Sports A Field

The Lion’s Breath

– by
With a lion just inches away, a hunter faces down his darkest fears.

 

“Want to swap your leopard for a lion?” asked Alex, my professional hunter.  “We’ve got a permit left.”

The offer came as a surprise. But then, the whole safari had been a surprise. Even the proposal to travel here had caught me off guard. It was in 2011, and I was at the stage in my life when everything was about work. I was toiling frantically over ambitious projects. Work displaced everything else: my family, my relationships, my time, my strength, my health, my soul. If the offer to go on safari hadn’t reached me then, I don’t know what would have become of me.

It was my first African safari, and my experienced friends advised me to start small, with antelopes, for example. But I wanted something out of the Big Four. But what? An elephant seemed too big and too pricey. A lion felt kind of frightening. On the other hand, buffalo and leopard sounded just right. I know now that most PHs consider lions less dangerous than leopards or buffalo, but subsequent events showed that the gut feeling that had tried to warn me against lion hunting was not completely groundless.

At the end of July my friend and I arrived in Lebombo, in Mozambique. This hunting concession stretches for 25 miles along the border of one of the country’s biggest national parks. I felt like I had stepped into a TV show. It was hard to believe my eyes when I saw the thousands of antelopes crowded next to the water holes. I felt the magic of the place and the way it enchants and draws in people from other continents. It was like a fairy tale. We were dumbfounded, and couldn’t adjust to the new reality at first. One thing that helped was the warning from the PHs not to leave tents at night without a light. We were in the middle of the bush, and a curious leopard or lion could turn tables on us and make the hunters the prey. It was a good reminder that the African fairy tale could become a horror story.

In the next few days, while I amused myself chasing antelopes across the savanna, my friend got a leopard. It was one hell of a leopard, a huge male that weighed 187 pounds. Naturally, it got me fired up and eager to go after the big cats. It was my turn now, but my luck just wouldn’t cooperate. We spent day after day driving around from bait to bait and seeing nothing. Finally, one of the baits was eaten , but not by a leopard. It was a lion.

That was when my PH, Alex, surprised me with the suggestion to exchange.

My first thought was of that old saying that a brave man is frightened by a lion three times. How does it go? The first time is when he thinks about lion hunting, the second is when he first hears a lion, and the third is when he first sees the lion through his sights. I’m not sure if I got it exactly right, but the first part proved as true as can be. A surge of fear ran through me. A lion can break your back with a single blow of a paw. It’s a killing machine. Was I ready to challenge it?

But, I thought, if that’s the way fates have it, why not try? I could live with the idea. In a few more hours, it began to excite me. We returned to the camp to have a midday rest, and at 3 p.m., we drove back to the bait.

What happened next would come back to me many a time in the next few months, and I think I’m going to keep the memory until the end of my days.

The bait hung from a lone tree, about five feet from the ground. It was a rear leg of a buffalo with lots of meat on it. We were to wait in a blind, made out of a small tent, which was set on a slope of a hill facing the tree, some sixty yards from it. Right below the tent the slope went almost vertically steep, and there was a small lake below, between us and the bait, so everything looked perfectly lion-proof.

In the front the tent was reinforced by two sticks dug into the ground, with another lying across them like a cross-bar. This bar had a dual purpose– it served as the rest for my rifle. They even tied my rifle to it with a rubber band, aimed at the bait. This is done for convenience and speed of aim. It is not easy to focus on and to find the target in your sights in the light of a flashlight. The tent was further camouflaged with some fresh branches until you couldn’t tell it from a bush.

We approached the tent from the left, and we expected the lion to come from the right. As the PH and I settled in the tent, the fear went away, it even felt like fun. We were happy and even tried to joke in sign language. The rest of the team drove off, far enough not to spook anything. Everything was quiet and peaceful. A long way away, to our right, baboons started to cry. As the sun was going down behind the horizon, we heard a rustle in the bushes. It came from the right, just as we expected. That was why the baboons must have been crying. Alex looked out of the little window in the tent and signaled that our quarry was there.

At first, the hunters were relaxed and joking in the blind. Then things got scary.

The lion, however, didn’t go to the bait. Something was holding him back. Meanwhile, the light was going, and darkness was settling in. The lion’s time came. Lions can see at night five to six times better than us, and much better than most other animals. It is at night that the lion really is the king. During daytime he may be wary, but at night he has no fear. He walks through his ‘hood like a mafia boss.

When it was fully dark, the lion roared nearby, and I remembered the saying again. The feeling is too much for words. Low and loud, the roar passes through you, making every internal organ tremble in resonance. Somewhere deep inside us the primeval terror that our ancestors felt for of the majestic animal comes back to life. The lion roared again, just to show us who was the boss here. In the distance a lion that held the neighboring territory thundered his reply. No matter how I tried to hold it back, fear, sticky and obtrusive, was soaking under my skin, making my heart beat frantically. Keep calm, I kept telling myself. Soon, I thought, he would approach the buffalo leg and it would be our turn.

But the lion didn’t go to the bait. In the next moment, the roar sounded thirty yards to our left. That was not what we had planned for. In the darkness I felt Alex pick up his rifle from the floor. Something was wrong. The lion couldn’t miss crossing our tracks now–and what would he do next?

My mind painted apocalyptic pictures. A save-and-protect prayer went pulsing through my head like a faulty record. If the lion attacked, what could I do? My rifle was tied to the cross-bar and pointed at the tree. The only thing I had was ae knife. I could possibly cut the rubber bands and would be free to wield my rifle, but could I do that in the split second that would take the lion to attack? Or, after freeing my gun, I could jump forward into the little lake. If I didn’t break my neck in the fall, there might be a chance to face the lion and shoot . . .

This maze of thoughts ran through my head at terrible speed, blended with prayers. But fifteen minutes passed, and the lion didn’t show its presence anywhere. He had probably caught our scent and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Thank God!

Then, right behind me, a stone rolled down and came to rest against my back. My heart jackhammered. The lion was there. All that time he was sitting just a couple of steps behind us. He had approached without any sound and was taking his time to study our tent. There was no time to lose. I reached for the knife to cut the rubber bands, but Alex stopped me with his hand. Wait. Sit tight and wait.

Now there was terror. The lion decided he didn’t have to hide, and decided to openly investigate what was going on. Picture yourself on a park bench, with a big, angry dog–a Doberman, or even a Great Dane–circling you and sniffing at your legs. Now imagine it’s a totally wild animal, three times bigger than the biggest dog, taking in your smell through little holes in a tiny tent. There were only twenty centimeters and a thin layer of cloth between us.

At that moment I felt my time had come. Did I really have to travel so far to leave this world? What about my family, waiting for me now at home–what are they going to do if I stay here forever? Those were not even half the thoughts that ran through my mind in the twenty minutes that the lion spent padding around our tent. You can do a lot of thinking in twenty minutes if death is just outside the door. The lion examined every hole in the tent, sticking his nose through each of the tiny side windows. One of the windows was just over and behind my ear, and I felt the huge nose suck in the air in long steady inhales.

This was surely the end unless I did something. But what could I do? Make noise and shout? What if it only made matters worse? If I had given my trust to Alex in this world, so alien to me, then I should do what he expected me to do. And he did everything to show that I had to keep calm.

All right, then. I was calm. I was cool. I turned into a stone. I kept calm even as the lion’s breath reached my ear. My hearing became sharp enough to hear ants crawling under my feet. Every gulp of saliva sounded like Niagara Falls. If I am to stay here forever, I told myself, I’ll take it with dignity. I won’t squeal like a piglet. My heart was beating steadily. Let God decide what will become of me. I accepted my fate and was ready for anything.

Then everything was over as suddenly as it began. The lion simply disappeared. But he wasn’t gone for long. We heard the sounds of bones crunching from the place where the bait was. The lion finally thought it was lunchtime, and the good news was the lunch wasn’t us. Or he might have thought the two white-skinned creatures in the tent would make a nice dessert–who can tell?

A boma at a safari camp in Mozambique, lit by firelight.

Alex checked if the lion was on the bait and confirmed that he was. His next question turned me out of the stonelike condition which I had so fortunately entered.

“Are you ready to shoot?”

Was I ready to shoot?

We’d been balancing on the edge of life and death for half an hour. All my nerves were jammed in one tight ball of barbed wire.

Was I ready to shoot?

I fully realized that if I made a bad shot, the lion knew exactly where to look for the source of his suffering.

Was I ready to shoot?

Of course I was. We had to play this out to the end.

I held the stock of the rifle tight against my cheek and took a couple of deep breaths. I was ready. Alex switched on the light.

I couldn’t see anything. The lion had disappeared. It was just gone. What was wrong with our luck and how long it was going to last? Alex looked through his binocular again and saw him. The lion had torn off a big chunk of meat from the bait and was enjoying it while lying down in the grass two yards below the tree. You can’t shoot a lion lying down because the internal organs move out of place and you can’t be sure of a good hit. So be it. We had to wait. The good thing was that the light didn’t seem to bother the lion at all.

Finally he got up, walked to the bait, and stood broadside to us. It was now or never. I held behind the front leg and pulled the trigger. Boom. The lion bent up and began to thrash around. If anyone could have measured the time I took to work the action, I’m sure it would be the world record or close to it. I pulled the bolt back and slammed it shut with such force that the metal took the skin off my fingers. I was ready for a second shot but it didn’t look necessary. The lion thrashed around for a few seconds and lay still.

Alex turned off the light. For about five minutes we just sat there in the dark. I had no power to speak, and no words to say; everything seemed to freeze and time seemed to stop.

When I could open my mouth again, all that came out of it was a single four-letter word that starts with F. Alex echoed with the same short and expressive reply and we kept silent for another five minutes. I asked Alex to turn on the light again and see if the lion was there, or if we were in for more surprises. But he was there, all right.

It was time to call up the truck and the rest of the team. As luck would have it, the radio signal couldn’t reach them. So we went for a walk through a forest full of beasts, in the dead of the night, until we were close enough for radio contact. But now, at least, there was a rifle in my hands, and I was feeling much better. We walked as if we were starring in an action movie, back to back with rifles at the ready. A quarter-mile later the truck crew heard us, picked us up, and we headed back to the scene.

The lion was right where we left him. He looked unbelievably powerful, with steely, muscled paws, huge claws, and enormous teeth. It took four of us to load him into the truck.

I could have put a full stop here. Great hunt, great trophy, traditional celebration, end of story. But I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that there was something more to this hunt than simply killing a lion. There were lots of joking and laughing in the truck as we drove back to the camp, but I was shaking all the way back. I just couldn’t get to be my old self again.

I have spent a lot of time since then living through the events of that night again and again in my mind. That night, I felt frightened and helpless. Or, to be precise, first came helplessness, then fear. What causes fear? The feeling of helplessness? The unknown? The potential loss of your life, your family, your comfort, your money? In the blind I wasn’t just facing the lion, I was facing my own fears.

As a child, I suffered from nightmares about lions and panthers that somehow escaped from zoos and circuses and came after me. When I grew up, these nightmares didn’t bother me as often, but still, whenever I was stressed or anxious, they came back. This is probably why I was so reluctant to hunt lions in the first place—lions embodied my subconscious fear. But the hunt turned into a real-life therapy session and liberated me. The nightmares left me, never to return. I had killed my fears along with the lion.

This lion stands now in my house as a full mount. Every night before going to sleep, I visit him with a cup of tea, look in his eye, and thank God for the life He gave me, and for the joy and glory of living every new day.

The author with the magnificent lion, taken in Mozambique.

 

 

 

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