16 year-old Max Palmer is so enthralled in the moment that he does not hear his mom calling for his attention. In the tall grass, just beyond the side of their rented Land Rover, something has caught his attention. Large, golden eyes with sharp, black pupils. It’s confident stare transfixes him. Not even the savannah heat distracts the lion. For years Max dreamt of this moment, and now he is living it. Strong and relaxed but threatening at the same time, this young male has seen his share of action, witnessed by the scar breaking across the bridge of his nose and a left ear which Freddy Kruger himself may have sliced and diced.
“Over here Max, you’ll miss it if you don’t look quickly.”
Max pulls his attention away just in time to see the long, thick neck of the huge male giraffe slowly sway up and down as the behemoth strides into the thickets. He would have missed it had he waited a moment longer to turn around, since the magnificent animal was now in the dense growth. Its graceful legs, thinner than the tree trunks, are barely noticeable and its mottled brown colouration, which contrasted starkly with the deep green leaves, can’t be seen. The world’s tallest animal has become invisible even as it wanders in plain sight.
“That completes our Big Five Max!”
Max’s mom is referring to the name given to the traditional list of the five African animals most difficult to hunt on foot, however, Sophia Palmer and her son are not hunters. Their safari to this Tanzanian treasure is about creating enduring memories, not wall trophies, and each animal on their Big Five has a unique reason for making the list. The Black Rhino and its rapier-like horn, the Giraffe for its towering height, the male Lion’s flowing mane, the Martial Eagle and its legendary bone-breaking power, and the colouration of the Wild African Dog, which looks as though Monet himself touched each one. Disappointment would have prevailed if Max and his mom had journeyed thousands of miles to Serengeti National Park and not crossed each one off their list.
Joyful high fives and a round of congratulations done, Max turns his attention back to the grass and the young lion, curious to see if it is still there. He is let down.
Her attention elsewhere, Max’s mom hadn’t noticed the big cat.
“What are you looking at buddy?”
“A young male lion. He was in the grass just over there. I can’t see him now though.”
Searching the grass, Max’s mom also can’t see the feline, but she doesn’t mind. This is the fifth day of their week-long excursion and lions have thus far shown themselves routinely. They are nearly old hat to her, but not to Max. Excitement builds each time he sees one, particularly the males. Muscles ripple as they walk, massive manes wave in the breeze, and dagger-like canines threaten with each long yawn. They are indeed the King of the Beasts.
In a quiet voice, the driver of the Range Rover announces it is nearly time to start making their way back to camp. An hour’s journey lay ahead of them, maybe longer if they spot something along the way from their open-top vehicle. Although it seats nine, Sophia Palmer reserved the vehicle for her and Max. Unless they win the lottery, this is going be their only trip to Africa, so she wanted to make it memorable, not wanting the distraction of other folks around them.
The driver turns the key and the engine roars to life.
“I am going to use a different route going back. Maybe we will spot something that you have not seen yet.”
Although he speaks with a heavy accent, Tumelo’s voice is none-the-less clear and easy to understand. Max scans the grass one more time, thinking that the engine noise might cause the lion to appear, but he is not rewarded. The truck starts slowly pulling away.
They do not get very far before Max thinks he sees movement in the tall grass and asks the driver to stop. Tumelo obliges, bringing the vehicle to a stop and shutting off the engine.
Into the dense, golden grass they look, hoping to see whatever it was Max spotted. Sweat glistens on their exposed skin. The unforgiving sun is telling them to move on, but curiosity holds them in place. In an instant, a prehistoric-looking head pops up in the grass. Its face is fire-like and a crown of black feathers tops its head. In its grey, sharp beak is a still-writhing lizard.
“Nice job buddy! We would have missed it.”
If their list was the Big Six, this tall, odd-looking Secretary Bird would have been on it. The long-legged bird of prey is distracted looking at and hearing Max and his mom talking, allowing the lizard to break free and scamper into the grass. However, it is quickly spotted and with a swift and powerful stomp, the bird puts an end to any thought of the lizard escaping. Picking it up and tossing it into its gaping mouth, the bird continues sweeping through the tall grass for more unsuspecting victims.
“I don’t see that very often and I’ve been driving safari’s for five years now. Very nice Max! Let’s head back now.”
Sliding the key into the ignition, the driver turns it but this time the engine doesn’t come to life. It sputters, struggles, and then simply stops. In the distance, Max sees three heads pop up in the grass, one of them has a mangled left ear. They stare at the vehicle. Tumelo tries the engine again, but it does not give in to his wishes. Three young lions now stand up, announcing their presence to everyone in sight while fixing their radar-like ears on the vehicle. The struggling engine noise is new to them, and piques their curiosity. Max taps his mom on the shoulder and points to the lions, which have begun slowly creeping towards the vehicle, gaze locked, muscles flexing under their skin.
“Stay calm. Stay in the vehicle. No sudden movements okay? I’ll let our driver know.”
Trying to portray calm, her shaking hands betray her emotions as she places a hand on Tumelo’s shoulder and points.
All three lions continue to inch along. Their attention, initially anchored on the vehicle, now includes its three occupants. Tumelo thinks for a minute, then gets out of the vehicle and calmly lifts the hood, prodding around. Looking grim, he returns, and picks up the vehicle’s radio.
“There is a problem with our vehicle. It will not start. Can you send someone one right away?”
The lions have stopped.
“The hood being up makes the vehicle look larger, so they will stay back for now. I think the sound of the engine not turning over right away caught their attention. They are probably just curious. Ms. Palmer, do you know much about engines?”
“A bit, do you think it is actually safe for us to get out?”
“It is fine. They are not too close. Come, maybe you can see what the issue is.”
Stunned, Max watches both his mom and Tumelo exit the vehicle. Without anyone needing to tell him, his role becomes clear: sound the alarm if the lions come closer. While his mom inspects the engine and Max keeps his eyes on the lions, Tumelo jumps back in and tries the engine again. It stops after a few sputtering efforts, encouraging the lions to move again. Quickly, Max makes sure everyone knows all three lions are closing in. One last try for the engine. No luck, and the closest lion was now no more than 100 metres away.
Reaching behind his seat, Tumelo pulls out a rifle from its home and stands up as Max’s mom hops back inside, now visibly shaking. With his eyes on the closest lion, Tumelo lifts and takes aim.
A puff of dirt kicks up just metres in front of the leader, the one with the ragged ear, making all three scamper back. However, just seconds later, they all stop and turn back around. The leader takes a few tentative steps closer. This time Tumelo takes aim at Ragged Ear’s chest and squeezes the trigger one more time.
Without panicking, he quickly checks the rifle, shoulders it again, aims and gently pulls the trigger.
Dropping out the magazine and looking down, hope slinks away. The magazine is empty. His passengers look up at him, eyes showing complete fear. After spending time on the range yesterday, Tumelo forgot reload the magazines. He must have become sidetracked. Now, the lions have begun to move back towards the vehicle, this time more quickly.
“Start yelling and waving your arms up high. Make yourselves loud and big. I will radio in again.”
Jumping up and down and yelling loudly, the mother and son team confuse the lions, which stops their progress a mere 15 metres from the Land Rover. Sniffing the air, the trio sense for fear. Max and his mom double up their efforts, waving wildly and screaming. Without warning, the three lions turn and bolt away, looking over their shoulders as they do.
“Holy moly that was close! You okay buddy?”
“Yeh. I think so. I may need some new underwear though.”
Relief and laughter set in as the small group watch the young lions run off into the distance, still looking back from time-to-time. From the driver’s seat, a voice over the radio replies to an earlier question.
“The vehicle will be there in about 5 minutes.”
Max’s mom lets out a sigh as she claps Max on the back.
“That is welcome news. I’ll be happy for this day to end.”
Max pays no attention. Again, he is transfixed on something. Tumelo is staring as well. Both of their faces express a new knowledge, a clear understanding of why the young lions left so quickly. This time Max’s mom easily sees what her son is staring at. Closing in on the vehicle very quickly are the two very angry owners of this territory. These are truly the Kings of the Beasts. Tumelo reacts quickly.
“Make noise! Make yourself big and loud!”
Sophia and Max start yelling and screaming, throwing their hands in the air, hoping to scare off these determined land owners. At the same time, Tumelo grabs two long tent poles from the side of the truck, handing one to Sophia. After a quick look of acknowledgement, both exit the vehicle and prepare to confront the huge lions.
“Hopefully we can hold them off until the other vehicle gets here.”
Like pole vaulters preparing for their run, Tumelo and Sophia stand ready to parry off any attack, hands clasping the poles tightly, muscles flexed. Each breath spews tension and adrenaline. Incredibly, the adult males dash past the vehicle, their eyes focussed on the three inexperienced intruders, ready to deliver a lesson. Max, his mom and Tumelo can not believe their luck. They escaped certain attack and now were front-seat spectators to a bout of lion warfare.
“Max, are you okay?”
Crouched inside the truck, Max gives a thumbs up to his mom. She smiles back. Tumelo has his eyes on the lions, and is troubled by what sees. With the young trio in full retreat, the two Kings turn their attention back to the vehicle and start striding back, roaring loudly as they move. Max, Sophie and Tumelo’s luck has run out, and they know it. Poles in hand, Max’s mom and Tumelo prepare for the onslaught, defiantly screaming. Undeterred, the lions charge, manes flowing as they run in. Max cries out in terror.
One lion goes down in a heap, dust rising up as its massive body slides to a dusty stop.
Dirt and grass kick up beside the second lion, who is now scrambling away, glancing side-to-side, unsure of where this noise is coming from.
Another near miss, but no matter. The remaining King has run full tilt into the distance, not intent on returning. Sophia and Tumelo turn around to see a pick up truck stopped about 50 metres away, its driver standing on the front seat, rifle in hand. Tumelo waves, and their saviour waves back before driving towards them. Overwhelmed with emotion, Max cries. His mom puts her arm around her boy, pulling him in close. They don’t say anything for some time. When they do, Max’s mom speaks first.
“Whad’ya say we don’t tell your dad about this part of the safari.”
Head tucked into his mom’s shoulder, Max nods and wipes the tears from his eyes.
“I’d like to go home now mom.”
“Me too buddy. Me too.”