Here, as promised, is my lion story: a near-terminal encounter I had in the Luangwa Valley when my old friend Bob and I took an impromptu stroll in the bush. It follows on from the piece I wrote a couple of days ago, in which I fancied for an instant that some fearsome predator was advancing towards me through the Norfolk undergrowth.
This version comes from Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom, and it’s included in an attempt to demonstrate my conviction that, though we are 21st century beings, some part of ourselves have never forgotten the days when we humans first walked upright on the savannahs of Africa.
The lion, the glitch and the glove-compartment
I have the instincts of a beast. We all do. And I’m thankful that we do, because without them I’d be a few old bones on the banks of the Luangwa River. Yes: this is my Lion Story, so don’t expect me to be brief. Let’s say we are sitting round the campfire at Mchenja, a camp on the banks of that river, a few hundred yards from where it all happened. You can hear the stridulation of crickets, the tinkling of the reed-frogs, the occasional bleep from Peterson’s epauletted fruit bat, the prooping calls of African scops owl, the clink of bottle on glass as I pour you a drink while you hold yourself in resignations for this set-piece. I used it without any exaggeration whatsoever in my first novel, Rogue Lion Safaris. But then it doesn’t need any exaggeration, though the drink helps.
A good few years ago, I spent a couple of months at Mchenja, when my old friend Bob Stjernstedt was running the place. One day, there being no clients in camp, we drove off for a spot of birding. The previous evening I had claimed over dinner that could pick out the stallion from a breeding group of zebra within ten seconds. I am a horseman: I believed that my reading of equine body-language gave me all the information necessary. So every time we saw zebras, Bob stopped the vehicle and I picked out my stallion-candidate. We then peered pruriently at the undercarriage through binoculars until we had a firm diagnosis. Male.
Definite male. Yes, definite male. I was right way above chance expectation, which was deeply pleasing. We reached a point on the river a good way north, and we found, I think, a red-billed teal, an unusual bird for the Valley, so that was all very satisfactory. We had a picnic, a bottle of Mosi beer each. I remarked that the front bumper of the Toyota Land Cruiser made an admirable shelf for a beer bottle; no danger whatsoever of it tipping over while I was scanning the shoreline for waders. We then tidied up the bottles and Bob started the Land Cruiser. Or rather he didn’t. But no big deal. “Pass me the wallet of tools in the glove compartment, Simon.” It kept happening: one of the leads would slip off the battery terminal and we would be temporarily becalmed. Bob had it right in no time: we started up and cruised back, stopping to stare intensely at small brown birds and at the undercarriage of zebras. We were within a few hundred yards of camp when the vehicle went lame on us. Puncture. Another routine emergency. I climbed into the back and passed Bob the Tanganyika jack, a high-lift jack beloved of old Africa hands. “And I’ll need that wallet of tools again.”
“You never gave them back to me.”
“I bloody did.”
“You bloody didn’t.”
A longish pause. “It’s all your bloody fault.”
“My bloody fault!”
“You told me the bumper made a good shelf.”
“I meant for beer. Don’t tell me: you left the bloody tools on it.”
“Yes. Well, we can’t have driven far with them. They’ll be on the riverbank where we saw the teal.”
“Anything vital in there?”
“Have you got a shifting spanner? Maybe you could bodge the nuts loose with that.”
“That’s all right then.”
“It’s in the wallet with the other tools… well, we’d better walk, I suppose.”
“Back to the riverbank? It’ll take three days.”
“No, no, to camp I’ve got lots of spare tools at camp.”
So, unarmed as we were, we set off on foot through the bush. Precisely as you’re always told not to. Stay with the vehicle: except that on this backtrack, we’d have been there forever. It was more or less our own private road. So off we went. Just about the first thing we saw was a lioness. She was lying flat out like a cat on a hearth-rug and never so much as lifted her head. I loved that in her. So we altered course, making a dogleg to avoid her, and aimed straight at the river; once there we turned right and followed it towards camp. I could just make out the shape of the huts as we crossed the Chamboo, a tributary to the Luangwa, dry at this time of year. It was as I was climbing the far bank that it happened.
A nuclear explosion. Rather drastically localised. A combretum bush detonated before my eyes and became lion. Huge, black-maned, deeply shocked and utterly furious. I was, I suppose, about a cricket-pitch away from him. Twenty yards max, though it seems a lot closer in my memories and occasionally in my dreams.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t cut and run. I wasn’t even frightened, not then. Because it was here that my beastly instincts took over. I did absolutely nothing. I locked. Just staring at this angry lion, me looking at him looking at me.
So here’s how I bring the story to a close round the camp-fire: “And I looked into his eyes and it was like looking into a fruit machine, fight or flight, fight or flight, fight or flight, and in the end it came down jackpot. Flight. The lion spun on his hips, revealing balls like footballs, and he ran twenty yards to an eminence a little further away from us and from there he lashed his tail and snarled his fry at us. There was one of those lifelong ten second pauses. And then Bob said: ‘Definite male.'”
Let’s go back to that long frozen moment. My stillness was exactly the right response. If you, dear reader, ever walk into an irritated lion, then I hope you do exactly the same thing. I rather think you will. I suspect that this response is hard-wired in us humans. It doesn’t make intuitive sense: you’d suspect that every instinct in our bodies would tell us to run, to climb a tree, to move, to get away. But this was no country to out-run a lion, which is capable for a charge of 35 mph. And had I run, I would have triggered his chase response, and I’d have been caught in a few yards. Caught and devoured. But he wasn’t hunting: had be been so I wouldn’t have had a prayer, no matter what my reaction had been. In fact, he was sleeping off a prolonged bout of sex: that was the only deduction to me made from the set-up we walked into. (And when lions go in for sex they don’t mess about; the great ethologist George Schaller counted one lion through 157 copulations in 55 hours.) He was angry, not hungry. So standing still and staring him down was the perfect response, and I wish I’d thought of it myself. It gave him the utterly fraudulent message that I was not easy prey. I outbluffed a lion: but only because he wasn’t terribly bothered in the first place.
There are two important matters arising from this campfire story. The first is that we humans first walked the savannahs of Africa a million years ago and part of us still knows it: enough for me to come up with a wholly appropriate response without reference to conscious thought or study of ethology. My body did it without reference to my mind. There is a continuity between humans of the 21st century and the first humans to walk upright. At an unconscious level, humans are used to being prey, even if the idea shocks our conscious 21st century minds.
It is an instructive thing, being prey. You realise all at once that so far as lions are concerned, we are no different from the impalas and pukus and buffalos. We like to think that there is something wrong when a lion or a tiger becomes “a man-eater”: that the animal has been wounded and can’t hunt its rightful prey, or that some bizarre incident has given the animal a depraved taste for human protein. But obviously for a lion, eating a human is much the same as eating a zebra. “To kill Man is always shameful. The Law says so,” says Mowgli in The Jungle Books: but when you look a lion in the eyes — when you are made to look a lion in the eyes because your body says you must — you become aware of some different truths. That killing and eating humans has never been anything special or different or out of the way for a lion. That human uniqueness is not as clear an issue as we have been taught. To meet an alpha predator on terms of intimacy is to understand a truth that great
libraries of philosophy avoid. That is why the order of Carnivora has a unique fascination for humankind.