I woke up to a very soft sandy scraping sound right outside the flimsy, thin nylon cover of the little scout tent separating me from the pre-dawn Kalahari cold. There is a tightness in my throat and my pulse rate is way, way too high. I half register that I’m holding my breath and realise that I instinctively must have been doing this prior to waking up.
My primal instinct woke me, is the next thought, jolting my mind into ice cold clarity. I am bunched up in a foetal position, my hamstring muscles in the early stages of cramping, my hands balled tightly into fists…something is very wrong!
The loud sniff is as audible as the crack of a thunder bolt in the crisp, clear desert air, so depicting of the electric storms that lash this wilderness during high summer time. The effect is as jolting as the brilliant, harsh white of lightning and I involuntarily suck air through my closed teeth, my jaw clenching up. This time the sound is right behind me, immediately behind my neck, so close I feel the suction of air. “Please…please…! Not now!” it rush into my head whilst trying unsuccessfully to roll my eyes around in my skull without moving the rest of my body.
Whatever it is, it momentarily brush against the metal and canvas chair, next to my little shelter, pushing between it and the flimsy material wall. The side of the tent bulge inwards and a hard, bony object fleetingly slide past my head. The soft footfalls continue for another five or six steps and something heavy lie down with a grunt.
As slowly and quietly as I can, I inch over on my stomach, trying to peep outside through the netting of the tent without picking up my head too much. It is an agonizing, slow and contortioned move in an effort to make no sound at all in order to have a look at the early morning terrorizer. I fully well already know what it is, but I want confirmation.
Not five yards from me, like a smoky phantom in the early morning dark, stretched out on his side in full glory on the reddish, fine silica laced Kalahari sand lies a black mane male lion in the prime of his life. He is quartering away from me, looking at a Natal francolin scratching away at the sand where I threw out half a handful of last night’s dinner rice. A massive paw foot wipe at an unseen irritation on his scarred muzzle and the black tufted tail momentarily brush the sand behind him. I slowly bury my face into the pillow and swallow hard. This is a tad too close for comfort!
I roll on my side, as softly and noiselessly as I can, but do not get to finish the move as I’m involuntarily jerk straight up at the thunderous roar emitting from behind me. A sharp stab of pain shoots up from my groin. “Bloody hell, you bastard” it flits through my head, “…I’m sure you caused me a hernia!”
He is half-heartedly letting out his early morning territorial call and I watch in amazement as his stomach muscles clench up with every rush of air from his wide open mouth from a slightly raised head, canines showing white against the dark red of his mouth. I can feel the vibrations of his call resonate in my chest and watch in wonder. A second later, from far away his females answer.
This is it, I realise. I cannot get closer to mother Africa than this. Real nature, in one of the last real wild areas of the world with a real, wild lion…absolutely, totally priceless.