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The International Writers Magazine Africa:

Lion Hunting in the Serengeti
Loree Westron

"I give you good price," the man says, smartly-dressed with Reboks and Ray-Bans. He follows my eyes to the photograph of a lion in the safari shop window. "My best price. Just for you. I show you many simba." At the foot of Mount Meru, halfway between Lake Victoria and the coast, Arusha is Tanzania’s undisputed safari capital, and in East Africa it is second only to Nairobi for the choice of adventures on offer.

Arranging a safari in this town is not difficult. Walk along any street, and twenty men will stop within twenty minutes asking where you want to go on your safari. Be warned – it is not out of curiosity that people in this town question you about your holiday plans. If you answer honestly, that you are thinking about Ngorongoro but haven’t quite made up your mind, you are implying that you want your inquisitor to assist with the decision, and what’s more, that you would like him to be your guide. Anything but a curt no is taken as a yes and once your new-found friend has decided that he will be your guide, it will take half an hour to convince him otherwise – and then, only with hurt feelings. The safari business is booming in Arusha, and would-be guides run rampant. You do not need to look for a safari in this town. One will quickly hunt you down. "My name is Boniface," the man said, extending his hand to complete the deal.

It takes nine hours to drive from Arusha to the entrance of Serengeti National Park but the safari actually begins soon after leaving town. Alongside the road, giraffe nibble treetop leaves, while ubiquitous herds of zebra stripe the hills. As we stop to look across the Rift Valley, a baboon, with territorial interest saunters across the road, eyeing us closely, watching us as we watch him.

In June, the wildebeest group together. When their numbers reach critical mass, a signal is given. Go! And stretching into a long, thin queue, they thunder towards the horizon, leading the rest of the migratory animals on the long trek north to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Nearly one and a half million wildebeest will survive this journey, followed by a million zebra and gazelle. Unnoticed, our Land Rover drifts through the centre of the action, lost in the epic which unfolds around us.

In the tall grass, the cheetah is nearly impossible to see, but Boniface spots the telltale twitch of his ears. He is an attentive and tightly-coiled animal: acutely aware of every object, every movement, every scent and sound, always ready to spring. As we are neither food nor foe, he allows our Land Rover to inch towards him, pole-pole, until we are within easy reach. He knows the routine and paces slowly past us, pausing a moment to the whirr of digital shutters, turns, then looks over his shoulder to make sure we are still watching, retreats into the brush, and is gone.

Hyenas pace too, but unlike the cheetah their nerves are on show. Like a genetic mistake of mismatched parts, they trudge back and forth, eyes fixed on the intruders, a barrel-chested challenge to our potential threat.

Smaller and less aggressive, bat-eared wild dogs dive into their dens when we arrive. We wait for them to reappear, and after a few minutes their heads poke up out of the ground like so many safari bus tourists. Slowly, the dogs emerge, offering up half-hearted barks in their defence until they grow bored with us and find a patch of shade for an afternoon snooze.

Entering a thicket of spiky brush and acacia trees, the Land Rover comes to an abrupt stop. Ten feet in front of us, a buffalo lowers its massive head and stamps out a warning. Boniface acknowledges the animal’s superiority, puts the vehicle in reverse and backs away slowly. The buffalo snorts and swings its heavy horns from side to side as fine red dust rises from his nervous feet.

The heat haze shimmers above the savannah as we drive towards a distant kopje, rising like a malignant growth on the smooth back of the plain. It is amongst such rocky outcrops as this that lions spend the lazy heat of the day. In this shady fortress, they can alternately doze and survey their domain in comfort. We hunt for them with our binoculars, peering into each shadow and each crevice, alert to every movement and sound. Above us, a lone buzzard rises on a thermal, making slow circles in the sky, but on the kopje, no lions appear.

Driving back to our camp after dark, a pair of yellow eyes flash briefly in the glare of our headlights, too quick for Boniface to identify the animal to which they belong. During the night, there is a low rumbling growl somewhere beyond the fabric of my tent and I have a Francis Macomber moment of panic before the animal retreats and sleep returns.
Measuring twenty kilometres across, Ngorongoro contains a microcosm of East African wildlife which, having a stable water supply, shirk the annual migration and remain inside the crater throughout the year. At the entrance to the park, we collect our requisite guide, and wind our way down along the rocky road, 700 metres from crater rim to crater floor.
Drawing us towards the centre, Lake Magadi is rimmed pink with flamingos, while on its banks, lounging hippos look like smooth black boulders until they move. Submerged beneath the water, others keep watch, their flaring nostrils and pig-eyes the only clue to their presence. Boniface is reluctant to go closer, for these apparently docile creatures are anything but. Notoriously ill-tempered, hippos can sprint at fifty kilometres an hour and are said to be the most deadly animal in Africa.

The white noise of walkie-talkies flares as rumours of lion sightings spread between the guides. Six simba have been spotted among the trees beside the river and trails of rising dust streak toward the water from across the crater floor. Inching our way through the tall grass, we search the shadows expectantly. The lions, though, if they are there, keep their heads down.

To the east of Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara National Park may be among Tanzania’s smallest reserves, but it is one which is abundant with wildlife. It is known for its tree-sleeping simba and as this will be our last opportunity to meet the king of all beasts, Boniface assures us we will seek him out.

Along the way, we come to an unexpected roadblock. The troop of baboons who sit in our path do not flinch as our vehicle slides to a stop. Boniface guns the motor and beeps the horn but the baboons pay us no notice, and continue with their grooming. Mothers, with pink-faced babies attached, saunter past our vehicle, making eye contact and baring their canine teeth. Boniface cautions us to roll up our windows and keeps a nervous eye on his aerial.

By the time we reach Manyara, zebra have lost their appeal. Warthogs, their tails raised like flagpoles as they run away squealing, bring a momentary smile, but it is the lions we really want to see. As we scan the plains, it is hard to forget the advertisements for hunting safaris in the shop windows in Arusha.

Great white hunters, holding great black guns, pose with their kill. Snap. Thomson’s gazelle and kudu, with horns held high by smiling men in new safari suits. Snap. Sitting obscenely astride her prey, a woman runs manicured nails through a thick red mane. Snap. A teenaged boy struggles to lift the wide face of an old cat so that it too looks into the camera’s lens. Snap.

But there are lions which still survive in Manyara and we are not unlucky this day. Lying in the grass not twenty feet from the edge of our track we find two females. Between them, six cubs chase each other and throw butterfly punches in the air. Like over-sized house cats, the mothers seem unconcerned by our presence: passive, secure, superior, and I have the feeling I could sit down, unharmed, amongst them. Boniface laughs and tells me to stop leaning out the window.

When we find him, the male lion is twelve feet off the ground, legs dangling as he snoozes in the branches of a balanite tree. Our arrival disturbs him no more than it had his mates and he eyes us with drowsy indifference. Of all the animals we have seen, the lions seem the least suspicious, the least concerned. Yet there are people who will pay $40,000 for a chance to kill one. As the chance, I suspect, is almost a certainty, the lions I think might do well to be more afraid of me.

© Loree Westron December 2008

Loree lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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