ADay 3 continues…
This is the part I’ve been dreading to write about.
It’s almost 6pm and we are given a quick meal since we might only be returning after 9. You can’t predict if the lions will catch someone. I’m nervous. I have a soft heart for animals and I really don’t want to do this but I want to. It’s like I’m two people this whole weekend. I can hardly get the food past the knots in my stomach. Then it’s off to orientation and the guide explains the rules for the night encounter. These lions are almost two years old. Three males and one female from the same litter. Up to now, they have great kill rates. Taking down big game like zebra almost every time they go hunting. The guide is beaming with pride while talking about these lions. For them to be raised by humans but still be able to hunt this well means they are well on their way to being wild lions. He also prepares us for the possibility that they might not catch anything toning just like in the wild. This might be a park but all game roam free and the handlers don’t tie impala to a tree for the lions. The lions have to do this on their own. He also explains that this will be bloody and there will be tears (he looks at me for this one, he’s not wrong either). He tells us to hold on tight because we go where the lions go and at their speed. It will get bumpy and rough and scary is what I take away from this.
We are off and my heart is in my throat. I’ve made a grave mistake doing this. I don’t want to see lions take down anything. I don’t like this at all. We get to the enclose and I nearly shit myself. These lions are huge and the handlers get off the bakkie in the night to open the door for them. The guide explains that these four tend to pick a fight with the ladies in the enclose next to them so the handlers have to get between them and run them into the bush or they won’t go hunting until the fight is done. Can I get a “Hell Yes!” for the handlers with balls of steel? Again it goes to show you how deeply these guys are invested in these lions. As the bakkie starts to move, the lions take their time getting to this hunting business. The one handler scolds the boys for being lazy and gets off to walk behind them to make sure they don’t take a nap in the long grass. It’s so dark that the stars start to illuminate everything. All you hear is the bakkie and the handlers talking to the lions. Husband touches my arm and directs my attention to my left side. Less than an arm’s length is the lioness walking next to the bakkie. She’s not really focused on anything, just going for a stroll.
Every now and again these massive brown shapes emerge out of the darkness next to the bakkie. It’s like dolphins swimming with a boat but these things can probably take my head off if they wanted to. The lioness moves in front of the bakkie and I can see her clearly in the headlights. Suddenly, her whole body tenses up. You can see the switch flip and she is in full hunting mode. The handler jumps up next to me and from here everything happens really fast. She’s off and so are the three boys. We go after her at terrifying speeds and burst into the bush like we are trying to win a rally. She’s gone but wildebeest are running for their lives past the bakkie. My adrenalin is pumping and I see handlers running past the bakkie into the darkness just as she comes lunging out of the bush at a young wildebeest and takes him down. I don’t have the language skills to describe the sound that she and the wildebeest were making. Two of her brothers come charging to help with the kill, the other brother has taken off after the mother wildebeest and the handlers (I would later learn) went after him to stop him. They teach the lions you only kill what you need and what you can eat. One young wildebeest is enough for tonight.
I am in tears just as the guide said I would be. They are still young lions and it takes them forever to kill the wildebeest. His cries still haunt me and even now, more than a week later, I cry as I’m typing this. It’s not that they killed him that bothers me, everything must eat and lions eat other animals. It’s that he suffered so long that made it the hardest thing I had to witness. The fourth brother comes back and between the four of them, they reduce the wildebeest to skin and bones in less than a half hour. The guide and the handlers are over the moon. These are their babies that can now hunt for themselves. They are beaming with pride and I hear them talking about the cubs father and how he was such a power house hunter. I can’t move my legs. I’m paralyzed by the fear, the shock and the adrenaline. My legs feel like they are made of stone and I’m shaking all over.
The guide explains that we now have to run the lions off the kill for the handlers to maintain their dominance over the lions. Lucky for me a second vehicle has arrived from the lodge with volunteers who wanted to see the lions they work with, be awesome. If it wasn’t for the second vehicle, the kill would have to go on our bakkie back to the enclosure. That would have been too much for me at that point. The handlers run with the lions just like a fully formed pride would do and I’m in awe of these men. They do this every night and they do it with so much pride. They really do care about saving lions, it’s not just a job and they work really hard at it. To me, guys like them are heroes.
As we drive back, the shock starts to wear off and I look up at the starts. I know in that moment that I am forever changed. I will never look at anything the same way again. Something has been shaken loose within me and I wish I could hug Mother Nature and tell her what an awesome bitch she is. I am now even more in love with Africa and committed to helping preserve the animals we share this amazing place with. It’s strange to say this but it was a spiritual experience seeing those lions do what lions do best. Nothing looks the same after this. Trees are not just trees, each one is unique and beautiful. Each animal is unique and has its own personality, each flower looks more beautiful, everything has and energy that I somehow never notice until we drove back to the lodge. Even my faith has been given a good shake and I’m not sure if I can keep believing the way I always did. I’ll have to sit down and think about all of this for a bit.
I want to thank all the people at Antelope Park from the guides to the cleaners, for the work they do (very hard work), for being friendly and helpful even at 6 am and for being part of one of the most amazing experiences of my life. If I knew about their volunteer program when I finished school, I would have been off like a flash. You really should go and have a look, donate something or share with a friend who might want to volunteer. It will change you forever.
Thank you for following my story. This is the end for this adventure but we are planning many more so don’t stay away too long or you might miss something.