I’m afraid of the lions. They’re out there and I know it because I saw them, just over the hill behind our tent. The tents, though sturdy, aren’t fenced in, aren’t protected from anything out there. Actually, there isn’t an out there. Or more accurately, everywhere is out there.
These were my thoughts as we sat (like sitting ducks, I fretted) one evening in the Kalahari on a hill overlooking a watering hole in the dry Auob river bed. The heat was overwhelming as the leaves of the nearby camel thorn tree rustled slightly, dispersing the tree’s distinctively sour odour. It would be a scent I would grow homesick for when we left it behind.
The riverbed seemed to be holding its breath – the calm before the storm. Purple clouds gathered behind the red bush-studded hills on all sides. The 15 tents that comprise the camp seemed to hunch down into the sandy hill, alone, waiting. The storms of the previous three nights, unusual in their intensity, seemed set to roll in again. Thunder rumbled low and deep in the distance, sounding suspiciously similar to the roar of a great cat. I looked around nervously, ready to run inside and close the doors at the slightest hint of lightening or lion.
Earlier that day, we had come upon three lions lazing in the shade of a tree right in the middle of the dirt road. A number of other 4x4s had already stopped to sit and watch them, and take pictures. Sensing that the lions were too hot and too relaxed to pounce, some people had rolled their windows down. All the better to get a good photo. Eventually, even I did the same.
But that was in the heat. In the cool of the evening as first a herd of springbok accompanied by a pack of jackals, then wildebeest, gemsbok and even four stately giraffes all made their way to the watering hole, it seemed only a matter of time before the lions crept past and prepared to pounce.
And why would they bother with something that might actually get away, something that would require stealth, hunting, effort? Why not just pluck us from our tent? It didn’t help that the park ranger had mentioned during his rounds that evening that the lions had passed by our tent a few evenings earlier, or that they had apparently laid down just under the tree in front of our window.
“What time should we go inside, then?” I asked, trying to determine the level of danger without appearing ridiculously “city.”
“You can stay out here,” was the answer, “unless they do appear. Then you should go inside until they pass by.”
I began this trip convinced I’d be eaten by a hyena that would, I imagined, rip though the tent. I also had quite vibrant fears related to poisonous snakes. There were many times during the trip that I was sure our vehicle wouldn’t make it through the backcountry gravel – and often washed out – roads. But I saw neither snake nor hyena on the entire 11 day 4000km trip through four national and transfrontier (crossing borders with Botswana and Namibia) parks.
The most danger we ever actually faced was on the last day when our SUV did get stuck in seven feet of sand where a river had washed out a section of the Augrabies Park road. With no phone reception to call the ranger for help, my husband and I tried everything, digging the wheels out with our hands and building ramps from river stones and branches. Finally, in the midday desert heat, my husband set off on foot towards the rest camp 25 km away, leaving my son and I to wait with the vehicle. Though I imagined everything from strangers kidnapping us for trafficking purposes to the car overheating, I managed to keep these thoughts to myself. After an hour, my husband and a ranger truck appeared and we were pulled out of the sand. In other words, nothing really happened.
It’s probably asking for trouble to take someone who suffers from anxiety into the place where humans developed the fight-or-flight response. Foolish, or wise. Perhaps my husband thought it would cure me.
But I did survive and my memories are of the stunning beauty, the distinctive scents and the amazing animals, not the fear. So I guess that’s something.