan, it was several minutes
before I remembered Maureen. How did her untied shoelace fit in? Had
I been homicidally remiss in not mentioning it earlier? Or was I sim-
ply playing my predetermined part in the survival of the fittest? Did
Maureen stand, or did she run? Had she been trampled by stampeding
buffalo, or even eaten by a hungry lion?
I came to my senses, surveyed the scene, and saw Maureen’s hot
pink jacket halfway up a small tree, with Maureen still inside it.
Apparently it had not provoked the lions. We began to regroup, and
everyone seemed to have survived. The cape buffalo — still about 70
yards away — had also survived. They had all stopped running and
were now milling about restlessly. They seemed to be more afraid of us
than of the charging lions. This did not strike me as an effective adaptive behavior, but what do I know about the life of a buffalo? And what
did they know about humans? At any rate, they kept their eyes on both
us and the lions, which — conveniently — made it easy for us to observe
the five adult lions that were now in our immediate vicinity.
Make that five hungry adult lions.
I had heard that female lions form hunting bands, and that the males
We had been told to stand our ground in the
face of a charging lion, but what was the protocol
for a buffalo attack? There was no time to ask.