Too Close For Comfort
by Cori Smelker
Once we evicted the baboons from the camp, things started to look up. Well, they couldn’t exactly get any worse could they? I blame Alison for everything.
She burst through my dorm room door like a whirlwind, tall frame vibrating with excitement. “Dad’s taking the family up to Okuvango Swamps, and he said you’re invited!”
“Oh joy. Hold me back,” I said distractedly, flipping through my English literature papers. Then it sunk in. “Okuvango Swamps?”
“Wait a sec, the swamps with the biggest elephants in the world. My most favourite animal?”
She nodded again, bouncing on her toes, moss-green eyes twinkling. She knew she’d captured my attention.
Alison and her family live on a farm in northern South Africa. I’m a long-standing guest, almost the sixth child. The landscape is breath taking and beast meeting man is never truer than up here, where the Kruger Park borders their land.
This time though, Charles, the patriarch of the brood, was moving into territory seldom navigated. And I was invited! The two tortuous days leading up to the trip dragged, and I packed and repacked my duffel bag a million times. Finally, the family, all except “Mom” and Tim, the baby, packed and were loaded in the back of an open Land Rover. This Rover had sidebars, but that was it. “Don’t want to obstruct the view,” was Charles’ motto. I agreed. OK, you had to hold on for dear life but hey, the sights were amazing! Paul, Al’s younger brother climbed in the front with his Dad.
A few hours drive brought us to the Okuvango Swamps. It was deadly quiet, ruts rather than roads greeted us, and the trees closed in on us. It had rained the previous day, and many of the ruts were rain-filled, deceptively hidden, and on closer examination much deeper than we initially thought. Mud-spattered and sore, I still felt like I’d died and gone to heaven! Charles had a rough chart; and I caught glimpses of him poring over it, figuring the best place to pitch three tents – one food tent, one for the men, one for the women. Eventually, after 45 minutes of bone jarring, teeth shaking rut riding, we reached a clearing.
The night was spent uneventfully, well, if you discount laughing hyenas prowling the camp’s perimeter, the howler monkeys rehearsing a new opera piece in the trees, and the rustling of leaves as we disturbed the odd snake or two. We slept fitfully, taking turns on night watch. My shift was just before dawn, when the howler monkeys reached a consensus that enough was enough and to pack the whole thing in. They vacated, but new tenants took over immediately. The camp was surrounded by baboons — big-bottomed, teeth-baring baboons.
“Not to worry,” Charles declared confidently. “We’ll put the food in the Land Rover. Just make sure you pick up all the debris around the camp, we’ll burn it before we go. Our tents should be safe. I’ll make sure the flaps are down and secured.” We ate a hasty breakfast, each of us brandishing sticks, “Just in case.”
As soon as the camp was spic and span, we took off for one of the larger pans, where the elephants made their home. We bore the gut wrenching rut-laden and water-covered road pretty well, until we reached the pan.
Ever been out in the African bush, surrounded by elephants? God knows, I’ve told Him often enough, there’d better be an elephant house somewhere in heaven, otherwise, count me out! I spent the day observing these gray gentle gargantuan beasts frolic like children in the shallows. Although the mothers kept a watchful eye on the smallest of the brood, they were relaxed — who’s going to go after an elephant? We remained downwind of them, shooting pictures.
Along around dusk, Charles stood and stretched his long, 6’3” frame. “Time to pack it in. Tomorrow we can head to another pan, where the lion live.” Quietly, so as not to disturb these magnificent animals, we strode back to the Rover, which was parked about a kilometer from the pan.
Charles started back along the furrowed road, trying, unsuccessfully to avoid the largest of the gulfs, but failing miserably. Slowly the Land Rover churned through mud, Charles seldom moving out of second gear.
“Hey look!” Alison pointed to the left of the vehicle. Loping along next to us, about 300 meters away was a young, male lion. “Wonder what he’s doing away from the pride?”
“Dunno,” I answered, following him with my eyes, “but he’s sure interested in us.”
“Thank God we’re in the Rover,” Alison smiled.
At that precise moment, Charles hit a pothole with a fountain of mud, and the back wheels slid back resting at the bottom of sludge. He revved the engine, but the wheels just spun, spraying us with muck. “Hey!” Alison called, “Dad! Whatja doing?”
“Sorry pet.” He shouted out, “Rover’s stuck. I’ll try reversing it and then pulling through again.”
The whine of the engine filled the twilight air, mud shot up, and the Rover dug its grave ever deeper.
“Ah, Dad, I hate to tell you this, but that lion over there is looking pretty fascinated in us,” Alison’s voice broke and her eyes never left the lion. My eyes followed hers and I saw, not happily, I might add, that the lion had stopped parallel to us, and was watching.
Charles was still intent on trying to free the vehicle. “Girls, climb out. Paul you join them. I want you to heave while I rev. Let’s get this thing out of here!”
Quickly Paul complied and the four of us clambered out of the back, sinking into mud and sludge up to our shins. “On my count, heave!” Charles instructed. “HEAVE!” The Land Rover rocked back and forth, before settling itself even further down into the mud. “Great!” I muttered under my breath.
Alison cast a sidelong glance at me, “Don’t say anything Corinne, but look.” I furtively looked under her arm in the direction of the young male. He watched us intently, and was now moving slowly toward us, his figure slightly indistinct in the failing light.
“Al, he’s hunting!” I exclaimed under my breath.
“That’s what I figured too! DAD! We’ve gotta get out of here!”
“I know, I know. I’m working on it!” He called back.
“Work a little faster Dad! We’re being hunted!” Alison flung her arm out in the direction of the lion. “I don’t think he’s scared of us either. Look at him!”
Charles drank in the sight of the lion, and in the same instant called, “OK, let’s try this one more time. On my mark, HEAVE!”
The Rover rocked again, and sank back. “Again!” Alison yelled. The lion suddenly increased speed, and moved into hunting mode. That was all we needed! With super-human strength, the five of us pushed and lifted the rear end of the Rover. With a sucking, whooshing sound, it broke free of the cloying mud. Charles revved the engine, and we were free! The Rover jumped forward, mirroring our desire to get out of there.
But the sudden jerk caused us to lose our footing, and I fell face-first into the mud. Alison physically pulled me up and the two of us took off after the Rover, about 30 meters down the road. The lion was only a few meters behind us! Paul, and the others were in the back, yelling and gesticulating. They reached out to grab us, as Charles started off again. I swear to this day I can feel the hot, carnivorous breath of that lion as he leapt for us. “Floor it Dad!” Paul yelled as Al and I collapsed into a heap on the bottom of the Rover, not caring that we bounced like rag dolls over each bump.
The ride back to camp was a silent, thoughtful one. Al and I gazed silently at each other; we could see our fears reflected in each other’s eyes. The others looked on, aware that we had just experienced something life-changing.
“Oh no!” Paul exclaimed when we pulled into the camp. “Baboons!” Our headlights caught the last of them hightailing it out of the wreckage that had been our camp. Charles pulled up next to the tattered remains of the food tent, and we crawled off the back. He hugged all of us tightly, murmuring a prayer of thanks for our safety; then we set about cleaning up the detritus left by our ape friends. Paul got busy making dinner — Spam and beans.
Later that night, as we sat around the campfire, mesmerized by its light, Alison let out a low laugh that soon turned into hearty laughter.
“What’s so funny?” I failed to see the humour in the situation; I still was picking the mud out from between my teeth.
Alison contained herself with some difficulty, “Well, I bet that lion thought meals-on-wheels had arrived!”
My name is Cori Smelker, a transplanted Brit/South African, now residing in Texas, after 10 long winters in Michigan. Nothing against Michigan, 4 of my 5 kids were born there, but I’m not used to being bundled up for 8 months of the years, and eaten alive by mosquitoes for the rest! I came across your site, and thought I would submit a couple of my stories.
I am the moderator for the board on Faith Writers, work from home as a writer for several clients, doing a variety of writing from credit union information, relocation material, technical writing and devotionals. I also enter several contests a year, and with my first one I placed in the top 10 and the story will be published later on this year. I also wrote for the Weekly Challenge for the Faith Writers site. The challenge has run for 23 weeks now, I wrote for the first 14 weeks, and never placed below 4th.