As the low, rumbling growl reverberated from the bushes, we froze in our tracks, every sense on red alert. The growlso deep and powerful that it seemed to emanate from the earth itselfwasn't a threat, really, just a reminder. "I am the king of beasts, and I stand at the top of the food chain around here. For now, I choose not to kill youas long as you don't do anything stupid."
We'd been tracking the pair of lions on foot in Zimbabwe's Matusadona National Park for almost an hour. And although we caught only occasional obscured glimpses of themthe closest from perhaps 200 feet awaythe thrill of the chase and the adrenaline rush of our discreet encounter were something no checklist-toting game-viewers could ever experience from the safety of their minivan.
Quite simply, everything changes when you are on foot, on the animals' turf, playing by their rules. (Of course, we held the ultimate trump card in this game: a .458 Mauser rifle in the hands of Steve Carey, our hunky blond Zimbabwean safari guide. "It'll stop an elephant, "he assured us. "And the one behind him.") Shortly after the lion encounter, we dialed down the adrenaline meter and lolled silently under an acacia tree for an hour, waiting to see what might walk by. Nothing did, but Steve suddenly jumped up and said, "I heard something. Let's go." Ten minutes later we came upon an antelope, skin still warm to the touch, its neck crushed by a leopardanother reminder that we were puny interlopers in a land where the beasts still rule.
Our safari was organized by Graeme Lemon Walking Safaris, whose trips can be booked in the U.S. through African Portfolio (800.700.3677; www.africanportfolio.com). Cost is $210-$240 per day, plus $50 for boat transfers to and from Kariba. Accommodations are roomy tents equipped with cots.