The Lioness Nearly Ate My Bacon

lionessMana Pools, in Zimbabwe, is an extraordinary place and I would certainly classify it as one of the true wildernesses of Africa. I suppose that I have a great affinity for this place as this was my first experience in an African game reserve, other than Save Valley Conservancy, which is where I was working at the time. Save Valley Conservancy is a group of 19 landowners who came together to form a vast tract of land for wild animals. When I was there it was in its infancy, changing over from cattle to game and becoming dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. It was going to be a long process. So, I was delighted to be visiting a game reserve where it was wildlife all the way, and a haven for the Big Five.

Mana Pools is a wildlife conservation area in northern Zimbabwe on the banks of the River Zambezi that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the region on the lower Zambezi where the flood plains turn into a broad expanse of lakes after the rainy season. As the lakes gradually dry up and recede, the region attracts many large animals in search of water, making it one of Africa’s most renowned game regions.

‘Mana’ means ‘four’ in Shona, which refers to the four permanent pools formed by the meanderings of the river. The 2,500 km2 of river frontage, islands, sandbanks, and pools, flanked by forests of mahogany, wild figs, ebonies, and baobabs, is one of the least-developed national parks in southern Africa. Words can’t fully describe how stunning the area is.

Accompanying the incredible scenery are huge herds of elephants, buffalos, zebras, waterbucks, and many other species of antelope. Of course, that means their associated predators including lions and hyenas also migrate to the area each year during the dry winter months. The river is also famous for its sizeable numbers of hippopotamuses and Nile crocodiles.

I was fortunate to be camping in one of the remote campsites of Mana Pools. In fact, it was the camp furthest from the main tourism area. In the early 1990s, there was little infrastructure supporting Mana Pools, you were left to your own devices. In order to use these wilderness camps you had to have a registered hunter with a firearms licence in the group. You really are stuck out in the middle of a wilderness amongst the wildlife of Africa, and safety is paramount. One of our group, Stewart, was a professional guide so he was permitted to carry his firearm into the reserve. It was quite a big thing for me to be remote camping in Mana Pools, something that I hadn’t fully appreciated until a bit later in our trip.

We had a wonderful campsite on a small, raised mound, overlooking the River Zambezi, with the most incredible vista along the floodplains and across the river. The only structure to indicate that we were at a campsite at all was the concrete braai that had obviously been used as a rubbing post by a passing elephant or two. It looked a bit tired and was standing at a rather jaunty angle and the grill was warped. Despite all of this it was still functional, which was a good thing as we cooked all our meals on it. Behind us were a few trees dotted around the bushveld where herds of elephants roamed.

That evening we sat on our raised mound with the braai crackling in the background and the strong aroma of sausages, onions, and steak gently wafting around us. The smell was saliva-inducing and I wished that the sausages would hurry up and cook. To keep our minds off the food we watched a vast herd of elephants lumber gracefully down to the river to drink. To the left of us was a herd of impala, skittishly browsing and wary of predators. Night was drawing in and monkeys chitter-chattered from the trees hanging over the campsite drawn to the smell of our delicious food. Small, colourful birds flitted from one branch to another. It was enchanting.

Just as the sun was setting, and the sausages were nearly edible, up padded a pride of lions into the twilight to drink at the river’s edge. I could make out the large male lion and lionesses and their cubs. I counted at least nine in the group, although I suspected that there were a few stealthy ones elsewhere, invisible in the shadows of the trees. We all squinted, trying to see the pride, but they had come to drink under the cover of darkness. No wonder the impala had a heightened nervousness about them.

The sun set over the bushveld and, after eating under a star pricked sky – food always tastes better when cooked and eaten outside – we crawled contentedly into our tents. Then the excitement began.

During the night there was a lot of lion activity down on the floodplains: roaring throughout the night; clashes between nervous lionesses trying to prevent a takeover and mewing of cubs caught in the fracas. It was apparent that a younger lion was challenging the older lion for control of the pride, and it sounded as if he was winning. It was surprising if anyone got any sleep at all – I certainly didn’t. Unfortunately, we had no opportunity to see what was taking place.

In the morning, I tentatively got out of my tent to find Stewart, who, gun in hand, was standing on the outskirts of our campsite checking the area. The larger lion was still defending his pride from the younger male; they were circling each other displaying their strength and strutting backwards and forwards, manes puffed up and looking tremendous. The lionesses had scattered into small groups, ears flattened, awaiting the outcome. All of this was taking place just 200m from our campsite.

I started the braai for our breakfast of bacon and eggs, while Stewart kept an eye on our neighbours. The two males were having a stand-off, watching each other and planning their next move. The bacon was on the braai, sizzling away, smelling delicious, and the eggs were boiling – perfect. There were five of us in the group and we all stood cleaning our teeth, like sentinels, watching the lion saga unfold before us. It was like a BBC wildlife documentary, except it was full-screen.

“If any of those lionesses break away from the pride, get into the vehicle immediately,” said Stewart, “Do not think about it, just do it.” We all nodded, completely understanding the implications if we didn’t act quickly.

So, of course, this is what happened next; two lionesses broke away from the pride, coming in our direction at a steady trot, and we clambered over each other as we dived in through the windows of the car to get to safety. It did not take the lionesses long to cover the distance and within a minute they were in our campsite.

Unbeknown to us, there was another lioness in the area with her two very young cubs and she was protecting them from being trampled in the heated fight. She was in the bushes behind the campsite, protecting her cubs from the new male. Killing her cubs would bring her back into breeding condition, so she could mate with the new male and give birth to his cubs. There would be no point for the new male in nurturing the cubs of another male. The lioness and her cubs were not an immediate threat to us, as they were keeping their distance from the newcomer, but it was still quite a hairy experience having these five visitors in our camp.

They smelled the bacon… inching closer to my breakfast, checking out what the mouth-watering smell was. To my mind, this was not acceptable behaviour. There was no way I was going to let my breakfast be consumed by those cats. That was not an option.

As I happened to be sitting in the driver’s seat I decided to take direct action. With some careful manoeuvring, backwards and forwards Austin Powers style, I managed to position our vehicle right next to the braai so that I could safely finish cooking breakfast through the open window. The car would also deter the lions from coming any closer to our scrumptious-smelling food. Stewart, meanwhile, kept a diligent lookout for our visitors, letting me know when it was safe to reach out of the car.

On Stewart’s command, I reached for the rolls and smothered them in butter, turned the bacon, added them to the rolls, retrieved the eggs, drained them, peeled them, added tomato sauce, and handed breakfast-in-a-bun to the guys in the back via the outside windows. It was a rather long and drawn-out process as Stuart kept interrupting my duties with a variety of commands including “Stop!”, “Carry on”, “Get your arms in!”, “Wait, she is just behind us”, “Wind the window up, NOW!” and “Hurry up Jenny, I’m hungry.”

And that is my memory of Mana Pools; the glorious smell of bacon and eggs cooked on a braai, dispensing it as if I was in a Drive-Thru, while surrounded by salivating lions.

Author: Jenny Bowen – speaker profile and available talks here.

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