“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” Hemingway’s words come to me as I wake in the heart of the Masai Mara. As I listen to lions greeting the dawn with roars that reached into my soul and back, I cannot agree with him more. I am back, I am back in my Africa.
I say “as I woke”. In the heart of the Masai Mara, to be honest, this is never strictly true. I have been lying awake pretty much since going to bed the night before. Lions have been just metres from my tent, making their presence known the whole night. They are crunching of bones, tearing off meat and eating with their mouths open. The events that led up to this moment all started the afternoon before.
Arriving into camp I was surprised by one of my dear rafikis (Swahili for friends). I had not seen Sash in about six years but seeing her lining up with the rest of the camp staff doing a welcome dance was the best welcome I could have wished for. I was back in Africa, with my fellow African rafiki, and I just knew the next 24 hours was going to be amazing and boy I was not wrong.
With our bags being taken off to our rooms, Sash and I went to settle down for a coffee and a much-needed catch up. Being in the heart of the Masai Mara and with the camps not being fenced, you are always very much aware of your surroundings, looking up every now and then and just scanning, listening to make sure all is well.
Quickly moving from coffee to settling down for lunch, I spotted a lone female buffalo plodding along the dry river bed just metres from our table. I did feel for her; she just seemed a bit sad and lonely plodding along in a world of her own. As we carried on with lunch, Sash noticed that the impalas and zebras on the other side of the river bank had been startled and were running.
By this point, the lone buffalo had made her way up the river bank and was walking towards the zebras and impalas that were running in her direction. Slowly, slowly she carried on walking, still very much in a world of her own. I did wonder what she must be thinking about not to notice animals running in the opposite direction.
We had finished up with lunch and started to head to our respective tents when the camp manager came running, breathless. He told us that some lions were chasing our lone female buffalo. As we ran back to the main area, you could hear the chase happening and the hooves thundering on the ground.
The lazy, slow and lonely buffalo we had seen earlier had well and truly picked up the pace. But then I guess you would with lions chasing after you. Suddenly, there was a great thud and our lone lady was down with a cloud of dust around her. The lions were close, but not quite making the final attack just yet.
“Did she just slip and fall? Why is she not getting up? Come on girl, you can do it! Why? Why? What’s happened?” All these questions where swirling in my brain. She tried to get up again with the lions attacking from behind. Again she fell to the floor with a thud.
“Come on girl, I know you are carrying a bit of extra weight, but you can do it!” I kept thinking, “Get up, get up, get up!” But again, she fell with the thud. The lions were circling in closer and trying to attack her from behind, but she was not ready to give up just yet.
By this point, the guides and all the staff of the camp were out watching the scene unfold across the river bed. The camp’s vehicles had been brought around and then everyone – guests and staff alike – jumped in. We set off to get a bit closer, to see what was unfolding.
I secretly hoped that by the time we crossed the dry river bed the buffalo had got up and managed to run away. Hurtling through the very bumpy tracks and crossing the dry river bed, we soon came close to the buffalo and lions.
By now it was clear that the poor buffalo had broken her back leg, and this was the reason she could not run away. The lions had starting to pull and rip at her tail – getting to the softer parts of her very hard and tough exterior. Her grunts and groans were getting louder and she kept twisting and turning, trying to keep the lions away.
It was then that our guide pointed out that she was pregnant and, by the looks of it, was about to give birth. So perhaps that is why she was wandering alone in a world of her own, perhaps contemplating the impending birth and how she was to protect her young one. In her current situation, I guessed all that worry was slowly slipping away from her.
Being closer, we could count three adult female lions with nine younger cubs – all about a year or so old. The younger ones where being watched on by their mums, all the while getting closer and closer to the buffalo, pulling at her tail when they could. There was still fight in this tough girl; she kept on twisting and turning.
It was interesting to see that the cubs were not getting close to her front. I guessed a lesson learnt from their mums was that those buffalo horns were not to be messed with. With each nip and pull from the lions, the wound at her back end was getting worse and the blood was starting to seep to the ground.
As time went on, the young cubs’ faces where starting to get covered in blood and they were taking turns in trying to be brave and see if they could get closer to the buffalo from the front. They wanted to deliver the final bite into her neck and end the suffering, but she was still not giving up. She was there to do all she could to save herself and the life of her unborn calf.
The cubs were getting frustrated with her and kept staring at her, hoping that she would finally just let go. You could see them starting to work in teams, one coming from behind and one coming from the front, but still she moaned and twisted and turned, trying to escape that final bite. One got a bit to close and got battered back rather quickly. Under my breath, I muttered, “Yes, you go girl. Don’t let them win.” But secretly I knew this would be one of her last final moments of bravery.
In the background, you could see the adult lionesses starting to pace and get impatient. They needed to end this now and end it quickly. It was only a matter of time before the smell of blood would start attracting others and then they would need to work harder to keep their prize. And then, without even a moment to think, two of the females came from the back and one from the front and pounced on this now tired, hurt and lonely beast. Her struggle was now heavy and hard. The blood seeping out of her wounds was getting stronger and her breathing was getting slower and slower. “Just let go girl.” I whispered, “Just let go. You have put up a good fight but don’t suffer anymore.”
The sun was now setting behind us. As the sun slipped over the horizon, she let out one last gasp and, like the sun, she was gone. This grand, brave, strong and beautiful lady had battled for three and a half hours to stay alive, but now she was gone in just one short breath.
It was then in the back of our very packed 4×4 that I heard a voice say ,“Wow, Africa is a harsh place.” This comment suddenly brought me back into moment and I realised that no one had been chatting at all in the vehicle for the last couple of hours. We had been transfixed by the life and death unfolding in front of us. There had been no need to talk.
Back in my tent, the sun is rising in front of me. Another glorious day in Africa is unfolding. I think back to the comment that Africa is a harsh place. Yes, it is a harsh and tough place, but it is also a truly magical, beautiful, spectacular and astonishing place, where when death takes, life survives. This is Africa. This is my Africa, and like Mr Hemmingway, I never woke up in Africa not feeling happy.