I left Kasane, with the words ‘I’m surprised you’re still living’, still ringing in my ears. The road from Kasane south to Nata passes through game reserves. This means more animals and less people. I would need plenty of water and to be on the lookout for elephants and lions.
Concerned with lack of water leaving Kasane, I buy another bottle from the gas station. Barely two kilometres down the road and the water bottle rattles loose from the bottom cage, rolls under the back wheel, splits open and deposit’s the ice cold water over the tarmac. Well at least I had the foresight to buy the extra bottle. Another two kilometres further on and the water bottle strapped to the front left pannier slips out. It too rolls under the back wheel and punctures. Water spurts from a small hole in the plastic. I drop the bike in the road and rush to save what water I can. Never happened in over 20,000km. Then happens twice in 4km. Unbelieveable. Not having much luck. Since these things usually happen in threes, I check the remaining water bottles are secure. What else can go wrong today?
I try to keep a good lookout for any unsavoury wildlife that might consider me a savoury snack. Perhaps I’ve been lucky until now. Best not to push it too far. Apparently cats have nine lives. Not sure how many I have. But I’ve used a few up already, that’s for sure. But my field of view is limited. Dense green bush to my left and right. Just the grey asphalt continuing endlessly ahead to the horizon. It’s a grey, dull day. Going to rain. I intensely scan the bush, left then right. Looking for lions. My plan to cycle only once the sun is well up and any lions will be sleeping didn’t account for cool, overcast days when they will happily hunt at any time. Hopefully they won’t be hunting me. Elephants, I’ve been warned, are many on this road. But hard to miss, I figure.
It’s not long before I spot the first elephant. Surprisingly well camouflaged in the thick bush. He’s grazing on a tree by the roadside. I am almost on top of him when we both see each other. I’m not sure who is most surprised. He immediately stops eating, turns to face me. Looks agitated. Trunk goes up. Ears go out. Immediately I pedal faster. Heart beats faster too. I’m still wondering how I managed to miss seeing the elephant when I spot a herd of them ahead. I slow down to consider the options. There are three (options that is; I didn‘t count the elephants). One, I pedal past them as fast as possible and hope I make it through the gauntlet. Two, I push the bike into the bush and detour wide around them and hope I don’t meet more on the way. Or the third, I wait for them to wander away from the road and hope they don’t take too long. While debating, a white 4×4 pulls up alongside me. It’s the police from the checkpoint I had passed earlier. Am I ok? Fine, I say. Do I know there are wild animals on this road? Yes, I say. Do I know what to do if I see a lion? I would like to know what you advise, I say. Well, they say, we haven’t tried this you realise but this is what you are supposed to do if you see a lion… you stop, face the lion and don’t move, don’t run away. Ok, I say and wait to hear what I should do next. But that is all the advise I am given. Ok, well if you are ok, take care and be very safe, they say, as they turn on the ignition and ready to leave.
I pedal off in confusion, wondering how any wild cat staring contest would end. And then I remember the elephants. I’m a bit close now. Too late to stop and wait for the herd to disperse. One elephant has seen me. Or more likely smelt me. It turns to face me with trunk in the air and huge ears agitated. Soon the others react too. Uh oh. But the police have seen and drive up alongside between me and the elephants. I am now hidden from their view and they go back to grazing. Once clear past them, the 4×4 makes a u-turn and once again I am left alone. Just me and whatever may be lurking behind the bush wall.
The whole time I am cycling faster than usual. I don’t stop for breaks. A completely irrational response to a potential threat. Just means I’ll be tired if there is a problem. Thankfully adrenalin fuels me on. Still scanning the bush. But I tire and my mind wanders. Next thing I notice is that the bush has gone and now I am cycling through wide, expansive savannah. I wonder how long I had been lost in my own thoughts, not thinking about lions or elephants. Deciding that since I am failing to see huge elephants that don’t even try to hide, I’m unlikely to see a lion that is stealthily stalking me, I may as well forget about it. Turn on the music, tune out. Ignorance is bliss.
But I can’t ignore the little metro with three young girls and their luggage crammed inside that pulls up alongside me. I stop. Just thought they’d warn me there was a lion ahead. How far ahead? I ask. Near that tree, they point. About 500m then. Ok thanks, I say. But I clearly don’t look too concerned. Because the blonde girl in the passenger seat clarifies. It’s rather an aggressive lion, she says. Really? I say, wondering what exactly she means by that. The blonde girl in the driver seat then explains. Yes, it’s rather aggressive, it tried to climb on the car. I look at the little blue and white metal box they are in and think, well that wouldn’t be too hard. I thank them for notifying me, think quickly and conclude I will wait for the next sizeable vehicle to come by and ask for a lift past.
I don’t have to wait long. There are plenty of South Africans in their well-equipped 4×4’s, returning to Johannesburg from their Christmas vacations. While loading my bike onto the roof, another 4×4 stops. The driver leans out to ask what the problem is. No problem, I say, just a lion ahead apparently so I’m getting a lift past. A lion?! The lady passenger exclaims. We’ll go back and check it out for you, the driver says, already turning in the road. I think they just wanted a photograph! By now the bike is on the roof and we’re ready to go. Driving off, we see the couple beside their vehicle on the other side of the road. We slow down, curious about what they are doing… inspecting the damage. Now, you know that feeling when you spend the morning cleaning the car only to have your cat jump up and leave a trail of paw prints over the bonnet? Kind of annoying isn’t it. If you’ve spent particularly long polishing, you might even want to strangle the cat. Well, imagine you are driving through Botswana in your shiny-white brand-new 4×4, stop to take a photograph of a lion, and it leaps… now you have huge muddy paw marks smudged down the side of your vehicle along with scratches and a hole where the rear side window used to be, glass now shattered and sprinkled over your luggage in the boot. You’d be really pissed off.
But by the time we drive slowly by, the lioness is sat in the grass by the roadside ignoring the attention she has attracted. Still glad I got a lift though! This sort of behaviour is very unusual for lions and I have since heard that locals suspect this lioness of having rabies.
In just two days, I have seen many elephants, a lion, gemsbok, impala, ostriches and turtles, not to mention all the species of birds from huge eagles and goshawks to the beautiful bee-eaters, little weavers and many LBJ’s (little brown jobs, which even bird enthusiasts have trouble identifying). I left Gweta Lodge, where Terry had kindly invited me to stay, heading for Maun. Be careful, I was told. There are many lions in the area. Someone had seen four cheetah on the road recently and another had passed wild dogs. I’ll be careful I said. But still I had no better idea of what to do if I came across any of these animals. Not far out of Gweta and I was chased down the road by domestic dogs as I passed a farm.
So with the rabid lion episode fresh in my mind and recent warnings of more lions, cheetahs and wild dogs I find myself scanning the bush intently again. Just as rocks in the Niger river are easily mistaken for hippos heads, so anthills in the distant verge are easily mistaken for lion lying in the grass. Stop being paranoid, I tell myself. Just be cautious. But when in the space of one day, three different vehicles stop and tell me there are lots of lions in the area and it would be better not to cycle, but certainly don’t stop for long, it’s hard not to spend most of the time on the lookout. Another conversation of, ‘But aren’t you scared of wild animals?’ – Not so much (but thinking that perhaps I should be). ‘So you are in God’s hands. You must pray a lot every night’ – Something like that (but thinking that perhaps I should be) and I am reminded of the road safety officer who, the day before, had wished me ‘Have a safe journey to your destiny’. Well, I have no idea where my destiny lies. At this point I am hoping I reach my next destination.
That night I sleep in the bush near Motopi. Near a waterhole frequented by cattle it turns out. I cook pasta and retire to my tent before it gets dark. Lions, apparently, aren’t smart enough to realise there might be a person inside the flimsy tent, so as long as you don’t get out in the night you will be quite safe. Easy for someone to say from the comforts of their en-suite room in a luxury lodge!
I lie in my tent and listen as the wind is picking up and sheet lightning is lighting the distant dark sky. Most of the cattle had finished drinking a while ago and already wandered past my tent, stopping briefly out of curiosity before continuing further into the bush, but a couple are still lingering and I can hear them when the wind drops. Well, I certainly hope it’s the cows outside and not the omnipresent but unseen lion.
I must have drifted off to sleep as I am woken up by the howling wind. Sleepily, I force my eyes open, wondering what time it is. The outer of my tent is flapping wildly in the wind and I notice the zip has undone. I can see clearly out, past the clearing by my tent and through to the scrub and small trees. The clouds have passed now and the bush is dimly lit by the stars. Suddenly I am alert – if I can see clearly out, other things can see clearly in. I grab my head torch and reach for the zip. And then I see it: An outline. A shadow. A large body, sleek and powerful, moving through the bush with long loping strides. A head turns and two yellow eyes reflect back at me. Shit. I quickly zip up the tent and think a thousand thoughts in a skipped heartbeat. And then my head is filled with the beat of my now racing heart. I sit cross-legged, staring at the tent wall. A lion. Maybe it didn’t see me. Maybe it’s not hungry. But then there is something right by the tent and trying to get in. The lion? For the first time in my life, is now the time to start praying? Is it my destiny to be devoured by a lion? But it’s two hunting dogs that are furiously crawling under the tent outer to get inside. I try to push them out. As one sneaks in, there is an almighty yelp and the other dog is dragged, disappearing into the darkness. Shit. Well perhaps one dog is enough cat-food. I sit there, unmoving. Time passes and I notice that the other dog, still inside my tent, is calm enough and now turning round and round in a tiny circle, padding down the end of my sleeping bag before curling up and closing it’s eyes. Well if the dog isn’t too concerned about the lion, then I suppose there’s no need for me to worry any more either. Not like I can do anything anyway. Overcome by tiredness, I too lay down, feet against the warm body. Unable to keep my eyes open any longer I too fall asleep.
I wake in the morning, slowly roused back to consciousness by daylight flooding in. Feeling exhausted. Before I’ve even opened my eyes, memories of the night come back to me. Now I am alert. My eyes flash open and I look at the tent. The zip is firmly closed and all is peaceful. No wind now. A strange feeling comes over me. Something isn’t quite right. I look to my feet. The dog has gone. And then my brain finally wakes up fully too. There never was a dog. Or two. I didn’t really see a lion in the night… Wow – that was one hell of a realistic dream!
I rarely dream. Not memorable dreams at least. Only when something is occupying my mind. I dreamt many nights in the run-up to my finals. During the daytime, I would never feel stressed about exams. Only at night did it become apparent. Dreams that when I wake I think really happened. Lions it seems, have the same effect.
After that night, lions didn’t worry me. I realised that the thought of coming across a lion never did scare me. It was not knowing what I was to do if I did come across a lion. But I did know. When there’s something that can be done, you do it. Like on the road to Nata, when I was able to take a lift with a passing vehicle. And when there’s nothing that can be done, what’s the point in worrying about it. Like in the dream, just lie down, close your eyes and accept your fate.
But for now, while others may be surprised I’m still living, I’m just glad I am. And I hope it continues to be a safe journey to my destiny. Wherever or whatever that might be (but at least it isn’t a lion’s dinner).