We took a walk on our last morning in the Luangwa Valley and it was a good one. Well, it’s always good, isn’t it? We had almost completed our circuit and were heading back to camp when it all started to kick off.
There was a lone buffalo between us and camp. Demanding respect, as they do: two old buffalos will run away, because even if the worst comes to the worst, each one has a 50-50 chance of not being eaten. When there’s just one, they can either charge or run; it’s a toss-up. So we gave him space and then looped back. He watched us mistrustfully: come any closer and I’ll do one thing. Or maybe the other. But we didn’t and he didn’t and we moved on.
There was an elephant between us and camp. A lone bull, a seriously big one. He was standing under a tree in the thoughtful way that elephants have, apparently wrestling with an important philosophical concept and not best pleased to be interrupted. Lone bulls are no more dangerous than herds, and no less. So we gave him space and then looped back; he watched us with care but without anxiety. Nearly home now.
There were lions between us and camp. Three of them. There is a rather jumpy thing that happens with lions: you survey the landscape, you survey back, and you survey again; and suddenly you see lions as if they hadn’t been there before, as if the earth has suddenly sicked them up. Three young males. Motionless, but sitting in the sphinx position, alert.
Oh, looking at lions on foot: that great whack in the gut, the same mingling of love and terror, the same knowledge that everything is fine so long as you make your loop: don’t stop and stare, don’t go closer, don’t run. Just keep on the same loop. And we gave them space and then looped back while they watched.
For a moment I had a crazy feeling that we would never get back to camp. Every time we moved we find yet another creature of beauty and wonder and lethal possibilities in our way. We would keep looping forever: trapped on the loop of mutual understanding, the line of march that means we mean no harm.