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The Roof is too High
During my time in Kenya, I built my own photographic hide by digging a hole in the ground and placing a zinc roof above, in an attempt to photograph the elusive freeranging lion pride that co-inhabited the area. The roof stood on four corner posts, which left a gap the whole way round through which I could photograph in any direction. On one particular day, I realized that this gap was intimidatingly too big.
During the sixteen month project I had many close encounters with the magnificent creatures. Below is a letter written home, documenting one such event. Unfortunately there are not many accompanying photographs as the light was bad and I had other things to concern myself with….
Dearest FamilyI thought I would send a quick update on the lion activities over the past few days…
Since Andrew had his near death experience, he has gone on leave and the lions have been doing a lot of roaring at night. This has resulted in the general population displaying mixed emotions of excitement and anxiety. Our cook and camp staff need to walk home and sometimes in the dark. They now never do this ‘green mile’ alone but always in a group and at night the vehicle is used to ferry them to and fro. It really is so special to have lion and people co-inhabiting the same space.
The following day after Andrew’s experience, I went down to the hide with a .458 caliber rifle. This caliber has enough stopping power to drop an Elephant bull in full charge (not that I would ever even consider doing that) and five rounds in the chamber which gave me sufficient peace of mind. I parked the car a distance away and walked to the hide. The afternoon produced some Zebra and no sign of the lion. I was disappointed but also somewhat relieved.
Yesterday afternoon I decided to try for it again. I drove down to the waterhole at assumed the usual position. The afternoon went by slowly and I had a warthog family pop by, for a mud wallow. It was getting dark and I decided to cut my losses and pack up. Just as I was half way out the hide, I noticed a lioness crouched behind a bush fifteen meters away and paying me some special attention? I backed off slowly to the other end of the hide and I thought my heart was going to leap out my mouth. With rifle in hand, I raised the barrel and checked my sights. My concern was that I have only shot with the rifle at baboons on two other occasions as it is not mine, and the sights are set too low! The owner of the rifle deliberately does this as he says he is used to low sights ever since his childhood hunting expeditions with his father?
Although lions do not typically prey on people, she was crouching in a rather tense position and I was strangely uncertain as to her intentions? Standing there, I realized that the roof of the hide is definitely too high and easily accessible which is a design flaw on my part. Lion are apt at digging warthog out of holes and I was not sure how she would respond to a human being in a hole? I lifted the radio and radioed Claire in as calm a voice as I could and asked her to send a car to fetch me. Claire ran down to the garage and unfortunately the car had gone to the market, a good half an hour away!
The main concern was light, as the rifle would become pretty useless in the dark. As long as I could see the lioness though, all would be ok. It was at this point that things started going a little pear-shaped. The lioness was joined by three more, two females and one male! The mother then crept around the back of the hide and out of sight? The others were paying me attention from about ten meters away and I had to swing my head from side to side to make sure that the female did not walk around the back and approach from the other side. It was at this inopportune time that Claire burst over the radio to say “Sand storm approaching”! Here in the rift we have these major sand storms, and I swung around, only to see a wall of dust heading straight for me. Once again visibility was the concern!
My hide is visible from the camp, which sits up on the Nguruman Escarpment. Claire was watching through the telescope and came bursting across the radio again: “Something is walking towards you”! I replied, “Which side”? This got my poor wife panicking somewhat. I swung around to my right and the two additional lionesses had moved forward five meters!
So there I stood, in what had become a somewhat surreal scenario, with my back to the wall, dust swirling around with three lion barely visible and another completely out of sight. At this point the car, which was half an hour away, was only ten minutes away! One of the lionesses then disappeared in the same direction as the first. The dust began to settle and as my eyes strained through the available light, I was alarmed to find myself staring up at a large head about three meters from my own!!!! I lifted the rifle and looked down the barrel straight into the two large orange eyes of the young male. It was then that I realized I would be ok! I saw in his eyes a playful and inquisitive ‘spirit’ and not one of a ‘predator on the prowl’. I lowered the barrel and breathed a sigh of relief.
The car eventually arrived and parked adjacent to the hide forming a barrier between the lion and I. hopping on board, I spent some time with the lion as three cubs joined the pride at the waterhole. Incidentally, later in the night, one of the lions tore the sacking on the back of the hide testifying to their inquisitive nature.
I know I have certain family members thinking I am crazy but now I know that lions do not treat a human in a hole as prey. This could open up some interesting photographic opportunities in the future…….
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