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THE NIGHT BELONGS TO THE LION
It's been the hottest Dry Season I can remember, and the rains are late. There's one chance left for a Safari to photograph the world-famous lions of Chitake Spring, before the roads become quagmires, and the camps are closed. I'm sick of Harare, with its corruption, beggars, pollution, roadblocks, murky politics and endless water and power cuts, so I pack my cameras, pick up some passengers, and head out of the city on a sweltering morning, for the long drive north to Mana Pools National Park.
It takes a while to get out of the capital, dodging potholes and aggressive swarms of minibuses, which spew rubbish from every window. Only drunks and learners drive straight in Zimbabwe!
There are skeletal dogs picking over piles of burning garbage, and crowds of hitchhikers bulge into the road trying to wave us down. One of my passengers asks why there are so few older people to be seen, and I explain that the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has gone down to about 30 for women and 34 for men.
A group of women and children in white robes sit in the dirt under a Msasa tree, listening to a VaPostori Priest with a Shepherd's Crook, who is giving a fiery sermon - head jerking, eyes rolling. We can't hear him over the engine, but we can see his spit spraying in the dusty light. As the economic situation worsens, Apocalyptic Churches have sprouted in many open spaces around the City and services are now held any day of the week.
We pass a wall where someone has ominously spray-painted in big letters - "Demons".
THE BURNING LAND
Leaving the last houses behind, we enter an eerie landscape where all normal life seems to be suspended, as though an evil witch had cast a spell over the country.
Veld fires on every horizon. Huge columns of smoke tower into the sky and merge with the clouds. Mini tornados of ash spiral over the road, blowing cinders into our eyes and leaving an acrid smart in our nostrils.
We pass by some burning Bouganvilleas flanking what used to be the entrance to a thriving cattle ranch. A crude sign warns "Slow Down - War Vets Ahead". Another advertises "Coffins For Sale".
Ten years ago this road would have been a hive of commercial farming activity, with trucks and tractors going up and down and fields being ploughed and planted. There would have been huge pyramids of seed and fertilizer, endless Greenhouses full of roses and vegetables, thousands of workers going to and fro, and a cornucopia of food for sale in the farm stalls at the side of the road.
We always used to stop along the way and get supplies for the safari: pockets of potatoes, oranges and naartjies, mangoes, litchis, bananas, veggies, trout, lamb chops, rump steak, pork braai ribs, biltong and boerewors, honey-in-the-comb, jars of pickles and homemade jams...
That was before 2000, when they started driving farmers off their land, when Zimbabwe was still the Breadbasket of Africa. Now it's the most aid-dependent country in the world.
Most of the farms are looted-desolate and derelict now and we drive through an empty landscape - blackened and charred as far as the eye can see, the whole 400 km to the Zambezi Escarpment.
Zimbabwe, like much of Sub-Saharan Africa, is deliberately set on fire every year, the flames following the dry season from the Sahara to the Kalahari and back again. The beautiful blowing grasses of the Savannah, with trillions of insects and animals, are incinerated in Africa's great contribution to Desertification, Mass Extinction and Global Warming.
Very little traffic on the road - just the juggernauts hauling new cars and other goods from the factories in South Africa up to Zambia and Africa beyond. We pass through Banket, Chinhoyi and Lion's Den with their colossal grain silos - grim and empty against the sky, relics of a lost civilization.
I point out a bend in the road where at the start of the crisis in Zimbabwe I saw hungry villagers and baboons scavenging side by side in the dirt for spilled grain from passing trucks.
There are no grain trucks anymore and only God knows what has happened to the people who once lived here. They probably swam the Limpopo River and vanished into the teeming slums of South Africa, along with millions of other desperate Zimbabweans.
We're hot and cramped and I look for somewhere for us to stop and stretch our legs, get something to eat and pee.
There used to be rustic craft shops and restaurants, run by pretty farmers' wives and daughters, all along this road. Weary travellers could take a break in a shady garden and order trays of tea with delicious homemade cakes. All Jambanja'd and Gone with the Wind, so we only stop once - for fuel and cokes from a bleak garage in Karoi.
Climbing the Zambezi Escarpment, the tyres swish over sticky patches of melted tar next to the burnt-out corpses of pantechnicons which have failed to negotiate the hairpin bends and precipitous descents, and we reach the Parks office at Marongora, just before it closes. Mana Pools National Park and the vast Zambezi River Valley stretch out below us under a syrupy blue haze. Down there is 50 degree heat and Tsetse country, so we close the windows and turn on the aircon. Almost immediately the little vampire flies are rattling on the glass, thirsting for our blood.
Turning off the tar we drive into the Park and and immediately hit the most corrugated, bone-jarring, teeth-rattling dirt road in Zimbabwe. I bite my tongue. Conversation stops.
I scan the road for loose rocks which can puncture your fuel tank, and for holes and sandbanks which can slew the truck around and flip it over, while they stare into the bush, trying to be the first to spot an Ellie, which is meant to be good luck.
Baobabs, bush, Acacias, more bush, more Baobabs - the animals are asleep and nothing stirs.
At long last we see a plastic bag tied to a bush which marks the hard-to-see turn-off to the campsite.
We are not prepared for the heat which envelops us when we step out of the airconditioned truck, as though we were in some huge creature's panting mouth. It's 47C in the shade, and my shocked lungs have difficulty sucking in the thick air, rank-smelling from the green scum in the Spring.
Then the flies find us and we forget the heat.
We had slathered ourselves with the most powerful insect repellant available in Zimbabwe, but whoever makes it has never met a Stomoxys Fly, or a Tsetse. We curse and slap and within minutes little trickles of blood are running down my legs. Cow tail fly whisks are handed out, but nothing helps. We just have to resign ourselves to being tormented from dawn till 10 and from 4 until sunset - the cooler hours when the flies are active.
Stomoxys Flies make bloody, suppurating sores on dogs and horses ears. A plague of them decimated the Lion population of the Ngorongoro Crater in the 1960's, and the Chitake Pride, not wanting to share the same fate, has adapted by climbing Rain Trees when the flies are about, and hunting at night - mostly.
Chitake Spring is a flat-bottomed sand river with steep sandstone banks near the Zambezi Escarpment. Africa's sand rivers flow underground in the dry season, but at Chitake, a rock formation has forced the water to the surface where it runs in little rivulets for several kilometers before sinking back into the sand. When the rains stop, it is the only water for 50km, and herds of buffalo and elephants with their babies come to drink every day - easy pickings for the lions.
The campsites here have been open to the public for 30 years and amazingly nobody has been killed here - yet.
We are tired and stiff from the long drive but we all want to see the Lions.
I grab a water bottle, hang my camera around my neck, put my rucksack with extra lenses on my back, pick up my heavy-duty tripod, and we walk into the bush. We come upon a couple of stripped-bare buffalo kills, but no Lion, just a couple of Lappetfaced Vultures who flap into an Acacia Tree and wait for us to pass. With the shadows lengthening, we call it a day and go pictureless and disappointed back to camp.
Waiting for supper, we shower, get deliciously chilled beers and Cokes out of the ice box, and carry our canvas chairs into the river bed in what becomes our sundowner ritual.
The flies have gone to sleep, Guinea Fowl and Francolin call from the opposite bank and a Heuglin's Robin sings. The first stars come out and families of elephants with calves stare at us cautiously and waggle their ears as they splosh through the water, stopping every now and then to drink and shit, and crop the lush grass on the banks.
We talk softly and try not to move suddenly when they come within a few feet of us and start browsing. I can feel their rumbles in the pit of my stomach.
We retire to our tents around 9 - slightly alarmed to be issued with Tasers, Pepper Spray and Whistles because a lion had attacked someone in his tent the week before. "I think it was an old rogue male who couldn't hunt anymore", our guide told us, showing us photos of the ripped canvas. " The tent collapsed and the guy started squealing when the Lion jumped on top of him. The rest of us woke up and shouted and it ran off."
During the night I hear banging and clattering around our dining area. The guide and I go to see and find a pair of Porcupines calmly ransacking our stuff, looking for something to eat.
Waking at dawn we gulp scalding mugs of tea, munch rusks and start walking.
It's hot already. Impala and baboons everywhere, flies and lion spoor, but it's an hour before we almost fall over them, dozing in some scrubby bushes. A warning cough alerts us and we back away. The Big Cats stare at us, bored. We take pictures of them yawning and walk on, so as not to try their patience too far.
Our guide shows us a hollow Baobab. Squeezing in through a narrow hole, we find ourselves in a cool, dim chamber used by a fastidious leopard to stash his kills out of reach of the Lions. Motes of dust float in spokes of sunlight from high above and the sandy floor is littered with delicate Impala bones.
When Lions are lucky enough to catch an agile Impala they crunch it up bones-and-all, leaving nothing but the unmistakeable stench of death in the sand.
This is our routine for the next few days. Wake before Dawn. Breakfast of bran flakes, tinned fruit and long-life milk. Track the Lions and hope they take pity on us and make a daylight kill for us to photograph. Have a light lunch of cold meat and salad around the camp table while a parrot amuses itself by dropping half-chewed nuts on our heads. Try and sleep through the enervating midday heat in our sauna-like tents, or read and swat in the shade. Sometimes we sit in the riverbed and watch the baboons squabbling and picking tasty titbits out of last night's elephant dung. Walk again in the afternoon - praying for a kill before dark. Take turns under the lukewarm bucket shower and fight off the Fire Ants in the Blair Toilet. Eat a hot supper. Try and sleep through the sweat-filmed night with a constant stream of elephants trumpeting and splashing a few feet from our beds. One night the lions have a go at them and the trumpeting and roaring goes on and on. Neither side backs down and we don't get much sleep.
Our guide gets out his laptop and shows us some of the great photos he's got here. One afternoon he was sitting on the riverbank photographing Impala when a lioness erupted from behind his chair, swerved around him and charged at the scattering antelope, other lions joining in from either side. "I never even saw her. She had crept up behind me, using me as cover" he says admiringly.
We laugh nervously and scan the bush behind our chairs.
BUFFALO AT THE EYE OF THE SPRING
Good photos are proving elusive, so on our last day we decide to go to the Eye of the Spring to watch the Buffalo come down to drink. We wait under a big Wild Fig, and towards midday someone notices a cloud of dust above the treeline. We hear a rumble in the distance - it's a big herd - maybe 200 animals.
The lead bulls eventually appear in the trees opposite. They notice us and stop, tossing their horns, scenting and glowering suspiciously, while the thirsty herd piles up behind them. The smell of water is driving them mad. After a while the bulls give way and trot down the slope, the herd avalanching behind them, disappearing in a thick cloud of yellow dust.
There are five Lions sleeping in a gully below us but the Buffalo don't seem to notice, or are too thirsty to care, and they pour onto the sand, drinking and rolling in the mud. There are so many of them churning up the riverbed that the stream will stop flowing for hours.
We are joined by five people who have recently arrived and set up camp nearby. One of them has taken off his shirt to get a tan and is turning bright pink. He will be dead soon. We exchange pleasantries and take photos together until the Buffalo get spooked, and stampede up the bank and are gone.
The Lions, a mother and her four three-year-old cubs, have taken no notice of the Buffalo. We're surprised - as far as we know they haven't killed for at least three days - unless they've been snacking on Warthogs and Impala in the night.
We decide to climb down the bank and take a look and find them lying in a tangled heap next to the water.
The afternoon is cooling, and the flies start to plague them. One by one they drink and move languidly up the bank, where they climb a rain tree, and wait for dark. Lion can see very well in pitch black but their prey cannot. There will be no Moon tonight.
After trying unsuccessfully to photograph another herd of Buffalo, by a grove of Baobabs called the "Apostles", the sun is setting, so I pack up my gear and return to camp.
DEATH IN THE SHOWER
We are all feeling sad that the trip is over, as we dip in the melting ice for cold-ish ones and sit by the river. Supper is going to be good - Sadza and Spicy Relish, with thick rump steaks braaied over the fire.
The flies have gone and we sit watching a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls in a tree, (Shona people call them the Bad Luck Birds, and think they are Harbingers of Death).
I see my first shooting star of the trip. My Grandmother used to say it was a soul taking flight.
One of my fingers is swollen and throbbing.
Someone starts talking to no one in particular about the meaning of life the universe and everything.
A woman screaming and screaming and screaming - like fireworks exploding in the night sky.
Then desperate hooting - calling for our help.
"Oh Shit", our guide says in a low voice. He runs off into the darkness to get his rifle and a pistol. I put Pepper Spray in my pocket and grab a big Maglite torch.
We jump into a vehicle and drive as fast as we can towards the noise. After negotiating the river in 4WD, the truck speeds up and zigzags around trees and bushes and the occasional startled antelope. Thorny branches lash the windscreen and screech against the side of the truck.
I'm trying to remember how to deal with deep wounds, severed limbs, loss of blood, shock. No one talks. Everybody is imagining what we will find. How many there will be and how bad...
The nearest hospital is more than 150km away.
We see their lights through the thick scrub. "Over here" they yell.
They are locked in their pickups, headlights blazing and hooters blaring. Lying in between the vehicles is a pale body, lying face-down in the "Rescue" position, naked and streaked with mud.
The Lions are pacing a few meters away.
"Help him, help him - he's dying", a woman calls out to us.
Our guide fires his pistol in the air to keep the Lions at bay, while one of us crouches down and tries to find a pulse. The body is ice-cold, floppy-looking, as though it had no bones. One bite has laid bare the side of his head, like an anatomical diagram.
"He's dead". The widow crumples and someone holds her and comforts her.
One of the other campers appears beside me. Even in the dark I can see his face is pale with shock and fear. I grasp his hand and try to reassure him. "I'm so sorry...", I murmur, not knowing what to say, and not wanting to be distracted from the Lions.
The Lions relax, panting and waiting for us to leave so they can recover their kill. One young male, with the beginnings of a mane, has blood around his jaws, and another starts playing with a cloth from the camp shower, where the attack had happened.
The body is rolled in a groundsheet and put in a truck.
"Please don't shoot the Lions", the Widow calls out to me as I chamber a round and point a rifle at them, "It wasn't their fault".
We shine torches on the Lions, and fire an occasional shot in the air while the widow and her friends go back to their tents, pack frantically and drive off into the night with the corpse, to report what had happened to the police at Makuti, and make the long drive back home to Harare.
I can't imagine what they must be feeling - they had been so happy a few hours before.
When they had gone, we went back to our camp for a supper which nobody wanted, and sat nervously around the fire drinking warm beers and telling horror stories, while listening to the Lions roaring out their displeasure, and getting closer and closer.
Someone produces a packet of Biltong and we munch and talk. A lone Elephant appears and walks right past us to the river - looking like a grey ghost in our torchlight. Lights sometimes anger them but this one doesn't seem to mind.
Around midnight we hear a cough in the bushes and two Lions walk into our camp.
We decide to abandon our tents and sleep in our vehicles. I grab a water bottle and go for a quick pee - keeping a wary eye on the lions. As I climb into my truck and settle down for the night, one of the lions climbs a tree over my head - dropping twigs and leaves on the fibreglass canopy of my truck.
Then everything falls silent - as though someone had flipped a switch.
THE FROZEN CAMP
The next morning we all emerge stiff and crotchety from our vehicles, and gather round the fire where a kettle is already boiling. The milk has run out so we have our tea and coffee strong-black, with looots of sugar.
The Lions have given our camp a Rev in the night and we find things scattered in the river bed.
We go back to the scene of the crime to pack up the abandoned camp.
En route we see the Lions are back in the Rain Tree, and walk over and take a look at them. We want to see if they think we are now on the menu, but they just look at us with obvious contempt, and drop down, and disappear in the thick scrub.
We find the camp frozen in the moment the screaming started.
The fire is neatly stacked and waiting for a match. There is a bowl of potatoes ready for peeling, and vegetables to be prepped, and drinks.
With a GPS we measure the distance between the camp and shower and find that it was 50 metres.
The whole sad story could be read in the sand.
The dead man had been showering under a spindly little tree, standing on two rubber car mats. He had probably opened his eyes to find the Lions all around him. He slipped and fell, scrabbled to his feet, and there were two circles made by his feet in the dust where he had turned and turned, facing the Lions and looking for an escape route. Eventually he seems to have run in the opposite direction from the camp, and there was a small patch of blood where he was brought down - a Libation to the Merciless God of the Spring. There were no drag marks.
The Lions had probably watched everyone showering, one after the other, from their vantage point in the Rain Tree, just 70 metres away. As the darkness thickened and their Night Vision turned on, perhaps they just went to see what was going on.
Two of the Cardinal Rules of the African Bush: Never look Lions Directly in the Eyes - they see it as a challenge, and, Never Ever Run from Lions - it immediately triggers their Predator Instinct, and it'll be a Cold Day in Hell before you can outrun them.
The camp is swiftly dismantled, rolled up and packed away in the pickup and boat they left behind.
Someone drives it away and suddenly there is nothing left but the blood, the empty shower bag swinging in the tree, a pair of shorts in a bush, and the dead man's slip slops.
EPILOGUE - THE LIONS' LAST STAND
There have been a few calls for the Chitake Lions to be shot after this incident, but I hope they are not.
Many experts believe that Lions are facing Extinction in the Wild by the year 2020. There are only about 20 000 left in Africa, and thousands are still hunted every year.
When a big male Lion is shot by Trophy Hunters, his death often leads to the destruction of his Pride, as family structures disintegrate, and cubs are killed by interloper males, or by marauding Hyenas. Some researchers believe that there may be as few as 25 Lions left in the whole of Mana Pools National Park.
Lions are also dying from Bovine Tuberculosis, which they catch from Buffalo Kills, and more are poisoned by farmers with a chemical, (banned in America but freely available here), jokingly called "Two Step" because it kills the animal which eats it, and the animal which eats that animal.
As their Extinction draws nearer, and the human pressures on them increase, reports of unusual and self-destructive behaviour in Lions are on the increase - as though, like the Last of the Mohicans, they are calling on the Great Spirit to take them quickly, and get it over with.
For millions of years Lions have been the purifying flame of this landscape, cleansing the herds and keeping them strong. Their ancient cry quiets the night and draws the Stars closer. Their world is our world. If we kill them all something will die in us too. We will be less Human.
WE ARE A PART OF NATURE
WE ARE NOT APART FROM NATURE
COPYRIGHT ROB COOPER