My heart is thumping as I sip a glass of wine next to five large, powerful lions. Dusk is settling, the temperature is dropping and the cats are restless. Maybe they're starting to think about a snack, and here are four of us in an open Land Rover looking like tasty hors d'oeuvre. My shaking fingers fumble with camera adjustments. Rio, our guide, nonchalantly opens another bottle of wine.
We are in Ongava Game Reserve, bordering Namibia's renowned Etosha National Park. We spent a breathtaking afternoon, seeing the best of Africa's animals. A herd of elephants ambled along a dry, dusty riverbed. An ostrich raced across the sparse landscape. Three white rhinos foraged, huge and ponderous. Zebras, a tangle of attractive black-and-white patterns, drank at a water hole next to delicate springbok and long-horned oryx.
As the sun settled lower in the western sky, our thoughts turned from big game to sundowners, a delightful safari tradition. Rio finds a scenic spot, pulls a fold-up table from some secret compartment in the Land Rover and sets it with a colourful tablecloth. He then unloads a cooler and magically produces appetizers and drinks.
We had parked about five metres from a pride of lions and Rio, with a sly grin, said, “It is best if you stay in the vehicle, are very quiet and don't make any sudden movements.”
He proceeded to calmly rummage in the cooler, while our attention was riveted on the immense felines.
Now, I grip a pleasant South African sparkling wine while my travel companions hold gin and tonics. A thousand thoughts, mostly gruesome, flash through my mind. I hope we will safely return for dinner at our tented camp.
Although my “tent” has canvas walls, it resembles a large hotel suite, with hot water, flush toilet, a fluffy king-size bed and a deck overlooking the camp's water hole. It feels like Hemingway in Africa, and I desperately wish to see it again.
We aren't allowed to walk about the camp after dark unless accompanied by an armed escort. Two nights ago, the escort explained that he has five shells for his shotgun.
“The first one I fire over the lion's head,” he said. “The other four are in case the lion is old and deaf and doesn't hear the first shot.” I thought the armed guard a bit melodramatic until Rio showed us infrared photos taken the previous night of lions prowling around the camp.
This morning, another guest excitedly described how he had looked out his window during the night and seen lions at the water hole. If I had known, I wouldn't have slept a wink.
Rio confirms we are sitting next to the very same lions. Gulp. We have no rifle and are totally defenceless. The lions are shaking off their daytime lethargy, sniffing the air, moving about, and are, no doubt, amazed that instead of having to chase down dinner, it has been delivered to them. I feel like a Namibian pizza.
Then, to my horror, a lioness stands up, looks me in the eye and starts to slowly walk toward me. She is 300 pounds of lithe, fluid motion, her muscles rippling, the epitome of confident power. I want to tell Rio to start the engine, to accelerate out of there, but no sound emerges. The lioness stops about one metre from the vehicle and stares at me. Then she yawns, walks about nine metres away and plops down with one of her sisters.
Casting frequent anxious looks behind us, we drive back to camp. And as we walk to our tents, I stick like glue to the armed escort. Who is dramatic now?
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