Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Lion in my face - the bad breath nightmares are made of.

Lion cubs are cute, cuddly little things.

Once teenagers, they should be handled with caution.

All lions in the wild are cautious of man by nature, and would normally go to great lengths to avoid contact.  This doesn't mean you should push your luck - in the bush, nothing is ever considered a certainty.

When lions turn into confirmed man-eaters, however, it becomes  a whole new ball game.  Different rules, different outcomes.....

My good friend Tom Yssel (see Tom and the crocodile in earlier posting) had resigned from his post as senior ranger in the Kruger National Park after more than 20 years.  At the time he was sectional ranger in the Malelane division, and he lived alone in a big house in the middle of the wilderness.
As he was going to leave for the USA on a Saturday, some friends and I impulsively decided on the Thursday to pay him a farewell visit that evening.
After work we headed into the Park, coolers heavily laden with steaks and beer.

The huge yard was enclosed by a sturdy 10 foot high diamond mesh fence, topped by six strands of electrified fencing.  The fence was angled outwards to further discourage monkeys and baboons.

At sunset we built a huge lead wood fire in the braai corner, and we tucked in to the beer with gusto.
It was a warm evening with a full moon and no wind, and a truly great time was had by all.

Sometime before midnight I decided to call it a day, even though the party was still in full swing.  Tom warned me that our regular habit of bedding down in the open bush was no longer an option, as some of the lions in the area had started killing and eating illegal immigrants trying to enter the country from neighbouring Mozambique through the Park (see earlier posting).  He told me to pick any bed in the house, which I declined.  When in the bush, I need to be outside.

So I compromised by rolling out my sleeping bag in the furthest corner of the yard, between a dense shrub and the fence.  Fortunately it was a hot night, and I was sleeping on top of my sleeping bag, and not zipped up in it.

Despite the raucous noise around the fire, I soon drifted off with my one forearm leaning against the fence.

In deep sleep my subconscious mind screamed at me that there was a lion breathing in my face.

In my years as a practicing dentist I've come across some serious cases of halitosis.  Some even memorable.  None, however, gets imprinted as profoundly as that of a lion close-up.  This is probably the result of a long-dormant gene from our primitive ancestors.  One whiff, and you'll know. I knew instantly - I've worked with lions before.

When I opened my eyes I was staring right into the dilated pupils of a huge male over a distance of less than 18 inches.  Eye contact is not a good idea.

Time stood still, but everything probably happened in less than two seconds.

The lion lunged at me with a tremendous roar, kicking sand into my face.  In my mind the fence did not exist.  In retrospect I'm pretty sure I must have levitated - one instant I was supine, the next I was five feet off the ground, getting my feet under me and under full acceleration while still airborne.

When I skidded to a stop next to the fire, my dusty arrival was met with stunned silence. The scene looked like a still photograph. Nobody was looking at me - they were all staring at the distant corner, glasses and bottles frozen halfway to open mouths.
Smithy (Dr. E.Smith, best GP ever) broke the silence with a drawn out "Whaaaat the f...........ck?"
Then everyone joined in.
Once it was established that there was neither harm nor danger, the wisecracks started.
A tall brandy was pushed into my hand, and they all exalted in their own wit. Their observations, remarks and advice for future reference had no bounds.  After a while I grew rather weary of their hilarity and headed back to my sleeping bag under loud (albeit cynical) applause.  I knew that if I headed into the house, I would never hear the end of it.

After all, lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice.  Or does it?

Needless to say, I didn't dare close my eyes for an instant for the rest of the night. 

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