Allow me to interrupt Jen’s irregularly scheduled blog to relate my side of an experience that, for me, will go down as the single most vivid one of this trip. I’ll preface it by saying that one of the most common ways to see big cats in the wild (other than spotting them sleeping in the shade during the day, which is the most common way, by far) is to find them on or near a recent kill. The killing mostly happens at night, but the consuming often stretches into the morning and beyond. We’ve seen a number of lions, cheetahs, and leopards on kills over the years, savagely tearing away at some poor antelope, with bloody faces, paws and fur. So…that’s an image that’s sort of always in the back of my mind.
On this particular morning we woke early, as usual, to hit the road as soon as park rules allowed. Also as usual, I was the first to the outhouse, walking the 50 or so yards from our truck to the facilities in the morning twilight. Those facilities consist of a single pit toilet, surrounded by a circular wall of 7’ vertical wooden slats. There is no roof or door. That will figure prominently very soon.
So I do what I came to do and step out of the outhouse to return to camp. I look up… and I’m staring at a lion. And the lion is staring at me.
There is nothing between us but air and 30’ of sand. Did I mention this was a wild lion? This is where those images of lions tearing at bloody carcasses come in. I was startled, to put it very, very mildly, but luckily so was the lion. We both froze, our eyes locked for a few seconds (seemed like a lot longer), then, to my immense relief, she slowly moved off towards camp.
All well and good, but she was immediately replaced by another lion, who stopped in the same spot to look me over. By this time my brain was frantically running through escape scenarios.
I couldn’t shut the door. There was no door. I couldn’t climb on the roof. There was no roof. I thought about climbing the wall and balancing on top, and even began searching for hand and foot holds. But, honestly, a lion could have easily reached me there. I thought I just might be able to climb over the wall and run for the neighboring campsite, which was much closer than ours. Nothing gave me much comfort.
While all this was happening, the second lion moved off. And was replaced by a third! He also stopped to check me out.
Now, I’ve stared down bears before, while hiking and camping in Alaska, but while they will occasionally hunt and kill large mammals, they mostly eat vegetation, or carrion, or small mammals like squirrels. Lions are exclusively meat eaters and regularly take down animals the size of oh, let’s say, me. Since I am now writing this story, you may have guessed that in the end, I was not, in fact, killed by hungry lions. Certainly in my mind, it was touch and go for a few seconds there, though.
Like the others, the third lion eventually turned and walked toward camp. Everything happened in no more than a minute or two, but with my mind racing, it seemed much longer. At this point I began to think about Jen and Barb back at camp, and how I could warn them of the approaching danger. I had my headlight, which has a strobe feature, so I climbed the wall and flashed my light back toward the truck. To my great relief, almost immediately I saw a flashing signal in return. Jen can now pick up the tale and explain why she was so quick to respond to my warning. Turns out her mind had been racing a bit, too.
Uh . . . yeah! A little bit!
Truth be told, I don’t love it when Mike heads off alone in dim light. I listen and look a little harder while he’s gone.
Barb and I carried on at camp. I tidied the bedding, removed everything that shouldn’t get squashed in the folded bed sandwich, and zipped up our tent. I had another glance around before coming down the ladder, but it’s hard to see through the screens on the tent, so the only good view is the roughly 180 degrees out front. And, remember, it’s twilight. Mike has a headlamp—we all have headlamps—and I shined mine around. I also had a little spotlight in my pocket, having removed it from the tent in preparation for packing.
Barb was not yet ready to hand down her pillow and sundries from her tent, so I decided I’d move our chairs to the A-frame where they would spend the day while we were gone. No point having them rattling around in the back of the truck.
As I approached the first chair by the driver’s door, I noticed eye shine bouncing back to me in the light from my headlamp. Because it’s twilight, not dark, I can also make out a face, and four legs, and a whole second lion behind the first, a short distance from the front of the truck.
I was on high alert, but I wasn’t panicked. I felt safe being right by the truck. Well, I felt safe after I had a quick glance behind me. Although, I did discover a third lion ahead of these two, nearing the waterhole. I’d missed it walking by.
But there were two people who didn’t know what I knew, and it was up to me to keep them safe. My brain zipped through several thoughts at once:
Did she have her hearing aids in yet? No point whispering; the lions knew I was there.
“Barb, stay in your tent. There are lions in camp.”
“Where?” (Yep, she had ’em in.)
“In front of the truck.”
Were there more than these three lions I had in my sights? Had Mike seen them? Were there more between here and the outhouse consuming his carcass already? I hadn’t heard any shouting, growling, roaring, or tussling.
If the lions showed interest, I’d lay on the (admittedly wimpy) horn because that’s what I’d do with bears. If that didn’t dissuade them, it would at least roust the neighbors. Maybe they’d help.
Did Mike leave the truck key? (Yes.) If I had to, I’d break the still-set-up tents and barrel this truck down to the outhouse, screaming and blasting the squeaky horn. Barb would have to hang on. Hopefully, she was sitting above the truck, not sitting above the plywood overhang. She’d figure it out.
Would it be enough to save Mike?
My hyper-alert brain processed all those thoughts in about three seconds. Seriously, that thinking speed may be what dazzles me most about this experience. I was all over it, DON’TMESSWITHME,LIONS!
I had the driver’s door open, ready to do whatever I deemed necessary. When I glanced toward the ablution block, I saw Mike’s headlamp flashing a signal that I interpreted as “I’m safe” because it was accompanied by silence and because I didn’t see any movement between me and the outhouse.
I clicked the button on my headlamp three times, activating the strobe setting to return Mike’s signal, and I shined the spotlight—which, remember, I had in my pocket—on the two lions so Mike could see where they were. I lighted their way past the campsite down to the waterhole. Mike was back soon after.
All was well. The lions behaved precisely as they should.
It seems incredible, but just last night, I posed this question aloud: “Why is there a strobe setting on these lights? It’s just a pain. I hate it!”
I am not making this up. I’ve always hated the strobe. It’s a pain to always have to click past it to turn the light off. I’ve never ever used it before.
Whose story is this?
Sorry. But isn’t it funny that I asked about the strobe just last night?! It’s one of those crazy coincidences.
Are you finished?
Yes. For now.
Having survived the experience I can say it was quite a thrill. There’s nothing like being face to face with something that very well might kill and eat you on the spot. It’s very elemental. Intellectually, I know that lions and other big cats are almost exclusively focused on their preferred prey, i.e. the various antelope they see every day. I’d guess human-eating lions are rare. But when you’re standing in the open door of an outhouse in the early morning, staring at three lions who are also staring at you, intellect is not what takes over.
After the Fact
Mike did not, in fact, take his camera to the outhouse. It was too dark for photos anyway. The lions in the photos so far are actors, not the actual lions that performed this story. However, we took photos when it got a bit lighter and recorded the scene after the fact. These are the real-deal photos.
When Mike returned to camp, and all was well, we sat in the chairs and watched the new campground arrivals.
The lions really are in the photos above and below, but you can’t see them at this resolution, with the focus on us.
Let’s zoom in on the lions. These are the real lions from the story:
They didn’t stick around very long:
When the lions were gone, we revisited the scene and took photos.
This photo is from inside the outhouse. Barb and I are standing on two of the lions’ tracks.
This is how the lions viewed Mike:
This is the path they all took. Those are the neighbors behind the ablutions. They’re much closer to them than we are.
How big are those tracks, anyway?
Barb and I are standing on the tracks where I discovered the lions, passing in front of the truck:
The lions’ perspective, looking back at me.
Well, the morning’s excitement is over, time to break camp and start our day of exploration and fun.
Are we sure there aren’t any more lions lurking about?
The End, Not the End
Next up is Day 7 in KTP, but that’s another post. Say goodbye to the lions . . . for now.
When we returned to our campsite after Day 7, so did the they. Can you see the two lions in this picture? Those may be fence posts, but there is no fence.
See, Mom? Nothing to worry about!