In September 2012, during the Annual Game Population Consensus held in Hwange National Park, African Bush Camps in collaboration with the Matabeleland Branch of the Wildlife Environment of Zimbabwe (WEZ), held a competition for volunteers taking part in the 24 hour Game Count. The competition entailed writing a detailed account of the participants 24 hour experience at their designated waterhole.
The winners of the competition are Cheryl Van Der Walt and John Curtain, who provided a fantastic and exciting account of their 24 Hour period at Shapi Pan in Hwange National Park. Their story is titled ‘The Windmill Boys – A Lions Tale’ and is included below.
The Windmill Boys – A Lion Tale – Shapi Pan, Hwange National Park
Saturday 29th September 2012
(Pictures provided by Cheryl Van Der Walt and John Curtain)
1200 Hours – High Noon
Our 4th Game Count has started and our excitement is barely contained. We have waited all year for this special moment! The temperature is over 40°c but a strong breeze brings us some relief from the oppressing heat. The windmill is quietly humming away as it pumps the sweet, fresh water into the small reservoir, overflowing with a welcome crash onto the rocks below and into the dry, dagga filled pan. The pan is only 10% full as there has been no rain for some time and this windmill has only recently been repaired. Now its fresh water is an unexpected welcome for the animals. As experienced Game Counters, no matter what happens in the next 24 hours, we are eternally optimistic that this will be our best game count ever – full of adventure and lots of game to count.
We are parked next to the only tree with shade, with little relief from the intense heat, approx. 20m from the edge of our pan at 12 o’clock position. The windmill is at position 9 o’clock, about 80m to our left. All around us is desolate grassland, with sparse Mopani scrub. So far, we have only counted three juvenile female Kudu and one Steenbok – all of which drank nervously and left immediately. As the sun moves from directly overhead, there is some shade thrown outside the passenger door. I set my chair in the shade, bino’s in hand and view the pan. John is in the truck, happily photographing the abundant birdlife – Bateleur eagles, a Secretary Bird and many other smaller species. We make many regular visits to the rear of the car, left open for easy access to the essentials – water, beer, food and of course “the call of nature”.
The heat is still intense and not another animal has been sighted. John has moved beside me in the extended shade of the car. With bino’s and camera ready, we are busy doing …. Sudoku !!!! Sssshhh! A large stink bull Giraffe confidently strides down to the pan, drinks, fights with the Oxpeckers feeding in his ears, shakes them off, drinks again and leaves. He heads back the way he came.
Whilst enjoying a beer, we have a visit from Gary Cantle, the keeper of our pan, who is astounded to hear of our minimal count. We discuss possible reasons for this. Apart from the heat, we expect that the recent repairs to the windmill have yet to pass through the animal ‘bush telegraph.’ Gary still feels we can expect a fair amount of visitors through the night. As a passing comment, he also suggests ‘there may be lion in the area’. Excuse me?!? We ask him what reports he has had. He tells us that although there has been no recent sightings of Lion at Shapi Pan, it was known that Lions had been preying around adjacent pans! We are left pondering his comment, as we had not given the chance of meeting hungry lions any prior thought.
John gently nudges my arm. Oh my goodness – a Honey Badger! We have never seen one before. He approaches from the right of the car and disappears into the deep lip of the pan. We wait anxiously for him to trot to the water, some distance away. He does not reappear, so John creeps quietly to the edge of the pan, about 20m away. Peering over, he finds the Honey Badger walking under the lip to the centre of the pan. Confident that he is slowly making his way to the water, John returns to the vehicle for his camera, and steadies it on the top of the open door. Sure enough, our Honey Badger stays and plays for 20 minutes in the dagga – digging for larvae and enjoying the sweet water. At one stage, he rolls over on his back and scratches his tummy. He leaves as he entered, heading north at position 4 o’clock. John is snapping away on his camera and I follow every movement with the bino’s. As our Honey Badger walks away, his path ultimately crosses John’s figure which blocks my vision. I move my bino’s so that the view is sufficiently right of John, in order to pick him up again.
Suddenly, my view is filled with the sight of an enormous Lion – only his head is visible in my vision. He is silently and purposefully watching John, who is still standing next to the vehicle! Showing no fear, the Lion continues to advance on our position, which, when measured next morning, was less than 20m away. Frantically, John leaps inside, hastily closing the windows and the sunroof. Our Lion visitor does not flinch. He merely stops and stands quite still in open view, watching us. Realising our back door is still open, I have to leap out the passenger door, creep along the side of our truck and slam it shut. Without touching ground, I flee back into the car – all doors are again securely locked. To our amazement, this huge animal is not deterred. John is doggedly taking photos whilst the Lion silently and determinedly watches us. Then he lies down…..
At this stage, we realise we have not scanned the area behind the car. Oh my goodness! There is another larger and older male Lion, lying under the Mopani scrub about 15 metres beyond our present visitor. We decide it is time to move our vehicle away from the tree next to us, so as to have 360° vision of the area. Despite the activity of starting the vehicle, reversing and moving away from the tree, Lion 1 merely maintains his position, lying quite still and observing us. Lion 2 is disinterested in us, and is keeping an eye on his buddy. John and I are unusually quiet, extremely excited, and unsure what to do next – photos, photos, photos!!! Everything seems to be under control, except that we have left our precious camping chairs propped up against the tree, and a plastic water bladder hanging from its branch. All our food, drinks and personal requirements are only accessible through the back door. Lion 1 stands up and advances boldly and fearlessly to our tree, whilst Lion 2 merely lies still, quietly watching.
Arriving beside our tree, Lion 1 sniffs the area we have trampled, enjoying the smells of our activities. He swipes at our water bladder (misses) and suddenly grips one of our camping chairs in his powerful jaws. He turns around and jauntily walks off with it. He does not run. He simply strides away, shaking the chair from side to side. It’s John’s chair and his language is unprintable as he demands his chair to be returned! Laughing, shouting and cursing, our adrenaline is rushing.
We watch in amazement as his massive body swaggers away from us, with John’s chair in mouth. In the meantime, Lion 2 decides to join in the fun and heads willfully towards his pal. Lion 1 turns away from him, not wanting to share. They scuffle and fight over the chair at a distance of about 30m from our vehicle. It is all over for our poor chair in about 20 minutes.
The sun is starting to set and the two pals leave the pan, to our right. We are still laughing – astonished that our chair is gone, simply amazed at the magnificent photos we have taken. Suddenly our thoughts turn to our predicament. We cannot get out of our car! How do we reach our beers, wine, water, food and more importantly, what do we do for a ‘pee’?!? We laugh, very hesitantly. At this point, we study our photos more closely. We are of the opinion that the 2 male lions are not collared. We will have to check with the local Lion experts for identification of these two.
1851 – 0150 Hours
The Lions have gone hunting and we have new visitors – Elephants! They are such a wonderful spectacle in the full moonlight, but we only see 16 elephants in three small groups within the next hour. We notice two Spotted Hyena lurking to our left, close to the reservoir. For the next 2 hours, we watch them skulk around the pan in all directions.
To our amazement, surprise and concern, the Lions are back! They are huge dark silhouettes in the moonlight, walking back to the tree next to our truck. Lion 1 reaches up and swipes – this time hitting the target and bursting the water bladder. Leaping back in fright from his unexpected shower, they both pass behind our car and reappear to our left. They lie down about 15m away, switching their attention, for the time being, to the Elephants at the reservoir.
More Elephants come down over the next few hours, constantly aware of the Lions waiting in ambush. Time and again, the lions cautious stalking is driven back by the vigilant Elephants. At all times, the Lions use our vehicle as their ‘pozzie’ – one lying 10m in front of us, and the other somewhere unseen at the back in the grass. Obviously, we will not be getting out of the truck soon! Around 2130 hours, as the Hyenas are drinking at the pan, the Lions come bounding out of the darkness to chase them. Lions and Hyenas are everywhere! Laughing hysterically, they disappear westerly with the Lions in pursuit. Not minutes later, a pack of Wild Dogs can be seen scattering in all directions at the far side of the pan. Huge, dark silhouettes are chasing them madly, left and right.
For some time, we watch in amazement as the hungry Lions chase anything that comes to the water – Elephants, Hyenas, even Jackals. After all these hours, their efforts are fruitless. Yet, each time, the Lions stride confidently back to assume their hunting positions close to our truck. Often between these dramas, our two boys chase each other, growl and play like kittens – really BIG kittens. They scuffle, roll on their backs, pounce and paw each other playfully. Nature is beautiful!!
Suddenly from our left, about 50m from the vehicle, a family of three Elephants are seen running to the pan – a mother, a juvenile and a baby. They are thirsty but we realise that they are frantically racing to the water with ‘The Boys’ hot on their heels. Reaching the water, the Elephants huddle close together, whilst the mother turns to protect her young. The Lions are now lying within 15m of them. We watch as the drama unfolds over the next 45 minutes – convinced there will be a kill !!!!!
Each time the mother attempts to leave the pan in the direction she came, the Lions advance for the kill. The Elephants are forced to remain at the water in a very vulnerable position. Enthralled as we watch, John nudges my arm. In the far distance, straight in front of our truck, heading to the pan, is a massive dark shadow!! A huge bull Elephant strides up to the frightened group at the reservoir, takes a drink and immediately assesses the situation. He positions himself between the predators and their prey, and, while making a few mock charges at the Lions, he casually finishes his drinks. The Lions continue to lie in the sparse covering, only 15m from the Elephants and still so close to us.
The bull Elephant shakes his head and touches the mother. With the baby and her juvenile obediently following, the mother leaves the pan. They head in the direction from which HE had come – not their chosen direction, but a safer path. Finally the big bull turns and leaves, following the small herd, whilst the Lions remain in place and do not follow. Having sat in our vehicle for over 7 hours without a leg stretch, we are exhausted, hungry and thirsty. What next?!?
The pan is deserted, but the Lions are bored !! They come to visit us again. The older male heads to the rear of our truck, out of our sight. ‘Junior’ decides to investigate our front bumper. John is not happy. Our visitor nudges the bumper and appears to head butt the spotlights. John is jumpy and thinks of turning on the engine and lights, while honking the horn to scare him away. I am nervous – extremely afraid of the unknown !! How unpredictable is Lion behaviour ?? We are grappling with all several frightening thoughts but decide to do nothing, YET. We just watch him closely.
Silently and purposefully, he walks around the truck towards my door. I cannot take my eyes off him. He makes eye contact with me, and he slowly glides along the edge of the car. His mane is blowing in the breeze, and can be seen brushing the glass of my window. We are EYE TO EYE!!! His face is close to mine, not more than 1/2 metre through the glass. Those eyes are SO YELLOW!! If I could reach out the window, I would grab his mane. Those eyes, so yellow, are burning into my soul !!
John quietly encourages me – “keep staring, do not move, keep staring.” I do, I do, I do! But then I crack, and with my head between my legs I yell, “John !! I have now lost my sense of humour! John is laughing, mercilessly. Quite rightly so as he tells me I must deal with this Lion. I lift my head and peer into those yellow eyes – they haven’t moved. His head is slightly cocked to one side as he continues to stare at me through the window, his mane blowing against the glass. Obviously bored of me, he decides to turn and walk away – not far, only about 10m. He lies down with his back to the vehicle, but he keeps glancing back to see if we are watching him – we are, intensely! And then it began…
His body rises and falls as he starts his infamous roar, calling his mate. Lion 2 responds fervently from behind us! For the next two hours we are treated to a lionic symphony. I’m not sure what is worse – those burning yellow eyes that pierce the soul, or the roar that permeates our bodies. Both of us are bone chillingly frightened. Eventually, we realise that we are freezing with cold, and start the truck to warm us up. Perhaps the noise of the engine and heater fan will drown out the roar of the lions. No such luck – the symphony continues.
Its 0530 hours – we have finally warmed up, and the Lions have wandered off in the direction of the windmill, continuing on past to the airfield. Exhausted, we can still hear them as we take turns in a short a well-deserved nap.
After a bit of ‘shut-eye’, we are both wide awake to a new dawn. Not a thing is moving. The Lions can be heard far off beyond the airfield. We venture out carefully to take care of business, then drink and eat ferociously! For the remainder of the count, we see a few Kudu, but not much more.
Our Game Count 2012 is over. Would we swop it for a count of several 100’s of Elephant? Never in a million years! We are delighted to recover John’s chair as proof of our adventure. It is ripped and chewed to pieces. The aluminium arm is completely broken and one huge tooth mark punctures the aluminum frame, as if drilled with a bit.
WOW – what an experience !! We leave for Main Camp, excited, crying with laughter and wondering how on earth we are going to be able to tell our story – Sudoku and all!
Thank you ‘Boys’ for such a memorable day. We respect your need to hunt and feed yourselves. However, we are very glad not to be part of your menu. In honour of our time together at Shapi Pan, we name you “THE WINDMILL BOYS”!!
The Prize: Cheryl and John received a complimentary night at Somalisa Camp in Hwange National Park for September 2013.
If you would be interested in taking part in the 2013 Hwange Population Consensus, kindly contact Shelley Cox on firstname.lastname@example.org. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and should be on every safari fanatic’s ‘list of to-dos’.