Wondering Where the Lions Are
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
Philip Gourevitch wrote about Cambodia in the September 1995 issue.
Copyright 1996, Outside magazine