Wondering Where the Lions Are

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996

Wondering Where the Lions Are

The Goal: Encountering Zimbabwe's legendary wildlife. The Method: Authentic safariing, on battered foot through prickly bush. The Result: Well, now that you ask...

Gavin Ford, one of Zimbabwe's legendary hunter guides, has stared down a lion--a young female that came upon him almost without a sound when he was tucked into his sleeping bag and drifting off to sleep beneath a bush--and he says, "What struck me most was the little pink at the base of the whiskers and the black flecks in the eyes." Gavin looks like someone who would say that. He wears khaki shorts, a khaki shirt, and a wide-brimmed khaki hat; beneath the khakis his skin is white, and where it's exposed it's ruddy, and he has a reddish mustache, alert hazel eyes, and little crow's feet--the product of squinting at the African sun for four decades. His voice has a quality possessed only by the truly cool. Even lions can hear it. The trick with a lion, Gavin says, is "how you talk to it--it's not what you say, it's the tone of voice." If the cat keeps coming, "you have a second or two to respond." Gavin has never had to shoot a lion, though he's been charged at 50 meters by a lioness protecting her cubs.

Gavin's idea of a safari is to go out among the predators on foot. Occasionally he has compromised this approach, like the time he took some Japanese out in a Land Rover to look for buffalo. It was a bad trip for Gavin. "We'd see an animal," he recalls, "and they'd say, 'Buffaro! Buffaro!' No, it's an impala. Everything we saw, they asked, 'Can you eat it?' They didn't want to see game, just to photograph it. When I asked if they wanted to walk, they said, 'Why? Is the truck broken?' It was sad, man. They didn't get it."

Gavin gets it. That's why he's been hired to lead The Hunters and the Hunted, which the San Francisco-based outfitter Geographic Expeditions promotes as a journey into "the unfiltered Africa...an extremely rare, hard-core, expeditionary safari in the oldest style"--hiking, carrying sleeping bags, and camping beside watering holes under the stars of western Zimbabwe. "You'll have just a fire and a ring of thorn bushes between you and the animals," a woman at Geographic Expeditions explains when I inquire about the trip. The company's literature puts heavy emphasis on the animals. We will do five days in Matopos National Park, an area with "the highest concentration of black eagle, leopard, and rhino in the world," and five days in the vastness of Hwange National Park, with "more than 40,000 elephant" and plenty of "cape buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, sable, antelope, cheetah, wild dog, lion, and leopard," not to mention "400 species of bird."

It's the prospectus writer's casual use of singulars to describe such abundant quantities of game that wins me over. There's going to be so much game that we can consider the spectacle as one big animal. We're going to see the beast of all beasts--on its own terms.

The amalinda lodge, where the expedition first gathers, is on the cushy side of bushy. The brochure has warned me that this luxurious camp, built dramatically into a boulder-strewn granite hump of the Matopo Hills, "has its own waterhole and we will have the opportunity to sip sundowners while watching the animals congregate." Not exactly "hard-core," but I'm a sport, so I've got my game-watching binoculars at the ready, and I'm nursing a powerful thirst. Only there is no watering hole, and there are no animals, nor are there cocktails. Instead we convene for the late afternoon in a dusty parking lot, there to gear up for the trail ahead. Gavin distributes plastic containers--"baskets," he calls them--full of rations and instructs us to load the stuff into our packs.

We had been led to believe that the guides would carry and cook our food, but this is clearly a more authentic arrangement. I jettison the bulk and ballast of my urban life--underwear, a change of pants, spare socks, toilet kit, a novel--and heft a soggy wheel of gouda, a fat and oily salami, a tin of sardinelike fish called "pilchards in tomato sauce," and a bunch of dried brown sticks that I take to be firewood until Gavin explains that this is the local delicacy known as biltong, dried meat. He produces a knife and whittles off a chip. Chewing, I experience a startlingly clear memory of that brief period in early childhood when I ate soap.

As we pack what we will eat, Gavin settles in to describe what might eat us. Leopards are the only predators in Matopos, he says, but leopards suffer from shyness. The nine-foot, super-toxic black mamba, identifiable by its long, coffin-shaped head and by the dark lining of its mouth, has a more sociable nature. "Curious fellows," Gavin says, "one of the few snakes that comes to check you out. I hope we do see some. He'll stand right up about two feet high in front of you, very imposing. You have to stand rock-still, and eventually he'll go away."

One of my safari mates, a middle-aged, marathon-running divorcee from Seattle named Diane, asks if they bite. "If you move, they bite," Gavin tells her. "There's nothing to be done. You die painfully of cardiac arrest."

"You die?" Diane's eyes are unwholesomely wide.

"I've never had anybody bitten on a trail," Gavin says, and blithely moves on to the subject of spitting cobras. "They spit in your eyes with great accuracy. You can use anything to wash out the poison. You can urinate in the eyes."

If you're alone, I suppose, you need only stand on your head for treatment, unless of course you're already suffering from tick fever--"severe dehydration," Gavin reports, with the comforting afterthought, "not very fatal."

Suddenly his voice acquires a note of extra gravity. "Our number one problem," he says, "will be grass seeds. The spear grass is very bad this time of year. These little barbs come out and work into you. A bad seed can be crippling."

The hat-high grass is indeed rather unfriendly as we wade into it, shortly after dawn, near a place called Wona Hill. The spear grass seeds take the shape of tiny harpoons, designed to snag socks and needle forward, seeking flesh. The good thing about walking doubled over, plucking frantically at your ankles, is that it enhances your ability to study the ground for signs of wildlife. And soon we have our first game-related sighting of the adventure: a promising riddle of narrow holes in the dirt. I freeze in eager preparation for colloquy with a mamba, feeling grateful that we are accompanied by a Kalashnikov-toting Zimbabwean game scout. But Gavin is ever fearless, squatting and wiggling a finger in one of the holes before naming with firm authority the species we've encountered: "Gerbils."

By early afternoon we've proceeded over some giant rock piles into a narrow valley where a streak of smoky, greenish water trickles reluctantly over algae-slick stones. Gavin declares this fluid potable. It does taste sweet. The next morning, though, Jeff--the teenage nephew of Marc Payne, our on-trail representative from Geographic Expeditions--peels off into the bushes with fantastic gastric pains. Gavin urges him to swallow more stream water--to ward off dehydration. Jeff's resilient. By the evening he's got his color back, and he's writing in his journal. "Today," he records, "we saw two sables and a fuzzy caterpillar, not much."

I missed the caterpillar. But I've seen a vervet monkey and several barking baboons on far-off rocks, a few warthogs, and an African rock python high up in a tree, and at night I heard the slaughterhouse screams of a bush baby somewhere up in the canopy. Not much, as Jeff says--hardly sweat equity for the eight-hour days of bushwacking.

But the the sables were impressive, two handsome bull antelopes with long, arching, spiraled horns, galloping toward us across a wide meadow; their manes blew back with their onrush, their hoofs drummed the bone dry dirt, and for a moment, as they hurtled past, we could hear the wind in their nostrils.

And there's no arguing with the sunset on our second night. The air is golden, and the bare granite of the eccentric globular hills surrounding us is flamed with rosy hues. Beneath a silhouetted cactus tree on a nearby hummock, a single baboon stalks slowly against the purpling sky. There's even a nice sort of music in the air, a distant chiming that I can't quite identify and that I take to be the otherworldly spirit of the bush, until Gavin breaks my reverie with the simple explanation, "Donkey bells."

Turns out we're actually just a short distance from a farm, and in the morning, after a brief march, we come out on a well-traveled road just in time to view a public bus rattling by. A row of curious faces appears in the bus windows, staring down on the strange spectacle of nine white people carrying heavy burdens as if this were the middle of nowhere.

By the time we break for lunch, the memory of the bus has sharpened the challenge of reconciling our self-imposed trials of the quasi bush with the dearth of game. Mightn't we be better off producing some tokens and hopping public transport ourselves? We've just spent two hours climbing through a game-free maze of sharp and nasty branches in order to descend a cliff composed of boulders, loose dirt, nettles, and spear grass, and once again we have come out on a road. The legs of the women--who all insanely persist in wearing shorts--look like photos from an Amnesty International report on torture victims.

At midday, we all squat in a patch of spear grass, munching our lunchtime salami, feeling, I imagine, a little like Augustus Earle, the hardy nineteenth-century British illustrator who sailed with Darwin on the Beagle. As a young man, Earle got himself stranded for a spell on the island of Tristan da Cunha, 1,500 miles off the Cape of Good Hope, population 15 or so. "I am so many thousands of miles from every human haunt, and separated from all my friends and family," Earle wrote. "But I force myself to struggle against dismal thoughts, unwilling that my comrades (who do every thing in their power to console me) should suspect how much I suffer."

Our group's own Jeff Payne is keeping a journal to rival Augustus Earle's. Back home, in Odessa, Ontario, where his father runs a funeral parlor, Jeff is the lead guitarist of one of his high school's most popular bands, Suburban Windpipe, and in his diary he writes, "I'm always thinking of home--and my family--and pets and especially my guitar that I have probably forgotten how to play. And I haven't seen any lions or elephants yet, Colleen, but the first one I see I will think of you--In the meantime I hope Suburban Windpipe Rocks On."

In the absence of more exotic predators, Gavin has become the primary source of entertainment in the bush. One afternoon, I ask him if he believes in God. "People try to tell you all this evolved," he says. "Y'know, I have a degree in bioscience, so I've been fed all that stuff. They tell you that chemicals met up at the right moment at such a temperature to form green algae. Crap, man. I only became a Christian after studying, and it's a gut-feeling thing, no lights and flashing clouds. Adaptive behavior and evolution--yeah, sure. But how did it all get here in the first place? The detail is too phenomenal."

I ask him if he thinks nature is fair. "No," he says. "People get this idea from childhood books of Mother Nature as bosomy in a dress, all nice. That's the Bambi syndrome. That's rubbish."

In his diary, Jeff seems to agree about nature's unfairness. Of one day's excursion, he writes: "We had to wake up at 5 a.m. and set off for our hike. We didn't see a thing. We managed to make it up a hill and look out but we didn't see a thing. We made it to our campsite around 10 or so, had breakfast, and went hiking for a couple hours without our packs. We saw a snake and a buffalo and then we saw some crocs we went back had lunch went back out saw nothing came back, had dinner, talked and went to bed."

My own preferred remedy for passing the down time between wildlife sightings is to write to loved ones. I've brought along a number of postcards, all of which boast handsome photos of the big game we're not seeing. And why aren't we seeing it? Gavin is a fantastically knowledgeable naturalist and can't carry on a conversation without interrupting himself every minute or two to name a plant or a bug or the singer of a distant birdsong. Why can't he find us any game bigger than a baboon? "Because there isn't much around here," he says during lunch one day. "This part of Matopos is more a nature reserve. The game's mostly in another area. What we're doing here is having a proper kind of nature hike. If we see game, that's like an extra something special."

Stoically gnawing a plug of biltong, Gavin stands up. "OK," he says, "we're all rejuvenated from that little break."

Gavin is wrong. The group stays seated. As Marc Payne loves to say, "This is Africa," and as the brochure made perfectly clear, everything is subject to change. Gavin echoes a similar philosophy, though he is not actually an employee of Geographic Expeditions, but a freelance guide for the company's Zimbabwe-based subcontractor, Londa Mela. After some consultation about the relative merits of different flavors of disappointment, a minor mutiny animates our weary crew, and Gavin agrees to radio Amalinda Lodge for pickup, right here, first thing in the morning. As Jeff records in his diary, "Everybody was finding the trip rather pointless--we didn't really think of it as a safari--we didn't see any animals."

In the morning, the safari is reversed: Trucks come and take us to the animals, which stand in a wide field beneath a viewing pavilion at a parking lot in the "game park" section of Matopos. Two little girls, on a family motoring holiday, are crowded in beside us at the railing, squealing, "I can see it, I can see it," which must be reassuring to their parents since there is no shortage of it: several rhino, a family of three giraffe, a squad of warthog, some kudu, a wildebeest, and a generous helping of impala. And there is more of everything along the roadside, including a troop of zebra, which possess the mysterious power to be able to look at one another without getting dizzy.

Back at Amalinda, we're spinning from the sudden orgy of postcard-perfect wildlife. We've camped in big canvas house-tents beside a dammed-up stream--the missing waterhole, after all. Gavin seems almost contrite that finding the game was so effortless. We should really be out in the bush, still hoping and hiking, sopping up a mess of gluey soy meal crowned with pilchards in tomato sauce. But Amalinda has put out a lot of well-iced beer and a liter of whiskey; there's an outdoor shower with a brilliant array of stars overhead; a campfire crackles beside a linen-draped dining table, and over the cook fire, a half-dozen sweating black men--all of whom Gavin calls Cookie--are readying cauldrons of chicken, fluffy rice, and fresh vegetables.

Nobody is actually complaining about all this sudden comfort, but Gavin still feels compelled to explain that such soft-core treatment is not his fault. "This whole idea of wild Africa as limitless and infinite is over," he says, sadly. "It's history. You have a park boundary. You set the numbers of elephants it can hold. You kill the rest. You're managing animals. It has to be done. Elephants have wiped out a lot of this land. We have 30,000 elephants. It's an excess. We have to cull them."

What Gavin is building up to is a defense of hunting and an explanation of why he himself stopped taking tourists out on licensed hunts nearly ten years ago. Nobody has challenged him on the point, but he knows the way the wind is blowing, and the futility of our hike, coupled with the concession of just motoring up to the game today as if at a zoo, amounts to an obituary for the "unfiltered Africa" that he grew up in and that our outfitter promised he would find for us again. "It's the saddest thing in the world, killing an elephant," Gavin says. "I've seen a big, hardened guy cry when he's killed an elephant. The guy suddenly realizes, shucks, I've broken the cookie jar, and I can't put it back together."

Next day, a long drive north through flat bush brings us into a corner of the immense Hwange Park, a sanctuary the size of Connecticut, famous among safari buffs as a place where one can sometimes see the Big Five--lion, rhino, hippo, giraffe, and elephant--all in one spot. Shredded trees and acres of trampled grass along the roadside reflect elephant damage, and sure enough, when we come to our campsite, we find two large tuskers standing in an adjacent field, cropping up huge mouthfuls of weeds. They stand a hundred feet away, their vast ears flapping, fanning the cooling evening air back over their dusty flanks. Their heavy tusks slope nearly to the ground; at their bases, the ivory is thick as schoolyard flagpoles, warping the beasts' long, floppy mouths into tipsy grins.

When in Hwange, Gavin totes a Belgian-made .458 bolt-action rifle. "A good gun," he says, "muzzle velocity 2,100 feet per second. It can go right through an engine block." The presence of the rifle symbolizes the imminent promise of intimate wildlife encounters, but the sound of our group marching through the bush has an even greater stopping power, and Gavin's rifle sees action only as a pointer. "See," he says, taking aim at lion prints in the dirt, "there were three of them here just ten minutes ago, and they ran like hell."

The rainy season is supposed to end here in early April, but we are treated to a fabulous thunderstorm in early May. With so much water around, the animals can afford to be on the defensive. "It's the wrong time of year for game viewing," Gavin finally says. He suggests we come back in late September or October, when the brutal heat and drought drive the stupefied animals to the waterholes en masse. Then again, he consoles us, "It's no good for walking that time of year."

Even now, in walking season, the scarcity of big game on the hoof has forced us to adopt a safari method not covered in the brochure: sitting still for half a day at a time and waiting for the absent game to come view us. And, after two long afternoons of staking out a waterhole, we're rewarded: a lone giraffe, stalking down to the water's edge, stopping repeatedly in a tense stance, on alert for predators or frustrated safari-goers. Perhaps it's the crocodile a few feet away that unnerves him, or some subtle scent beyond human range, but he's on display for barely a minute before he snaps upright and skips away.

Only the hippos that have set up housekeeping in the pond seem fearless. But who can envy their existence? They are born underwater, and spend their young lives trying not to get eaten by crocodiles. By day, they live submerged, allowing only the top halves of their monstrous heads to surface every ten minutes or so for a gasp of air and a wary peek around. Watching them bob up and down like this for several hours on end, I feel a kind of sympathetic depression come over me and ask Gavin whether hippos ever commit suicide.

"No, man," he says. "These are animals with extremely small brainpans."

We humans have no such consolation, and after three more days of long marches and no game, several members of our crew are again moved to revolt, and another truck is called to get us out. House-tents are waiting for us in a parking lot at Robins Camp, one of Hwange's compounds. There are other tourists there, not The Hunters and the Hunted backpackers, but tailgate campers with rental cars, couples and families from America, Germany, South Africa, even Zimbabwe. They wear clean clothes and they eye our bush-grimed khakis and unshaven, sunburned, outback looks with undisguised admiration. "See a lot?" they ask. They have. Everybody here has had impressive game sightings: a herd of 100 or more elephants, 16 lions feasting on a buffalo kill, a pair of cheetahs strolling through a campsite.

Exhausted by the sheer preponderance of these stories, I decide to hitch into Victoria Falls to catch a plane home. The rest of our group spent the last two days motoring after game in an open truck. Maybe I was too impatient, because as I backpacked in the approved hard-core spirit to the airport (I hiked until I waved down a taxi), my fellow safari-goers saw their lions after all. They were right there by the roadside as the group drove out of Hwange. I'm told that everyone had an excellent view of them from the truck.

Philip Gourevitch wrote about Cambodia in the September 1995 issue.
Photographs by Rob Howard

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