TIA Tales – A walk on the wild side
So yesterday two TIA things happened that made me think again about where we live… a cheetah was shot round the corner from our house (bear in mind we live in a city and it’s a 2 hr drive to the Serengeti that’s pretty unusual)… and my gardener found a huge pile of snake eggs in our garden. Add to this the fact that there have been recent reports of hyena attacks on small children (I have a friend who works at one of the local hospitals who told me of the of the horrific injuries it caused) and it reminds us that we are in their territory, not the other way around.
During my time here I have loved hearing tales of how it was ‘before’ – when towns and cities were merely settlements so that the human/wildlife conflicts were frequent and shocking, and – let’s face it – thrilling. I interviewed a 90 year old author from Arusha once who’d grown up as a white boy with the Loliondo Maasai and he told tales of lions tearing at the canvas on the back of his truck, of a hyena stealing the just-amputated leg of a man who was accidentally shot whilst in the bush, and of climbing the rim of Ngorongoro Crater before it was an allocated conservation area. Even my (much younger!) father-in-law has tales like these, of camping and exploring the areas unrestricted as a boy. A local Mwanza man once told me that the hill I live on was cut off by water less than a hundred years ago and wild animals lived all over it. It seems that poor cheetah wasn’t so confused after all.
Anyway, it got me thinking about people’s stories and how unbelievable they sometimes seem when they are so removed from your reality, and yet they are quite true – I have lived to tell some tales myself! One story that always sticks with me was told to me by my good friend Bill. I recently took time to fictionalise his experience for a competition and he very kindly said that I could use it. So, with the recent events in Mwanza, I thought it was appropriate to give you guys a sneak preview (of course if it doesn’t win the competition it’ll be more of an ‘exclusive view’ but whatever!).
I got out. It’s hard to imagine how I could have done that now, but back then we thought we were invincible. I was in my twenties and it was a time of rolled up safari-shirt sleeves, hard physical work, and endless cigarettes.
I’d been contracted out to Tanzania to build a safari lodge in a small game reserve. After the War work was limited and I was happy to travel. I’d helped to build hotels before – mostly in Europe – but I was not prepared for Africa.
So, there we were, returning from gathering supplies. Just me and the lodge manager. She’d been out visiting her boyfriend – a Rhodesian wild animal vet based in Arusha city. I couldn’t compete, so I pretended I wasn’t interested. We’d been making good time, sliding through the red dust at the top of the ridge on one side and then dropping into the darker, black cotton soil in the base of the valley, but it had rained the night before.
Slow motion sliding and then locking suction saw all four tyres trapped deep into a pond-sized patch of black mud.
The day had been a hot one and the air was lying slumped against us; fat with dust. By then we had tried everything of course: Attempted to dig ourselves out; fiddled with the radios – though we knew we were miles out of range; stood on the roof and shouted. But the day was starting to fade, I had smoked my last cigarette and the mosquito clouds were beginning to froth up from the muddy puddles surrounding the car. Their high-pitched malarial malice became too much for me. I got out.
“Ali, I’m going to get help before it’s dark.” I said coolly. “The lodge is only over that ridge and no one’s going to drive past us on this road today – we both know that.”
She’d nodded weakly. Too hot and frustrated to argue with me by this stage. She was in the passenger seat, her bare brown legs stretched up onto the dash board as she scratched at her ankles. She was muddy and her skin was damp with perspiration and I noticed with a stupidly smug sense of satisfaction that she was beginning to show signs of fear. It spurred me to see through my ridiculous hero role.
“Take this,” she smiled gently, handing me a bottle of water.
“Thanks. I won’t be long,” I said confidently. Naively. Sinking in the mud and attempting to maintain some dignity and stay upright as I hopped from patch to patch until I reached the other side, now filthy from the knees down. I could hear Ali laughing as I turned to wave.
When I started walking it was hot and bright, the viscous air was thick around me. But the minutes melted into evening. A blood red sun seeped into the horizon to my left and suddenly a soot-soft black began to gather. I had not noticed, until then, how quickly the equatorial sun set. I had anticipated being at the site by now. A ring neck dove crooned and baboons screamed in the distance.
I stayed on the road, with the bronzed grasses high on either side of me; hiding me from predators, and predators from me. But I could see nothing bar the path ahead by this stage anyway, so I focused on making my way onto the ridge, where I knew I would look down onto the lights of our building site.
I was conscious that Ali was over an hour’s walk behind me by now, somewhere in the dark, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. I turned to squint into the blackness, wondering if she might have used the vehicle lights, but I could see only a few meters in front of me. In those moments of realisation, the mood of the bush changed. She shifted on her haunches and bared her teeth. I was alone and defenseless in big cat territory.
I paused to drink my water, laughing at myself for bringing that and leaving the knife I had in the glove compartment. Not that I’d have known what to do with it. Not really.
There was only one thing to do – push on; keep moving until I saw the lights of the camp. It had to be close now.
But in turning around to strain my eyes for our car, I had lost my bearings and all around me now was black. Thick and hot as tar.
I stumbled blindly on, aware that I may not even be moving in the right direction, though the ground under my feet felt dryer so it seemed I must be moving upwards at least. Not one star broke the perfect dark. The curving whoop of a hyena floated over the plain and a zebra barked its hysterical answer.
The back of my shirt was wet with sweat, and as I walked into the night it grew cold and clung to me, as though it too feared the worst. I thought of home, and of my parents: How they would hear about my death in this alien place. I recalled stories of men taken by leopards, of Tsavo’s man-eating lions and I picked up my pace, in a hurried shuffle.
I landed sharply on the hard packed earth.
I had not even had time to put my hands out.
It was my head that struck the ground hardest. I felt my eyebrow split and the thick blood roll down into my right eye.
I pushed myself up, touching the cut and adding gritty earth to the sticky mess. Now they can smell me I thought with sudden clarity, pushing myself to my feet more quickly than I might otherwise have done. I thought of a fact I had once heard about how a shark can smell one drop of blood in thousands of litres of water. I wondered if a lion or leopard could do the same in the air. I loped ahead, sure I had now lost my bearings entirely.
Was I imagining that? I felt rather than heard the presence. Something behind me. Not close, but within the radius of my senses. My ears strained. I had been thinking of wild cats, perhaps I had summoned one in my imagination. Perhaps it was my heart thumping out the rhythm of my footfalls in my chest. Or perhaps there was a slight echo on the night air. I slowed my step.
There was a slight swish in the grasses some way behind me, to my right. I moved again.
For some time I heard nothing, though that was almost worse. Every molecule of mine stretched to prove a presence I was hoping was not there. I placed my feet as carefully, as silently as possible, whilst covering the ground as quickly as I could. Blood caked on the upper part of my cheek.
Then there it was again, in perfect unison with my own foot steps. A soundless matching of my pace.
No, there was something with me.
I thought then that I heard breath. Just one huff of hot breath slinking between the grasses. Hairs responded on my neck. I knew I must not run. Some random gem of a survival technique I had read or heard somewhere. I moved off quickly though, taking short quick steps. And sure enough, the padded echo followed.
This time the slight cracking of a leaf or twig confirmed that there was weight behind this animal and now my blood was booming in my ears as I fought desperately to quiet my breath and keep my feet from stopping still in terror, or – worse – breaking into a terrified sprint. A race I knew, without exception, I would lose.
On, on I walked. My every step echoed by the almost silent pads of feline feet. I had no idea what species, but I knew it was a cat.
The rest happened all at the same time.
In front of me a sea of lights, for a moment my addled mind thought of cats eyes shining in the darkness, but it had to be the camp.
No time for the relief to flood my adrenaline drenched veins, though.
From behind, a mighty roar shattered the night.
I threw myself forward, hoping to avoid the invisible predator. Imagining muscle sinew, claws sinking into flesh and teeth tearing. I assumed the scream that went up was my own voice, and I hit the ground ashamed, still waiting for the impact, but the sounds were all around me. Spitting. Squealing. Ripping.
It took some moments to understand that I felt no pain myself.
I was up and running, skidding and bouncing down towards the camp with an instinct I had no idea that I possessed. I am not sure it would have caught me then, even if it had been in pursuit.
I burst into the camp and slid to a stop beside the camp fire. Wide eyes and the bottoms of beer filled glasses looked down at me for a moment.
“What the -?”
“Are you ok?”
“What happened? – you’re bleeding!”
Everyone talked at once and I could process nothing.
“Lion!” I managed.
“Is Ali..? Oh God!”
“No, she’s fine… I think,” I answered, pulling myself guiltily to a sitting position now. “I left her at the vehicle. Stuck.” I panted. “We got stuck in mud.”
“So you walked?” Everyone stared again now, incredulous.
“Yes,” I said, drawing myself up now, proud of my bravery, despite my embarrassing entrance.
“What were you thinking?” I read their faces clearly now, they were not impressed, they were amazed… by my stupidity.
“I…I…” I could not finish.
“We’d better get Ali. Mark, grab the truck keys from the bar!” They hussled into to two large vehicles, throwing tow ropes and a spare tyre into the back and I stepped meekly into the back seat of the first.
As we climbed the ridge I went through it all again. No one spoke. But as we reached the top I broke the silence. “Here, can you just pause a second, shine your headlights there.”
The vehicle reversed and turned a little to the right. Our yellow spot lights were met instantly by yellow eyes. A golden cold that assessed us coolly and then returned to tearing at its prey. A large, fat zebra. The red of its insides in stark contrast to its sharp black and white stripes. It’s eyes were open, dull and glassy. The lion shook blood drops from its mane and continued, dismissing us entirely.
“You were lucky,” breathed Matt from the driving seat. And we drove on.
Just minutes later we approached the truck. An abandoned carcass, marooned. It was so quiet it did not seem that Ali could be there. What had I done? Would she have tried to walk as well? Or could something have taken her while she waited?
But as our lights lit the inside from the edge of the swampy mess, I saw her blonde head lift from the back seat.
“You took your time!” she yelled.
“Next time I’m sending you!” I grinned.