Mpyatutlwa Pan in the Mabuasehube Game Reserve, Botswana, has been a favourite destination for Laura McDermid and her husband Stuart, for many years. Their last trip, however, turned out to be the most outstanding… and terrifying, writes Laura McDermid
Mpayathutlwa Pan in Botswana is bathed in shades of crimson and saffron as the sun pokes over the hill. Not to be outdone, the indigo moon wends its way down to the opposite horizon.
“This is paradise,” I think, sipping at my steaming cup of green tea. We watch the shaggy brown hyena lapping away at the water.
Stuart and I make our annual pilgrimage to Mabuasehube (“red earth” in the Senalonga language) in the eastern part of the Kgalagadi National Park and the southern region of the Kalahari Desert.
Although we’ve travelled extensively in SA and Botswana, there is something special about this place. It’s not too far from Johannesburg, which is part of the appeal, although you definitely need a 4×4 to navigate the last 50km of deep, soft sand.
It’s dry, so Mabua (as we affectionately call it) is not teeming with game like some of the other areas. But you’re guaranteed to see the majestic gemsbok and the iconic springbok, and you’ll enjoy the antics of the comical wildebeest as they run in circles snorting and bucking in trying to avoid the jaws of their imaginary foes!
If you are a bird lover, you’ll be rewarded by sightings of raptors and the bald, hunch-backed Cape vultures and their lappet faced cousins as they gather around the water holes in the heat of the day. On this trip we were also fortunate enough to see the elegant bataleur in great numbers, as well as tawny eagles, booted eagles, snake eagles and southern pale chanting goshawks. And, of course, numerous other “chicken hawks”, as I call them, which are the local equivalent of the “little brown jobs”.
The park is well known for its predators, but you may not see them. There have been times when we’ve seen cheetahs, leopards and lions all in the same day, but those occasions are extremely rare. On this trip we were visited by the dainty Cape fox and sneaky jackals at night and we saw brown hyenas regularly during our first five days, but the big cats merely taunted us by leaving signs of their presence in the Kalahari sand.
At this time of the year (September), it can be unpleasantly windy, so we spent many hours in the car driving between the camp sites, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of a spotted hide or bushy mane.
And then it happened! Early on our third last morning we were jolted out of our slumber by the deep, throaty reverberations of a lion’s roar. We jumped into the car and drove down to the water hole. And there they were – 11 of them! The group comprised the two parents and nine adolescent cubs.
There seemed to be two litters, the youngest cubs being about nine months old, as indicated by the faint freckles on their creamy round bellies and legs. I guessed that the bigger cubs were about a year older. The males had started sprouting scraggly tufts of hair around their necks.
We watched the lions for a couple of hours as they lolled around. Clearly conditions had been favourable for this pride. All the cubs were in great condition, except for one that seemed to have a nasty infection in its left front paw, which was swollen to twice the normal size.
What made a lasting impression on me was the level of affection the cubs showed for each other. They were constantly rough-housing or grooming one another, or stretched out in companionable silence, their bodies always touching.
Satisfied that we’d finally seen “our” lions, we headed back to our basic A-frame shelter to practise some of our own affection.
Later that day we watched as the skies darkened and the wind became a howling gale. Our daily companions, the ground squirrels and a slender mongoose, made a hasty retreat to their burrows – a warning of impending danger.
We’d survived a Kalahari storm a year earlier, and knew the drill: ensure that your ground tent is securely pegged and tethered.
As the thunder intensified, I was reminded again of the unpredictability of this place. For about five minutes the skies unleashed a barrage of raindrops as hard as bullets. Then the storm moved on as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving in its wake a sparkly clean landscape.
The smell of ozone still fizzing in my nostrils, I made my way to the rudimentary showers. The air had cooled down a lot. That, together with the cold water, ensured that my shower was brisk.
While pulling on my shorts I thought I saw a shadow pass by the little square hole in the wooden screen. I walked out to find very large paw prints in the damp sand around the cubicle. Resisting the urge to run like hell, I purposefully walked back to the tent, about 20m away.
“Come quickly,” I called to Stuart, who was diligently sweeping the sand from the tent for the umpteenth time that day.
By the time he emerged, the lions were sniffing my towel and exploring the contents of my vanity bag! All 11 of them had decided to pay us a visit, and we quietly watched them from the “safety” of our campsite until they decided to amble back down to the water hole for a sundowner.
That night we felt very vulnerable as we sat huddled around our log fire, jumping at every sound from the surrounding blackness. At that point we wished that our friends had been able to join us, as scheduled. (They had been turned away at McCarthy’s Rest border post on the grounds that one of them had a temporary passport. Could someone please explain?).
Finally, at about 22:00, we decided to get some sleep after not hearing or seeing the big cats again.
At midnight, I woke with a start at the sound of heavy breathing and grunting. It was not Stuart – he was sitting bolt upright next to me! Then we saw a massive woolly head straining against the flysheet!
It’s one thing, keeping the wolf from the door, but a lion is a different story. Pure instinct took over. I hurled a pillow at the brazen beast and yelled a string of expletives that would have made a sailor blush – according to Stuart. I don’t remember.
The lion emitted a squawk of protest, and jumped away. Then silence. Later, I ventured a peek out of the tent. The silver light from the full moon bathed the campsite and I saw the cubs, some lying down and others shuffling around the tent.
For the next hour we sat listening to the sounds of the campsite being trashed. We’d left two jerry cans of water out, as well as our washing up stand with a few pots and pans. The lions seemed to like the Johannesburg water as we heard one of the jerry cans being rolled around, followed by noisy slurping.
Although we couldn’t see what was happening (we’d zipped up the tent) we could hear them. They communicated through throaty grunts and “chirps” – an excellent subject for a thesis, had I not been paralyzed with fear!
Eventually we heard the lions leaving. I must have fallen asleep, only to be jolted awake once more by an almighty roar. They were back – this time with a game plan. They now seemed determined to get into the tent!
We had a gas bottle with us, and we kept banging it with a spoon in the hope that the noise would keep the lions at bay, but instead it seemed to pique their curiosity. One of the cubs tripped over a guy rope, almost collapsing that side of the tent.
In retrospect, it was an amusing charade, but I was getting annoyed by these hooligan teenagers.
We heard more slurping noises as one of them attacked the other jerry can, which we’d hoisted up onto the wooden A-frame with a strap. They were also creating a din with the pots and pans. It sounded as though they were playing rugby with my precious bush kettle.
Finally, when we were sure the rogues were all at the A-frame (judging by the orientation of their noisy “talking”) Stuart unzipped the tent and dashed for our Colt Rodeo, which was parked close to the tent. He proceeded to “chase” the lions away by hooting and flashing the lights until they reluctantly retreated.
As dawn broke we were able to assess the damage. I’d expected much worse as somehow the cacophony we’d heard while trapped in the tent conjured up images of the debris that’s usually left behind by a hurricane. One of the jerry can had disappeared completely; as had my kettle. The plastic tap was ripped right out of the jerry can still strapped to the A-frame. The rubbish from the previous day, which had been hanging on a nail 2m above the ground, was strewn around like confetti. My purple shower scrubber had been unravelled and there was a trail of tulle draped around the shower cubicle in a cavalier manner, like Liberace’s scarf!
As exciting as all of this may sound, it was the single most terrifying experience I’ve ever had. I kept reminding myself that the young lions were just curious kids, not a pride of man-eating carnivores out of a Wilbur Smith novel. Mom and dad had dropped them off at the “mall” while they went out hunting, and they had behaved like a group of bored teenagers. However, we’re talking about 150kg hunks of muscle with fangs like sabres, and if they had felt threatened or if a pack mentality had taken over, they could have caused some serious damage.
The “attack” by the V6 red monster seemed to have done the trick and the lions stayed away that day and night. We were the only campers at that particular pan the night the raid took place, but the next evening a Belgian couple pulled in to the adjoining site in their rental bakkie, heads filled with romantic notions about the African bush.
We did the neighbourly thing and warned them about the frenzied felines. I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment on the woman’s face as we recounted our story. She kept glancing up nervously at their roof top tent, no doubt wondering whether it was lion-proof.
That night, we slept in our own rooftop tent, just in case. But the lions stayed away, thankfully looking for entertainment elsewhere.
The following morning we were up early to prepare for the 12-hour journey back to Johannesburg. I’d hoped to see the resident cheetahs at least once, but it seemed they had moved on, clearly unimpressed by their noisy neighbours.
On our drive home I thought about Mabua, and how it was certainly not for sissies. This experience had been a tad too wild even for my adventurous tastes.
A week after our return a fried phoned, pleading for us to take them to the Kgalagadi next April. Begging makes me uncomfortable, so I had no option but to agree!
In the meantime, if anybody ventures there before us and comes across a slightly battered metallic blue whistling kettle, please be so kind as to send it on, for what is a trip without that obligatory cup of tea and a rusk as the sun rises over the African bush?