I was about a year into my guiding and I probably had a bit too much confidence for my own good. I had a really nice group of American guests and we'd seen pretty much everything we'd wanted to see except for lions. We'd followed lion tracks on two of the days and it was our last drive. I was desperate to find them Africa's most iconic cat. We covered a huge amount of the reserve looking for a particular pride without success. On a hunch I went and checked an area which no one else had checked and found some fresh tracks on a hill heading into a valley. It was an hour before sunset and we'd been driving for quite a while, I could tell my guests needed a drink. We parked on top of the hill looking down into the valley and I was hoping that while we were having drinks up there we could look down and maybe see the lions resting below somewhere. We got to the top and scanned the surrounds with our binoculars, but still couldn't see anything. But then some kudu started to bark their alarm from the bottom of the valley. It could have been cheetah, or leopard, but I was convinced it was the pride that was down there.
We still couldn't see anything from the road or from on top of the hill where we were. My tracker at that stage was less than competent around big cats, so I left him with the guests to look after them and keep them next to the vehicle with their drinks while I descended the slope to try and find their tracks, hoping that we might get an idea of their position and bring the vehicle in later. The walk was longer than I had anticipated. It took me fifteen minutes to get to the bottom. And so began the longest hour of my life.
I walked straight into three lionesses who I seemed to surprise as much as they surprised me. It looked like they had been stalking something. They got a bit of a fright, as did I. The creepy thing was that they didn't change their posture much. When I found them they were crawling low to the ground, their shoulder blades were pointing up and their heads were low... they did a little jump and then they simply turned their attention to me, coming at me in a sinister arrow formation with the oldest lioness in the front and the two younger ones behind her on either side.
They ran at me in spurts, growling, trying to unnerve me which they were VERY good at. When I first saw them they were no more than ten meters away. They ran at me with intent, testing me, kicking up dust, spitting and slapping their paws down on the ground. I shouted at them with all the voice I could muster. They stopped and I backed off a few paces, but my retreat seemed to encourage them, and they and they flew at me again, snarling streaks of tawny moving at 80km/ph. The two younger ones lacked the confidence of their leader, and would back away, especially if I took a few steps towards them. But I can't describe how hard that was to do: every inch of my body was instinctively pulling me the other way. Especially from her....the enormous she-devil at the front. I managed to take another few steps forward and the younger lionesses broke off and ran back a few metres where I couldn't see them. But she... she just kept her head low and stared at me with her massive yellow eyes and thick black pupils.
When the other two saw this they became more bold, and rejoined the formation for the next charge. This process repeated itself again and again and again and again. I had watched lions doing this before with buffalo, a prey item dangerous enough to kill them but one they would continually test until they found a weakness. My mind begged them to leave. My legs felt as heavy as lead. I had a hand-held radio with me and I slowly lowered my hand to my belt, switched it onto channel one, raised it to my mouth and called my tracker for help. “ALBERT, COME IN FOR GRAEME!” Silence. Of all the times for him not to be listening to the radio. Channel two: “ANY GUIDES, COME IN!” Silence. Channel three “ANYONE DO YOU COPY? I NEED HELP!” Silence. Dead silence. Everyone must have switched off their radios for their sundowner stop, or maybe I wasn't getting signal in the bottom of the valley. I had never felt more alone. But I was not alone.
They launched themselves almost to the base of my feet once more. I screamed back at them and in the panic of getting my shotgun to my shoulder I dropped my radio. It seemed like the biggest decision of my life: whether to leave the radio on the ground, or risk bending down to pick it up without getting eaten. Cursing myself I left the radio and backed away. Charge. Shout and yell. Two steps forward. I stared again into her pupils, realising something with horror. Her puplis were much bigger. The yellow was getting harder to see. They weren't just waiting to unnerve me...they were waiting for the dark. And it suddenly felt very, very dark.
I backed off another ten metres. The light was deteriorating rapidly now. I was losing whatever advantage I had. I was battling to see the lions and I still wasn't within ear-shot of the vehicle. I started shouting to see if my tracker would hear me but there was nothing. It was time for a drastic decision. I knew I was more than 300 metres from the vehicle and I wasn't going to make it back there at the rate I was going before I lost all ability to see. I had no option. Walking backwards at pace I made a break for it. The growling kept coming. I kept moving, while shouting with all my lungs “GET IN THE VEHICLE, LIONS HERE, GET IN THE VEHICLE EVERYBODY!” hoping it would not only unnerve the lions but that my guests might also hear me. I got to the top of the hill, judging by the snarling I had a thirty metre gap between myself and the lions. I glanced over my shoulder: my guests were all in the car, and I had ten metres to go the the vehicle. I ran for all my life was worth and dived into the front seat. This nightmare was over. Or so I thought.
My guests were extremely excited and scared and didn't understand what was going on. I could hardly talk. I was overwhelmed by a massive, exhausting wave of relief that washed over me. It had been almost an hour that this had been going on. My voice was finshed and my nerves were shot.
“What's going on Graeme?” they asked, and I had to focus to get the words out.
“The lions are here” was all I managed.I plugged in the vehicle's spotlight and pointed the beam at the thicket just ten metres away from us. And there they were, watching us, their eyes glowing like coals in the light. “Oh my God! You brought the lions to us, that's amazing! Oh my God!”
I wasnt able to laugh at the stage, I could hardly hold up the light.
Then one of my guests says “Where's Albert?” I looked behind me, expecting to see my tracker sitting with the guests. But he wasn't there.
God. Where is Albert? “ALBERT? ALBERT!!” I swung the beam of the spotlight around, desperately looking for my colleague.
“uuuuuuuuuuhhhhh Graemeeeeee” I heard from behind us in a whiny voice.
Albert had decided it was a good time to go for a pee break. I flicked the spot back towards the lions. They were gone. I shone behind the vehicle, onto a nightmare. Standing about 30 metres away with his back to a massive porkbush tree was my tracker with three lions surrounding him. One, two, three, in a triangle, with Albert squashed against the tree. Growling at him, while he whined and quivered.
I grabbed the 12 gauge and ran in, screaming. The lions dispersed a bit and I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him behind me so that I had the lions in front and him behind. “GRAB ONTO MY BELT!” I instructed. He grabbed onto my wrist, effectively disabling my ability to fire the weapon. I remember feeling how hard he was shaking. There was no time for pleasantries. “LET GO OF MY F**KING HAND!" I took his hand and forced it on my belt, and he led us back to the vehicle while I faced the approaching lions. We got in unscathed, Albert shaking like an epileptic in the passenger seat.
My guest were having the time of their lives, cheering in the back of the vehicle. To them this was the greatest show on earth happening right in front of their eyes.
“Holy shit Graeme! Amazing!” I wasn't in the mood for it. I was seriously pissed off, overloaded with adrenalin and shattered. I turned the vehicle around and switched the headlights just in time to see the lions slinking into the thicket again. Where are they going now? And then I heard the voices.
“Is anyone else having drinks up here?” I asked Albert.
“Ya, Maccers. Maccers is having drinks up here. He's just on the other side of the hill up there.”..... I could hear little kids laughing. I tried to get Maccers on the radio. “MAC MAC MAC COME IN!”. No response. As was standard procedure he'd switched his radio off to enjoy the night sounds with his guests.
I turned to my American and said “There's going to be trouble here, hold on!” and I floored the accelerator, churning through the Land Cruiser's gears as fast as I could. I came around the corner and almost drove right into Mac's fold out table. Mac looked at me like he was gonna break my nose for disrupting his peaceful drinks stop. “GET ON THE VEHICLE!” I remember noticing that Steve and Nicky Fitzgerald and some of the other top executives of And Beyond were there. “THERE'S LIONS ON THE WAY GET IN THE VEHICLE NOW!” They rounded everyone up, left the table and the drinks and jumped onto the vehicle. No more than 30 seconds after everyone was safely inside their Cruiser these lions emerged out of the bush onto the clearing, looking around.
They seemed up for a fight. Looking back I think it was just a really bad combination of factors that contributed to their behaviour. Catching them at that time of day as the sun was going down and in the middle of the hunt.... it really revved them up. I turned to my guests and said “Listen, we're a long way from the lodge let's just go home”. And so off we drove. I remember thinking to myself that I should probably be trying to smooth this over, reassure my guests, take the edge off the evening, lighten the mood or something but I just dont have the energy or the will to talk to anyone right now. I was utterly finished and had been scared out of my wits.
After we'd been driving for about ten minutes the father leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Son, you alright?”
“Ja, no, I'm ok”
“Do ya smoke?”
“Here ya go son, ya need one!”
That was the one and only time I had a smoke on game drive with guests. I took three drags and it was finished.
I never got off to track lions anywhere near sunset ever again after that. If I wasn't 100 percent sure I could follow tracks to the target and back with lots of light, even if it was in the middle of a massively open area, I was just not up for it. The behavioral change I'd witnessed in the lions close to dusk was a crucial lesson for me.