We were actually making a movie about elephants when it happened. It happened on our first night, actually. My sound recordist who also shared the driving with me, Ellie Mthanda, was on his first wildlife location, far, far, from his hometown of Soweto. We’d already had a great afternoon, as we arrived, filming herds of elephants drinking along the Chobe river, in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Perhaps it was this that caused us to be a tad late arriving to set up camp. We were privileged to be allowed to camp outside the main tourist camp, as we were film crew, and so we pitched just nearby, to be near the ablutions etc.
We were just about done, tent up etc, and it was darker than dusk. Looking behind me along the entry track to the camp site, I saw some dark shapes of animals walking along the path. Impalas I thought, and carried on unpacking, as did Ellie. Our site was just alongside the track, with our tent facing outwards for a view of the beautiful Chobe flowing by. As I turned back to get some more stuff from our Landcruiser, the shapes along the path had got a lot bigger as they drew nearer. It was now so dark I could only make out blobs. Then one of the shapes , just a few metres from the truck, sat down on its haunches. Impalas do not sit down on their haunches. “Get in the truck, Ellie’ I whispered uregently, and he jumped into the passenger seat with me right after him. Luckily, I always plug a spotlight torch into the cigarette lighter when camping in the wild. I clicked the beam on and shone through the window.
There were nine lions spread out along the path, with the foremost lioness sitting, not even looking at us. I said something to Ellie, but he didn’t reply, so I nudged him. Still no response. I looked over at him, and he was out cold, sitting up, in a dead faint. I’ve never seen this before, but I believe it happens. So, I watched the lions pass, and walk on their way towards the tourist camp. After a minute or so, Ellie cam to, and I told him we had to drive in to the tourist camp to warn them about the lions strolling through. I started up, and we drove towards the camp.
The lions were nowhere in sight, but up popped the camp attendant, out of his hut, carrying a rifle, and stopped us.We said hi and he told us his name was Honest. We told him about the lions but he refused to let us go any further. “ You might scare away the guests.” he said. I reckoned the lions would do a better job of that, and tried to persuade him, but to no avail. So we reluctantly went back to our camp site, and as there were no screams and grunts during the night, we thought the lions had probably just slipped through quietly. But they hadn’t. At about four o clock, I heard a rifle shot, and Ellie and I piled into the cruiser and made for the sound. We got to Honest’s hut, and he was standing in front of it, smoking rifle in hand. ‘You okay, Honest? What’s up?” He looked at us, mournfully and to his credit, he lived up to his name. “It is the lion.” he said. We waited. Honest gestured to the toilet, “I was going to the toilet, and the lioness came out of it towards me, so I fired a warning shot into the ground.” ‘Oh” said Ellie and I. “They are gone now.’ He assured us. I was tempted to add a bit about telling the tourists, but bit my lip, and we departed. One of the great things about wild lions – they’re not too interested in us. The whole pride walked leisurely past us the evening before, without even giving us a second glance. If we were buffaloes, we would probably have to wind up the windows. That’s also why none of the tourists were bugged by them. And the lioness in the toilet? I learned about this later, when I went. The toilet is framed but two narrow pressing walls, and I was drawn by a beautiful pattern on the one side of the wall by the toilet bowl.
It was a fine spray of stripes leading away from a central series of blobs. Then I could see clearly what it was. A lioness had drunk from the fresh water in the toilet bowl, and then turned her head in the confined space. Her face, likely covered with dust, and now wet, had pressed against the wall. There was the perfect imprint of her nose and whiskers stamped onto the wall. I chuckled alll the way back to camp. And a tip for Africa visitors. Wild lions are generally far less dangerous than those raised in captivity by humans. Their menu is mainly antelope, and we are not on their menu. In captivity, the natural barrier of respect that has grown between us and them over centuries, has eroded. More captive cats injure or kill tourists than wild ones. And if you go to see the wild ones, you get to see miles of Africa around them, as well as fences.
Oh, and about Ellie. He grew fantasrtically in his knowledge of wild animals, and about two years later, he was walking back with a trainee in a wild area when he heard a leopard near. He told me when he got back, that he told the trainee (from England) that it was just an antelope, and got him safely back to camp, without any panic.