“I don’t like it,” Erich said, “when you look at my shoe that way.”
He looked at the lion. The lion looked at him.
“I really don’t like it at all big guy.”
The lion continued to look at Erich and then, casually, turned and sauntered away.
There are many game reserves in South Africa that stock their land with the appropriate beasts. They have the South African Big Five (lions, elephants, cape buffalo, rhinos and leopards – the five deadliest land mammals in the country), they have giraffes and hippos (the actually deadliest mammal) and kudus and impalas* and warthogs, most of them in their own enclosures where they are fed meat diets.
Ngara is not one of those reserves.
It is a private piece of land entirely within Kruger national park, and it does not have a single fence to keep anything in, or out. Whatever you find there, perched in a four by four with no sides or roof, is a wild beast.
Like, say, that lion. We met him on the first day in Kruger, and watched his pride as the sun set over them. They flopped side to side, yawning and grooming themselves, a clutch of overgrown house cats lounging in the dying sun of a dusty afternoon. Then they decided to pass over to another clearing, just the other side of our jeep. One by one four females and a male sauntered past our vehicle, slack skin thick with fur rolling over sharp shoulders as they swayed past.
Two thoughts about these lions:
1. Lions are bigger than I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t know how big a lion was. Maybe they’re far away in zoos. Maybe because I watched the Lion King a lot and they really play with proportion in that film. Hornbills are not nearly that big. The factual inaccuracies of Disney extend beyond the fact that warthogs don’t sing and I, for one, feel betrayed. Nothing prepared me for lions being so, well, so big.
2. They were a foot away from me. I could have reached out and touched them. In fact, the part of me that has to stand far back from high ledges and subway platform edges nearly did. I leaned away. I don’t know how a lion would take to being scratched behind the ears, but it would not, I don’t think, go well. (This was tested to an even more extreme limit two days later when we watched the lions return from the hunt and call their young – five cubs came spilling and sliding across the grass a yard in front of us. I am making nothing up.)
And another thing: When I saw these lions, slowly slinking past my knees, I’d been in South Africa for, I think, not quite 11 hours. And I’d already seen a giraffe bend down, nobly knee knocked backwards, for a drink, flicking his head to get the blood back down his long neck before he stood. And a mother leopard call to her daughter. And warthogs nibbling the grass three feet from where I had tea. And an elephant tearing a tree apart. And a dazzle of zebras grazing by the road. In fact, the lions were the last step in our accidentally succeeding in seeing all the big five within four hours of getting to Kruger.
SOUTH AFRICA! You guys. South Africa!
A LEOPARD CALLED HER DAUGHTER AND SHE CAME.
A GIRAFFE DRINKING.
The lions trapped us for a little. We suddenly found ourselves between a pride of lions and their seven cubs, animatronic stuffed animals who could not have been real. The cubs and the second male had just arrived, and immediately collapsed to nap in awkward piles of limbs and fur. Another thing about lions you might not have known: they sleep a lot. In fact, so far as I can tell, there are only two major strategies for survival in the South African bush: eating constantly, or eating once and then napping for a week. I can really see the appeal of both.
Eventually, when it seemed like the cubs weren’t going to join the lionesses, and that everyone involved seemed totally uninterested in our actions, Erich started the engines. Three or four of the cubs looked up, a little startled, before deciding that we were no fun. The 4×4 creaked gently past them and onto the road. The sun set. Tom, the spotter, handed out beers. The unfamiliar stars of the Southern Sky came out and Erich explained how to see the Southern Cross and Leo. A warm breeze blew across the clearings as we rumbled back to the lodge, carrying the dry, hot smell of dust and burnt grass. The night was filled with calls I have never heard before.
Our first day in South Africa came to a close.
*Whose name I could never quite remember – I could only think “it’s like an antelope but it’s not’ and then the word “cantaloupe” would pop up and I would get stuck there, staring at a herd of cantaloupe.