SURROUNDED BY LIONS: A Rip-Roaring Safari

“Take no liberties with game animals.” We giggle when we read the sign at the entrance to Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park.

At Lake Manyara I catch my first sight of Africa’s wild game, emerging into clearings from layers of green foliage: giraffes, zebras, impalas, and extended families of baboons.

Extended families of baboons live at Lake Manyara.

One enormous bull elephant stands a few yards from our van. As we stop to stare – our tiny, vulnerable heads peaking out from under our raised roof – the elephant stares back, his tiny eyes a blank of ancient inscrutability. But he unfolds the possibility of a mighty rage, as his ears expand, spreading like wings. He stomps the ground with his tree trunk leg, raising a dust cloud – letting us know he’s bigger and badder than we are, and ready to throw some weight into the argument. If we weren’t inside a van, I’d wet my drawers. I doubt anyone would take liberties with this game animal.

He unfolds the possibility of a mighty rage, as his ears expand, spreading like wings.

My friend Karen and I have just started our camping safari: five days and four nights with fellow travelers Catherine and Guillaum, from Australia. The safari is costing me just $75 a day. Safari companies often make deals during low season. Some also rip tourists off. We have it both ways: our company promised that our guide knew all about animals. He knows how to point and say, “Wildebeest. Vervet monkey. Dik-dik.” Our van’s windshield is cracked, but our engine works – we’ve met one couple whose vehicle broke down for two days. And our tent smells like urine… but our camp food is good.

The second day we walk to a village of Maasai cattle herders. It’s a small, dusty encampment of four or five huts. As we approach, a toddler runs screaming at the sight of our white faces.

The mud-huts are humble, and I can barely squeeze my fat Western backside through the slender entryways – the Maasai are very slim. Inside, it’s so dark my eyes never do adjust. There’s just enough room for a woman to work at the tiny hearth fire, and a corner where two people might sleep.

I can barely squeeze my fat Western backside through the slender entryways to the mud-huts of the Maasai.

The Maasai wrap themselves in red and black cloths, and married women wear brightly beaded collars. Both boys and girls are circumcised at 14. (When practiced on girls, this is often known as female genital mutilation.) Then they remain outdoors for several weeks, after which, if no hungry animals take liberties with them, they’re allowed back inside their huts.

On the left: the brightly beaded collar identifies this young woman as married. On the Right: these boys are undergoing the rite of circumcision.

The children smile in wonder as Catherine blows up blue and yellow balloons and hands them out. She feels guilty when one boy’s balloon pops inside a hut and the deafening noise shocks him into quiet tears. I show photos of my family to an elder. He looks on in curious silence, nodding intently, as if my pictures might hold the answers to life’s mysteries.

The next day we drive into Ngorongoro Crater. The crater floor is 20 kilometers across, containing a soda lake surrounded by grassland. This supply of water and food attracts an amazing variety of wildlife. We spot a couple of hyenas picking the bloody bones of an unidentifiable kill, and thousands of wildebeest, buffalo, and antelope.

We quickly become jaded. “There’s an animal! What is it?!” someone exclaims, only to hear Catherine’s dismissive response, “Oh, it’s only a zebra. Seen it.”

Shrieks of horror and delight go up when a vervet monkey leaps into the van, right past my face, grabs a banana from my seat, and leaps back out. More screams rise as he returns to grab my cookies for dessert.

The next day we enter the Serengetiendless grasslands dotted with the graceful umbrellas of acacia trees. There we see the big cats: a rushed sexual encounter between a lioness and her minuteman mate, a lone leopard twined in a tree, and a pair of lounging cheetah brothers. As we approach the cheetahs, Karen whispers, “Listen! You can hear them purring.”

In the Serengeti, endless grasslands are dotted with the graceful umbrellas of acacia trees.

As we approach the cheetahs, Karen whispers, “Listen! You can hear them purring.”

How quickly one’s perspective can change. When we return to camp, our wide-eyed cook, William, babbles excitedly in Swahili, “Simba! blah blah blah… simba!” In case you didn’t see The Lion King, simba means lion. A pair has just walked through our camp, forcing William to jump into the rafters of the picnic shelter to escape. I cast my eyes around the shelter, unable to figure out how he launched himself at the ceiling with no apparent place to climb.

Looking around nervously for the recent visitors, we ask, “So, what did the lions do?”

“They look up at me like this,” William says with exaggerated solemnity, jutting his neck forward and cocking his head sideways to mimic the curious lions.

We laugh, and then move to another nearby campsite. The lions will be just as close, but there are other campers here, and an armed park ranger.

At twilight, Catherine and I go to the outhouse, where we encounter an African wild cat just a few yards away. Its eyes glow in the light of my headlamp, and its long tail waves as it disappears into the bushes. It’s only slightly larger than a domestic feline. But if this little guy is so bold, what will the nearby lions do?

After dark, in our tents, we hear the lions’ growling howls: “HHHRRRRNNNGGUH.”

“Is that the lions?” I ask.

“Yes, Cara. That’s the lions.” Karen sounds exasperated.

Not satisfied, I shout to Catherine and Guillaume next door. “Is that the lions?!”

“Yes, Cara. That’s the lions.”

They sound so calm. How can Catherine be terrified of a banana-eating monkey, and so blasé when surrounded by carnivorous lions?

The growls grow so loud it sounds as if the big cats are right inside the camp.

“That’s it!” I say. After shining my flashlight outside to make sure they aren’t actually in the camp, I stomp off to the van. Two hours in a tent being circled by lions, wrapped in my sleeping bag like a big burrito, is quite enough. I want two tons of metal and glass between them and me. Karen follows.

The next morning, I feel stupid when I discover that everyone in the tents survived.

I hear two opinions regarding my decision…

Verdict one: bad choice. According to a Canadian man who slept in the camp, “There has never been a single recorded incident of a lion attacking a tent. They see it as a solid object. You’re most at risk when you step out of a tent or out of a car.” Therefore, my decision to run to the van was effectively telling the lion, “Look what’s on tonight’s menu!”

Verdict two: good choice. According to two Englishmen we meet later, an English lad was once eaten by a lion while inside his tent. Apparently, no one told the lion he was supposed to view the tent as a “solid structure.”

In either case, it probably wasn’t a good idea to run back to the tent for my sleeping bag… then back again for my pillow.

The next day I return to the city of Arusha with my tail between my legs, and one nagging question in my mind: what kind of liberties?

10 thoughts on “SURROUNDED BY LIONS: A Rip-Roaring Safari

  1. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks, Jen. Some people think that a camera can distance you from travel experiences, but I think it depends on how you use it. I find that by looking at the world as a photographer, I often tend to observe things more closely, and pay closer attention to things I might not otherwise notice.

  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    That part of Tanzania was breathtaking, Stephanie, filled with the kind of wildlife I’d always dreamed about. In terms of culture I was most fascinated by Zanzibar, especially the island of Pemba. Sometime in the next couple of years I want to visit Ethiopia. I’ve been dreaming of it ever since my first visit to Africa.

  3. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Ha ha, Ryan. Next time, I’m looking for a safari where the only liberties we’re talking about are the kind that involve a young Robert Redford-type washing my hair. Of course they almost got attacked by lions on that one, too.

    Anyway, I would like to go back sometime with my husband. But this time, I think we’ll stay in a lodge.

  4. Ryan

    What kind of liberties indeed! ..you’re lucky you’ve still got all your appendages, let alone your life!
    🙂

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