A Lion for Christmas

Our Lion

Watch the clip of the encounter here: https://youtu.be/3kKqbEuKXcE

On 25 December 2016 I had undoubtedly the most amazing experience of my entire life.  I grew up loving the bush and will take any opportunity I have to spend time in nature, so when I had the chance to go to the Kgalagadi for Christmas, I jumped at it.  Our family would spend two nights at Twee Rivieren and four nights at the community owned !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

The Kalahari is one of my favourite places in the world and !Xaus and its people, made me fall in love with it even more.  The lodge is owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities that had a historic land claim go their way in May 2002.  Everybody that works at the lodge comes from these two communities and the proceeds go back to the community to help its people. (Read more about  !Xaus lodge and its people at www.xauslodge.co.za)  From when we arrived, this special place pulls you into its warm embrace and even now that I’m back in Pretoria it hasn’t let go.

Upon arriving, our host Anthony told us that we could sleep with our doors and windows open despite the fact that the area is literally crawling with Spotted Hyenas and Lions.  He even mentioned to us that they sleep on their veranda some nights when it gets too hot.  With no fences, the veranda a very jumpable height and with my rampant imagination, this idea took some getting used to.  That night I fell asleep with a fresh Kalahari wind gently coming in through the open doors only to be woken up by the calls of Spotted Hyena magnified by the pan, sounding as if they were standing right beside my bed.  I pulled the covers up to under my chin and repeated to myself that ‘It’s fine, we’re not on the menu. It’s fine, we’re not on the menu.’   This didn’t help and my imagination soon got completely out of control with every sound or rustle outside sounding like Hyenas preparing to launch into my room.  I’m not normally afraid when I’m in the bush, but I have an unwavering respect for animals that kill other animals with their mouths.  My bravery was very short lived and I snuck up to the door closing it enough so only the Hyena’s snout could fit through.  Of course the Hyenas were never that close and nobody got eaten during the night.  I was very relieved to hear the next morning that everybody else felt the same way and had also closed their doors.

Christmas morning would be spent in a very non-traditional way, going for a walk through the area with three guides rather than handing out presents.  I was very excited as we would be accompanied by three local men, Kallie (Khomani San), Andries (Khomani San) and John (Mier).  We drove a short distance from the lodge and got out the vehicle getting ready to go for a short walk.  The aim of the morning walk is to learn about the medicinal plants, reading tracks and to gain a better understanding of how the Bushmen lived and hunted in this unforgiving landscape.  We were a mixed group of 15 people and nobody expected to see animals as we were focussing on tracks, spiders and plants.  It was while we were eating berries off a ‘Witgatwortel’ tree that a French member of our group said: ‘There is a lion’.  My first instinct was that this tourist is obviously confused, and that it is probably some kind of antelope.  The French lady was not mistaken and to all of our great shock and surprise, a giant black maned male lion walking in our direction.  At first I thought this was rather funny, until the gorgeous animal aimed itself in our direction.  I had often dreamed about this and had to tell myself that I’m not dreaming and that this is the real thing!  We were face to face with the second largest predatory cat on the planet.

Our guides stayed very calm and I immediately saw Kallie picking up a dry bush.   I remember thinking ‘What is he going to do with that? Stroke the lion on its head?’  John instructed us to stay calm, stick together and what-ever we do to ‘Not run’.  It was very clear that this massive animal was heading straight to us and I already had visions of how I was going to jump into a thorn bush right next to me, or alternatively just run faster than the slowest person in our group.  I could see my sister Marlise was also extremely worried as being on foot with a 250kg hungry lion walking in your direction was not really something any of us was mentally prepared for.  What was also more unnerving than anything was when guide Andries  said ‘It’s not the male you can see that you should be worried about, but rather the female you can’t.’  This was not really helping the situation but everybody stayed very calm trusting the three guides to get us out of this terrifying situation.  When it became clear the lion was not altering his course and he was within only 20 metres of us Andries calmly and almost expecting an answer from the big cat asked ‘Wat is jou storie?’ (What is your Story?).  John then instructed the other two men to set fire to the ‘besem bosse’ (the dry bush I mistook for stroking Simba on the head).  The dried bush caught fire very quickly and made a lot of smoke which immediately put off the big male and he quickly changed direction skulking into the distance.  We stayed on the little hill next to the ‘Witgatwortel’ tree waiting for the danger to pass, the berries we were eating a few minutes ago now long forgotten.  When the guides were happy that the male was far enough away and the female was nowhere to be seen we started making our way back to the vehicle after having a look at the massive tracks he left behind.

The reality of the situation has still not completely sunk in but what I appreciated most was the fact that the entire situation was handled without the need to use firearms.  The guides at !Xaus do not carry firearms and this shows the great respect they have for the animals they share a home with.  These people have lived in this harsh landscape for hundreds of years, hand in hand with predators that make most people weak at the knees.   I realised later that the reason for this very natural encounter is also because there has never been an unnatural relationship between the humans and predators in this environment.  No one has ever tossed a piece of meat over a fence or done anything remotely disturbing the natural respect between human and predator.  Here, humans have lived in a natural balance, respecting the animals and environment in a way the rest of the planet can learn from, with only a few hundred of the Khomani San people left this knowledge may be lost to us sooner than we think.

There has never been a need for firearms and when chatting to the guides and understanding their way of life, you can see that the presence of a firearm is the most unnatural thing imaginable in this balanced environment.  As long as the tourist trusts the guide the same way the guide trusts their own skillset, nothing will go wrong.  I feel very privileged to have been part of a situation that was dealt with in a natural way not involving violence.

That afternoon we visited the !Xaus cultural village where the oldest bushman there, Izak, told us that when he woke that morning seeing the tracks of his friend, the lion, he was happy because he knows the lion will share his meat with him.  The people here no longer live in the traditional way but they try to keep the culture alive in their children and also show the people that come to visit !Xaus, how life used to be for them.

The last two nights we received our second big gift when two big rainstorms hit the lodge bringing almost 30mm of rain, which is a lot in this arid landscape.  The rain would bring green grass, which would bring back the gemsbok and blue wildebeest which would in turn be food for the hungry lions, hyenas and other hungry predators.  A perfect circle of life.  Leaving a place like this to return to the day to day madness in the city is always hard, but it gives me great joy knowing while I am sitting here in front of my laptop the wind is still blowing over the dunes, the Red Hartbees is going to be at the water having its afternoon drink, the Hyenas will call in the dark African night and the graceful big cats will roam the dunes.

Last Sunset

The Kalahari gives unconditionally to those with open hearts and I have learnt so much in the small space of four days about myself, what is important in life and that respect is not earned but that every person, animal and situation should be treated with respect from the outset.  I am sure the meaning of life is locked up in the red dunes that surround this special place, just waiting for people with to visit it and share this precious gift.

If you would like to experience the magic that is !Xaus Lodge go to http://www.xauslodge.co.za/book-online