Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Lions In The Darkness.
When an American thinks of Africa, the first thought that comes to him has to do with lions. He imagines the cities with streets where lions prowl around, and most of them man eaters at that. The perception is that everyone has to carry a rifle just to defend him against these man eating lions that will attack at sight, and that everyone becomes adept at shooting lions in their back yards.
We travelled up to Mufulira from Johannesburg in 1945.Mufulira was one of the northernmost mining camps close to the border of the Belgian Congo, and had just recently been established. The camp was very neatly laid out, with lovely cool bungalow type houses for the mine staff, well laid out roads and beautiful gardens planted and maintained by the mine management. There were a few shops, a mine club which housed a dance hall and a cinema. Every last Saturday in the month a matinee film was shown for the kids and entrance was free. At the door we each received a packet of sweets and a cool drink I never missed a Saturday movie, and particularly liked the cowboy films, and would take up position in the front row, and we would boo the baddies, and cheer the good guys. The noise was deafening. Kids would run around, screaming and fighting. Forming their own groups they would attack each other and act out the movie as if they were part of the show. I shudder to think how the theatre staff ever hoped to keep control of the mob.
When we arrived at the camp it was well into the rainy season, and by four in the afternoon the rain would start to fall and continue well into the night. I can remember hearing the cries of wild dogs and the mournful howls of hyenas amid the flashing lightning and the pouring rain. Often we would hear of lion sightings by the truck drivers along the road to Ndola where all our provisions were obtained, and then some of the miners who knew all about hunting would be out after the prides. I never saw any shot, but heard the grown ups speaking about all the close encounters
Our next door neighbor was a tall blonde dashing man named Steve Barry. He was every ladies idea of the perfect heartthrob, tanned and muscular with a no nonsense attitude. He had two sons, Alfred and Ivan, both dark complexioned and slight of build with impeccable manners. In their back garden was a massive termite mound on which grew a few large trees, and one morning when Steve came out to drive to work at about four thirty, he found a big male leopard sitting on the mound, and contemplating the neighborhood dogs. Steve went back inside, collected his rifle and dispatched the cheeky leopard. I can remember viewing the carcass and thinking to myself what a beautiful soft animal the leopard was. When I lifted its lip however I could see a set of very formidable fangs. Those big round soft pussycat paws also concealed a set of powerful claws.
After three years in Mufulira we moved to Lusaka, the capital of Northern Rhodesia, and the main agricultural centre of the territory. My stepfather took up farming, and there I became exposed to the hunting fraternity, and all of the farmers had encountered lions. They were cattle raiders of note, and as our farm was near the Zambezi Valley, which was full of lions, we often heard of them in our vicinity. I had heard them roar in the early hours of the morning, and travelers on our farm road had chanced across one or two.
Our farm was located to the East of Lusaka along the Great East Road, which ran from Lusaka to Fort Jameson. It was a dirt road in those days, and ran through dense bush. One could almost say that the countryside was jungle, but it was not so in the real sense of the word, but tall trees and thick scrub lined both sides of the road and there were no fences at all. Our district was known as Chalimbana, and a few miles further on along the road was the Rufunsa district. Rufunsa was a small administrative centre set just off the main road at the start of a range of steep hills. The main road ran over the hills and there were a number of very long steep inclines to be negotiated. In the late forties and early fifties there was a main contractor with the government plying the road to Fort Jameson transporting all the provisions from the railway line at Lusaka across some three hundred miles of dirt road; the carrier was named Thatcher and Hobson, and they used huge Leyland Diesel trucks carrying some thirty tons each, and pulling a ten ton trailer along behind. The trucks would proceed to Fort Jameson carrying building materials, machinery, soft goods, and all other goods required by the community in the eastern districts, and would return with agricultural products such as maize and tobacco bound for the markets in Lusaka.
About fifty miles from Lusaka they would encounter a series of steep hills, and often the truck would break down with clutch or gearbox troubles. The driver and his assistant would then stop the truck, and after putting some large boulders behind the wheels to prevent it rolling down the hill, they would make camp next to the road while they waited for another truck to pass and they send word via him to their depot for mechanical assistance. They would then wait next to their fire until a tow truck arrived to tow them in to Lusaka.
Late one afternoon a truck broke down at the spot and the two men secured it and went of to the campsite to prepare the evening meal and get ready for the night vigil. The driver lacked a bit of courage and decided to sleep in the cab of his truck. He slept soundly, and awoke with the sunrise and sauntered over to the fire where his assistant had bedded down in order to get a warm cup of coffee. The assistant was nowhere to be seen, and soon the driver came across a boot lying some distance from the fire. When he picked up the boot he found to his horror that there was a foot in it. Lions had arrived in the night and taken the assistant without the driver even awakening, and had feasted on his carcass not twenty feet away without him even being aware of his assistant's plight.
Another time a truck broke down at the same place, and the two men also made camp around the fire, and when night fell the driver also decided to sleep in the truck, but the assistant bedded down under the trailer. They had lost the hitch pin attaching the trailer, and had substituted a long piece of steel shafting which protruded way past the bottom of the tow hitch. During the early hours of the morning a pride of lions arrived at the truck and noticed the man sleeping under the trailer. With a mighty roar the lion flew in under the trailer intent on attack. The poor man crawled from his blankets forward under the truck and took up hiding behind the rear differential and the lion dashed forward after him and struck its head a crashing blow on the protruding hitch pin which brained him. The assistant scrambled into the truck cab, and there the two waited until the sun was high before emerging. The lion was dead and already stiff by that time, and after skinning it they tied the folded hide to the bonnet of the truck, got it going and departed post haste for Lusaka. Hunters were sent out to Rufunsa to shoot the lions, but they never caught up to them, and after the road was tarred, the steep rises were eliminated so that trucks never broke down on that stretch of road again. And the lions disappeared never to be heard of again.
In the early days lions did get into the town streets however, and they were always quite a threat. Broken Hill was a small mining town some eighty miles north of Lusaka, and one day four male lions entered the town and caught a donkey in the main street. They were promptly dispatched by one of the local hunters. In Lusaka too, while they were busy constructing the railway station a pride of lions harassed the workers and had to be eliminated before work could continue.
The farm we lived on was named Rooiwal which means Red Banks because of high red clay cliff like banks on the Chalimbana River which flowed on the border of the farm. The farm workers would walk around searching for honey and wild fruits, and they often told us that they saw lions there in the thick bush, but we discounted their stories as imagination, until one day while hunting wild pigs I happened to be on the top of the banks when I saw a large lioness drinking at the river. All I had with me was a .22 rim fire rifle, and I dared not try a shot at such an animal so that I made for the house as fast as my feet could carry me.
The bush around our farm was full of lions, and it was good to be camped next to the Mwapula River and hear their roar at night around the camp fire. They were also not the fat lazy circus type of lions, rather they were lean mean and super alert, and would not hesitate to attack a person sleeping in the camp.
A neighbor of ours, Kannetjie Davel and his brother Robbie went hunting in the Southern Luangwa valley, and while they were in camp sleeping a male lion came into camp and attacked one of the workers jumping onto him while he was wrapped in his blankets. Robbie had to run up to the lion and shoot it on top of the man. They were compelled to motor miles through the bush to a mission hospital to have his wounds treated. The man was half dead from shock as well as from the mauling the lion had given him.
Another friend of ours, named Boet Greeff, had moved into his wattle and daub house on his marriage night. The house had no window glass, only openings where curtains were hung, and while the couple was sleeping a bushbuck jumped through the window pursued by a lioness and took refuge under the couple's bed. Boet always slept with a loaded rifle next to his bed, and in the moonlight he shot the lioness and cut the bushbuck's throat, so that they then had a lion skin to use as a rug next to the bed, and had plenty bushbuck meat in the meat safe.
Oom Tom Ferreira told us the story of a hunting trip he took together with his brother in law Ewart Nel into the Zambezi valley. They had travelled down with Tom's light truck, and on the way while crossing a dry stream bed they shot a young male lion. When they reached the valley they picked up some men of the Tonga tribe to accompany them to the river which was not far off, to assist with the camp chores and also to act as trackers and skinners. The usual arrangement was that they would work for a share of the meat, which they would smoke over a slow fire, and if the hunting was good each man's share would be quite substantial. These Tongas however, as told by the hunter F.C.Selous, were the dregs of humanity; dirty, sly, thieving, totally ungrateful and definitely not to be trusted. The day before Tom and Ewart were ready to leave for home the three men came to them and demanded money as payment in addition to the piles of meat they had been allocated.
Well that night Oom Tom said to Ewart that they would have to make some plan with these scallywags as they had only enough money for fuel to get them home, and if they still had to ferry the three back to the village they would be sure to make trouble for the two white men.
That night when the three were snugly rolled into their blankets Oom Tom took an empty four gallon tin can and wrapping himself in the lion skin he climbed a crooked tree which reached almost over the three sleeping wretches. Oom Tom let out a few loud roars into the tin which reverberated as if all the demons were let loose. One of the three awoke and sat up, and Oom Tom let out another roar. The man was still half asleep but he shook the other two awake. Then Oom Tom let out a mighty roar and shook the tree. The three looked up to see this apparition with the mane flying, and they took off towards the river. Next morning Oom Tom walked down to the sand bank where he saw their tracks. They had run so fast down the river bank that their footprints were nine feet apart, their courage had totally departed and they were not seen again. Oom Tom and Ewart packed up their truck and headed home laughing all the way.
Lions in the darkness have been an integral part of Africa, and have caused havoc amongst the human population on many occasions but today things are more civilized, and we need not walk around with our rifles expecting to see a lion around every corner. However there are many lions being bred on game farms, so the population is increasing, and in the future there may still be happenings which will bring to our notice that the lion is truly the king of the beasts.