“Have you ever stood in the bushveld on a moonless night, when it is so dark you can’t see your hands and only listen to the sounds—your ears compensate by hearing every nuance. I stood in the blackness with a ranger listening to a pride of lions just meters away. They were feeding on a giraffe they had caught earlier in the evening, and the feast was in full swing. The stench of blood and the giraffe’s stomach contents was overwhelming—the crunching of bones and slurping between the low growls was distinct. That night I grasped how completely disadvantaged as humans we are with predators, their senses are far more advanced than ours in the dark hours. Much like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, they see better, hear better, and have bigger teeth. ”
The Kalahari had been my stomping ground for years. I knew it well and loved the area, crisscrossing from South Africa to Botswana over several weeks. I would leave my bigger tent at one of the main fenced camps as a base and slip through to Botswana with just the necessary items I needed. A quick pop up tent that I could lift with one finger was perfect for these hot evenings on the Botswana side.
On this visit, I would have the chance to introduce the Kalahari to my sister, Jen and brother-in-law, Pierre. Their vehicle was perfect for the desert, a handsome Defender called Badger. For weeks we had been preparing, and I was delighted that they would finally get to experience this unique arid location. At first, I was worried that the heat would be too much for them, which could go over 40 degrees. But within hours, they had fallen in love with the desert.
After camping at one or two of the bigger camps in South Africa, the climax of the trip would be camping at Polentswa in Botswana. The campsite is unfenced, hardly any people with only five sites available. ‘My tree’, where I had camped several times before, has a view of the desert plains stretching across to meet the horizon. At sunset and sunrise, the skies fill with colour, a spectacular light show with the desert sounds coming to life.
With no fences, there is no protection and only common sense in not moving too far off from your tent. On the track, at the waterhole closest to our camp, we were lucky to see five cheetahs, a mother with her almost adult cubs. A good start for sure. Our campsite was a little way further down, and it was good to know they were in the vicinity.
‘Badger’ towed ‘Honey’, a fully equipped camper trailer with all the bells and whistles—my tree was about to be entirely inhabited. My mini tent was up in five seconds as I watched Pierre and Jen unpack and create an excellent, functional living area in the desert. Casually we spoke of the possibility of lions, in my experience, if there were cheetahs around, lions were not in the same location.
The sunset painted a glorious view as we finished dinner and got ready for bed. My small abode was a little off to the side under the tree, about five meters away from the camper trailer entrance. The day had been excellent and the following day was waiting to be unwrapped.
Night came, shrouded in her dark cloak. The lion roaring started, not too far I estimated as I lay listening. Again the haunting sound, and back—the call was closer and yet closer. I started sweating into my pillow, lying dead still and wondering how many there were? I called out softly to my sister, ‘How close do you think they are?” The loud sound of a roar ended the exchange.
I curled up not moving a limb, realising that the thin plastic of my tent was hardly protection enough. My heart was beating, and my pillow by this stage was soaked, the more I sweated, I wondered if the lions could smell my fear. One paw swipe and my cocoon would be in shreds. I knew Jen and Pierre were watching silently from their perched camper room. I could feel the sweat running through my hair on my scalp. I had never been more scared and frozen. I lost all concept of time and have no idea how long it was before it was silent.
Pierre was suddenly at my tent, dragging me to their canvas set up in a comedy of errors, and a sprint of trying to hold my sheet around me without any clothes. He had also grabbed my foam mattress, and we fell into the entrance of their camper in a heap. We had no idea where the lions were.
The following morning we found the two males at the waterhole, jousting with each other. They were in their prime and beautiful, with rippling muscles and power in matt gold. They were marking the area carefully with their scent to let others know this was their territory. With the morning light, we could laugh about the string of events. Jen said, “All I could think of, how was I going to explain it to Mom that a lion dragged you away?” A night we shan’t forget.
The males eventually left the waterhole and disappeared, and we gathered that as nomads they would move into the next territory down the Auob River. As the sun began to set, we decided the best option is to move my mini tent into the camper alcove. There I would have three sides partly protected by canvas. With good-nights we were off to bed and no sooner had we settled the roaring started again in the same pattern intervened by a wail of a jackal and another alarm call we still could not fathom. They were back.
Although scared, I didn’t feel as exposed—if they could smell me, I could smell them just as much. The roar of a lion can travel between eight to ten kilometres on the plains, and when right up close, the sound is epic and reverberates through your body. They were close enough to hear the quiet, subtle click that happens in the throat or chest before the roar—the same way an analogue clock switches cogs before sounding the alarm.
The third evening, they did not return as we lay ready and waiting. That was the last time I slept in the mini tent on the ground in an unfenced park. A fright-night or two, always remembered.
“The fear of the invisible is far worse than the fear of something tangible—you can see it, smell it, hear it or touch it. The unseen is unknown, unnerving, and you never see it coming.”