So we stepped out of the canoe and walked towards the lions. As opposed to away from the lions. And that moment when you reverse common sense always gets to me. At once you are torn in half. Half of you says: well, that can’t be right, can it? But the other half says yeah, bring it on, how close can we get?
I was back in the Luangwa Valley of course, and after a few days in vehicles we were on our own flat feet for five days. So of course, the first thing we did was to walk towards lions. We knew they were there, lying about digesting in that exquisitely languorous way of full-up lions.
It’s safer than it sounds, of course. And about a million times safer than it feels: that thump in the gut when you receive a death-ray stare from a lioness tells us not so much about present danger as about danger countless thousands of years old, when the first members of our species walked upright on the savannahs of Africa and were the natural and inevitable prey of lions.
To see lions from a vehicle is to know awe and wonder and all kinds of stuff like that. To see lions on foot is to know fear — but not fear as we know it from daily life. It’s not like a bad driver up your arse or a violent drunk or a sheer drop. It’s not fear like the creeps I get from spiders and others from snakes or rats.
It’s not even a response to real danger. It’s a pure almost and abstract thing: a day-trip to the dawn of humankind when we first understood fear and named it lion.
We have minds that seek lions wherever we go. As we find faces in clouds and in the fold of curtains, so we see cats – big cats – in wilderness and in shadows. We recruit them into our imaginative world again and again: Surrey Puma, Beast of Bodmin, scores of others — and are amazed when the body never turns up, even when we send the army in.
We fear lions and yet we long for them. When we find them, we walk towards them, not away: and by doing so we are, for a few minutes, in touch with our lost and wilder selves and for reasons we can never explain, we find ourselves not only happier for it but richer.
The lions watched us with indifferent yellow eyes, eyes that have round pupils like our own.
was co-leading the Sacred Combe Safari with Chris Breen from www.wildlifeworldwide.com