‘Where there is fire and waving grass, there is a witness to life itself’, bushman !Tao
...In the cold air, a glinting metropolis, power station smoke mushrooming in the inversion, and miles of sheds and busy antlike trucks following the clover leaf ribbons below. My excitement had been building for months; imagination guiding expectation, but, nowhere, predicting another world like my own. I smiled, realising, I must wait a little longer before freeing myself of civilisation. Soon, I would cross into an untamed Africa, into a desert teeming with game, a free world, tempered only by the presence of lion.I had just endured that long flight from the States, met my host at Johannesburg International and was climbing into a small charter plane, bound for the Kalahari. But, some background. Browsing every hunting website and forum for opinion and guidance, seeing the most amazing images I’d ever imagined, I had, at last, settled on a mid winter, plains game hunt in an African desert. Upgrading my weapon status with the thought that this would make me less vulnerable, and my objectives more certain, I stood in line for the plane that would carry me to that new world. Shuffling forward in the boarding queue, I rolled my bruised left shoulder to ease the dark bruise stamped by a final session with my new ,375 H&H rifle. The noise in the Cessna’s cabin made speech impossible and sleep came easily in the droning warmth of the late afternoon sun. While I slept, the pilot reduced height to around 1000 feet, gave me a jab and pointed out the window. In a moment, ‘Out of Africa’ came to life, with antelope racing away from beneath us, the dust from their mad dash hanging in the still air, long after our shadow had won the race. “Ten minutes to landing,” said John, positioning the plane for the final approach.Drifting over the desert with throttle reduced, my forehead against the scratched plexiglas, I stared in disbelief. We were flying over a red land, one stretched with shadow and glowing in the late afternoon sun. Valleys of pale tussock grass, stands of green camel thorn and in a lonely place, between some dunes, burnt black dead trees pointed skywards. Ahead, a salt pan come into view, brilliantly white and green edged. The pilot, turning to me said, “That’s us, we’re landing now, check your belt and face forward please.”The landing strip crossed the pan, stretching through its edging of acacia and finishing near a waiting truck. Then, through the haze of the whirling propeller, a small herd of springbok appeared on the edge of the runway. I turned in shock, but the pilot just nodded and continued making yoke and pedal adjustments against the slight crosswind. In a moment, the unconcerned animals were behind us as we bumped to a stop.A short drive into camp and with gear stowed following a much needed hot shower, I felt pretty perky by the time I took the path to the thatched farmhouse. Seeing no-one, I strolled over to the fire pit, grabbed a chair, a cold beer and took stock. This was definitely not like home, everything felt strange: the sounds, the smells and the hugeness of the darkening African sky. Obvious insect life too - but sitting in the drifting wood smoke helped some.My host Chris and Jamie, his pro hunter, arrived just then, waved a greeting and with drinks sorted, joined me at the fire.“You’ve had a hard couple of days, how are you feeling?” Chris said.“Simply stunned,” I said, “and very glad to be here. But, what a place, I’ve talked to guys, seen photos and hunting promos, but they simply can’t prepare you for this.”“Glad to hear it, anything you want, just ask. Jamie’s going to take you out tomorrow. Starting 05h30 and after a light breakfast, you’ll take a drive to get the feel of the place. That good for you?”“Perfect!” I said.Moments later gentle chimes warned of dinner.“No hurry, that’s our 15 minute call, time to finish our drinks and wander over.” said Chris.Just then a huge bat zigzagged by and watching it I was just about to open my mouth, when out of the darkness, on the far side of the camp, came a grunting cough. Then, moments later, it was repeated.My body froze – my mind emptied in shock. I could hear voices around me but no screams or shouts. Slowly coming back to earth and working at pretending to be part of the conversation around me, I asked “That a lion?”No-one answered. Their heads had turned to one another and were tilted to best catch the slightest sound. Only the fire crackled softly - no, there was a far-off crash of a bucket being dropped and some African voices and silence again.If this was Africa – I thought, it was not for the weak. Neither crafted nor choreographed - it just happened around you, dragging you into the swirling current of a world, millions of years old. Better stay close to those who knew the ropes, I thought, thinking of the cold inky darkness that stretched out behind me.Jamie spoke first. “There, Chris,” he said, “I told you they’d cross again. This time they have come in a straight line from the border, passed the lodge, and now they’re headed for the feed lot.”“Take the truck and warn Sambala,” Chris said, tossing the keys at Jamie and turning to me, “Sorry about that, but from time to time males drift through here, looking for a meal. Our cattle promise easy pickings and I guess they think they can stay over for a while.” We talked some more about what seemed to be a perennial problem just south of the Botswana border. Then, the returning cruiser, interrupted further talk, as Jamie dropped into his seat, looking grim. “I’ve put all the lights on.” he said, “The cattle are scared and are hard up against the fencing and if we don’t stop this we’ll have broken legs and goodness knows what other injuries.”“You mean the lions deliberately panic the cattle?” I said.“Well, maybe, but the cattle see and smell them walking along the fence and panic. You start dinner while I call Fanie at Conservation and tell him we’ll be giving it a go tomorrow.” said Jamie.“We start at first light, get out there and follow the tracks. Enough is enough.” said Jamie, looking at me.Suddenly, I was a part of an ancient struggle. The need to take immediate action was obvious and lining up with the frontier ranchers seemed so natural. Africa seemed to be stealing into me - igniting little fires of forgotten knowledge. Plans were being made and my contribution seemed to consist of a pair of wide eyes, and a nodding head. Was I now a hunter of lions? Picked to face the most powerful predator on earth? In this corner - a middle aged barefoot executive holding a half finished beer...Around ten, an unarmed African appeared at the fire. This was my camp guide and he was to escort me to my bungalow. I didn’t say anything, but sobered up fast. Now, one man with a lamp stood between me and whatever lay out there in the darkness. He led off along a path that seemed to head nowhere, his urgency betrayed by a quick step. It was obvious he was listening and very ready to leap backwards, leaving me to face the malevolence that would breach the dark with unimaginable ferocity. He said nothing, but seemed to hurry more, when the outline of my bungalow appeared ahead. Moments later, safe behind my door, I listened to his receding steps. Nothing else stirred.The knock on my door woke me instantly. A beaming black face and a tray with coffee and biscuits had arrived.“Breakfast is ready, sir.” he said and was swallowed by the gloom. Pre-dawn desert cold swirled into the room with the smell of coffee and I remembered, then, where I was, and what was to happen this day.Breakfast consisted: the others - bright eyed, talking strategy and provisions, me - listening and trying to swallow the driest cereal ever shaken onto a plate. Finishing my overly sweet coffee, I stepped outside and, buttoning my overcoat against the freezing air, walked over to the cruiser.The rifles were cleared, loaded and passed up to Jamie. I joined him and wedged myself in. With a shudder, the cruiser settled into the deep rutted sand track, the two of us standing like centurions, in the cold, early dawn. Seeing me looking at the ranch buildings, Jamie told me that the trackers had left earlier and were following the lions along the cattle fence.We first saw them way off in the distance and you could tell from the tense arm waving and head shaking that they were probably distilling their best wisdom on the subject of where the lions had gone after crossing the fence.Leaving the truck changed me from an observer to one with the same chances as any creature in this vast hill studded semi desert. Lion tracks were all over the place. Seemed they couldn’t decide where to cross the fence. Just standing there made me suddenly aware of my heartbeat. Placing my boot alongside the nearest paw print, I knew this was not a good time to say anything. Walking over to the fence, I fingered my first strand of lion hair. I reached for another, struggling to break it free and noticed I was being watched. So, smile I thought, until Chris said “Not long now and you won’t need to pull them off a fence.”I laughed with them, feeling my body become less my own, the deeper into this unreality I got.The first hour passed quickly. I felt good keeping the pace set by the African tracker. Not much later we all stopped for a drink. When it was my turn I poured a cup down the back of my neck. Jamie grabbed the canteen so fast I jumped back, startled.“Sorry.” he said, “We are carrying the only water we have.”Trying to regain some face I asked, “How much further.” “To what?” he asked.“Until we see them, you know.”Eyeing the acacia scrub Jamie said, “When they know they are being followed they’ll increase the pace for a while,and if we press them they’ll go for deep cover. We want them hot but not too bothered, that is, not feeling threatened enough to take us on.”Another hour passed. My rifle was catching on more thorn bushes now and once I’d stopped too late and walked into Jamie. Sweat ran into my eyes and my legs were battling with the deep sand, while the sun fried my exposed skin. I was nearly out of the ‘I am a hunter’ mode and into that ‘Please stop and let me out of here’ time, when you no longer think of the lion as an enemy, or, if you do, you ask that it be over soon.Half a mile back, while moving along a dry riverbed, we bumped the lions for the first time. They were in the shade of a bank undercut and invisible. Our sudden appearance should have triggered a charge, but with an angry grunt, they were gone. Walking into two black maned lions showed me just how fast accidents can happen. For myself I stumbled and tripped, in a state of shock. The trackers froze and Jamie had his .458 Lott up in a flash, but two lions? Where was Chris? The tall rancher looked totally unfazed, standing quietly on our back trail with his lightly shouldered .470 double. He was grinning. Did he think we’d fallen victim to the heat and were tripping along like zombies?We pressed on, more quickly now, swimming in adrenalin and a curious sense of dèjá vous. Was an ambush now a certainty I wondered? Following their track easily, we moved as a team, searching for the least sighting - a flick of an ear, a tail tip, perhaps a shadowy movement in the long grass? How would this turn out? Chris joined us now, saying we’d had our only warning and that cool heads were now critical.For myself, I felt more attuned to colour and subtle shadings and was seeing deeper into the brush than at the start of the day. My state of exhaustion seemed to have levelled off, supported by the salt tablets and sweets handed back by Jamie. We were closing and seeing the lions more often, when Jamie abruptly called a halt. “Let’s give them time to rest, they need it, and we want them a little stiff” he smiled, “and, we’ve been going for four hours.” Was it the huge spreading camel thorn tree in the riverbed? Perhaps the deep shade it offered or the welcoming carpet of old pods and spilt seeds? I didn’t ask, but clearing some of the thorns, I sat and leant against the rough bark with real pleasure.When it was time, I managed to stand, but not without a hand from Jamie. Joining the group, we checked and double checked the gear, my rifle in particular. My scope was turned down, 300gr RN softs in the magazine. Jamie leaned over to check, and said,“When I tell you, breech a round, but keep the safety on. Don’t rush it, we want a smooth feed.”“Jamie,” I said, “I’ve a question. There are two lions. How are we going to manage that?”“OK,” he said, “it works like this. If we find them together, one will present the better shot. Once you fire, the second lion will vanish. Chris will cover us from behind with the department’s observer. I will be supporting you. Good?”I thought back to last night, remembering the executive with half a beer. Was this me? I felt sure I was no longer that man, maybe greyer, definitely exhausted, but not the same at all.Off we went, at a slower pace now and it wasn’t 15 minutes before our tracker froze. His hand behind him, making a slow downward movement, finishing with a finger pointed to the sand. One lion sighted, close by. We edged up behind him. Not 30 yards away, was a massive black maned lion, standing side-on, his tail whipping from side to side. I looked quickly to our left and right, half expecting the other lion to be tearing down on us in a flank attack. There was only the sandy river bed and a stand of dry reeds, no other lion. There was no cover between us as we sank to the sand. I watched the huge head, trying to read intent, while the yellow black eyes stared directly at me.To this day, years and years later I remember Jamie speaking somewhere out there, slowly, ”You have only a moment, you must raise your rifle, chamber a round, release the safety and aim where we showed you. You do not have time to think and let him make you his. He is going to charge, shoot now.”I’ve never been able to recall how and when I fired. Neither do I truly remember more than the heavy jolt of my .375, the sight picture ruined by the surging barrel. There were flying movements screened by a curtain of dust, growling and breaking thorn. Somewhere in time, my brain stopped recording and replaying the scene in front of me – triggered, perhaps, by the utter silence that surrounded us. The birds had flown or fallen silent, the insects too, including the little ones that had been worrying my ears and nostrils.It was done.