It’s 2 am and lions are calling!

Tales from the bush, Kafue National Park, Zambia

It’s true that I was riding in an open jeep at 2 am chasing after lions. And it’s true that it was a moonless night with a clear view of the Milky Way and the brightest stars I’d ever seen. And it’s true that we saw them – two huge male lions with bulging bellies moving swiftly down the road “patrolling” as they headed into the northern part of their territory. They were moving at a pace faster than I could run, they were sure and steady, and they paid no attention to us. Humans fear the unknown, but animals fear only what they know, says bush camp owner and lion tracker Chris McBride.

In this remote area of Kafue National Park with perhaps a handful of bush camps, animals see few humans or jeeps. McBride has been careful not to let animals get habituated to people; as a result, predators like the big cats don’t walk close to vehicles or linger lazily in full sight at mid-day as they do in other parks. In the McBride camp area, lions keep their distance. They give us a glance and they move on.

Our lion search adventure wasn’t haphazard, at least not from the “yes there are lions nearby perspective”. Most of us had been hearing roars since we went to bed around 9 pm. Chris must have determined that the lions were very close to the camp, hence the inspiration to go out looking for them in the middle of the night.  Even though I was able to get dressed in a few minutes, Chris and I did not move quickly. I was the spotter in the vehicle, meaning my job was to sweep a floodlight in front of the jeep looking for animals and literally searching for the lights of their eyes while Chris drove. The spotlight wasn’t working and we were a comedic team fumbling with the light jerking and halting and driving along the road. At the same time, I was being poked by a rifle that was on the seat, there to protect us and potentially to warn the animals away. (In truth, I don’t think I was being butted by the rifle but I couldn’t ignore its existence sitting next to me and I didn’t want to touch it or trigger it (ha, ha)). Chris managed to fix the spotlight and we were able to move along. Chris was able to see the lions’ tracks on the road. He soon spotted fresh poo on the road – a gleeful sight that indicated we were indeed on the lions’ path.

I was dubious that we’d actually see them as I attempted to keep the light moving above the hood (or bonnet as Chris would say) of the jeep, but it turns out the lions like to use the road for travel (!) Within 10 minutes we were right behind them. Two big beautiful full-maned muscular 500 plus pound Aslan and Chesterton named from the Narnia Chronicles. As Chris muttered “fabulous creatures, fabulous, fabulous” we followed them for a good half hour eventually going off-road until the brush became too thick for the vehicle. The lions didn’t seem to mind the noise we made mowing down trees and lumbering ahead (Chris often said, I’m sorry tree.) But our wanderings meant that we (read, Chris) had to find the way back to camp in the dark in an area with few landmarks. We were maneuvering through thickets crashing down small trees trying to avoid holes in the earth and searching for open spots where Chris might find the Southern Cross to get oriented. Every time we got to a clearing, Chris got out of the vehicle to look for tracks. We eventually found a line of stones that Chris knew went east-west and that allowed us to find our way in a southerly direction back to the camp.

We got back to the camp around 4 am, had tea, and went back to sleep.

Such is the rhythm of a true bush camp. You never know when it’s time for a game drive, so be prepared to dress quickly and don’t forget your flashlight, compass and GPS!