Africa always provides something unexpected. Sometimes it's an encounter with one of the continent's diverse array of tribes, and sometimes it's with her amazing collection of animals. While on a motorcycle road trip to produce my photographic coffee table book about African snow I had a number animal encounters, but none as unnerving as the lion incident.
I started late that day after being distracted by an attractive blonde I encountered at a lodge I was staying at in the amazing Nature's Valley along the Garden Route in South Africa. I should have sensed that she was trouble, but no, I decided to spend the day showing her what riding on the back of an adventure motorcycle was like. So I left much later that expected for a private game reserve that I had arranged to stay at.
Little did I realise what I was heading for as I set off just before sunset. Since I was riding on the highway I pumped up my tires for speed and raced off to my destination. I arrived at the reserve at around 8pm and was directed through the main gates onto a gravel road by the guards. As I continued the road got worse and worse and I though about stopping to reduce the air pressure in my tires. But a little voice in my head said just deal with it, so I did. Thankfully I listened to my little voice that day.
The road got very rough but I continued without stopping and eventually I arrived at a second gate, with two roads in front of me and no signage to indicate which one to take. Actually there might have been signs but with the tiny candle that masquerades as a headlight on a BMW Dakar I certainly didn't see them.
At this point I noticed a security guard in the hut next to gate. I beckoned to him to come and assist me since the road wasn't ideal for getting off the bike. He stared back with a black look on his face. I beckoned again. He didn't look happy. After some hesitation the door opened slowly and he stuck his head out and started scanning the immediate vicinity with his flashlight. After a thorough scan he slowly and reluctantly approached me on the bike, all the while shining the flashlight around the area.
As he approached I noticed that he looked terrified. But when we've been riding for a few hours it sometimes takes a second for things to sink in so I just asked him which way I should take to the lodge. "That way" he quickly pointed and almost immediately started a hasty retreat to the hut. "How long?" I tried to ask as he bolted. "Not long" was the nervous reply as dashed for the safety of the hut. It was at this point that my brain told me that something was wrong as it processed the look on his face, the sound of his voice and his behaviour!
And then it hit me – there's only one thing that scares a black man in Africa that much. Lions! I was in the middle of one of the game reserves that actually had lions roaming free. At night. When they like to have dinner. On a bike, riding on rough gravel roads with rock-hard tires. The words I used at that point are best left out of a post like this. At this point I decided it was best to get the heck out of dodge as fast as possible!
So I quickly rode off into the bush in search of a lodge, feeling very nervous. The road of course got rougher and more windy, so I had to slow down. Now anyone that's grown up in the African bushveld will know that animals like to hang out on roads at night because they are warmer than the surrounding area having been heated directly by the sun all day. So I started to have visions of coming around a bend and running into a pack of lions blocking the road. Since the Dakar's headlight is so dull I wouldn't even see them until I was pretty much on top of them.
After what seemed an eternity without even seeing a light I reached a fork in the road and had to stop, because of course there were no signs that I could see. Stopping felt really good. I felt like a meal that had just delivered itself. I picked a fork and rode on, happy to not feel like something was probably watching or approaching me from behind. After about 10 minutes I saw a light. Relief!
As I arrived at the beautiful bush lodge I felt an incredible sense of relief to be alive. "I'm never riding at night again" I said to myself. My subconscious inner-adventurer laughed sarcastically at me. The lodge manager was waiting for me as I got off the bike. "Best you come inside as soon as possible", she said. "The lions are fond of the parking area". She asked if I wanted to go to my room right away and offered to let me check in afterwards. "Or maybe I can direct you to the bar first?", she offered. The shaky hands might have given it away.
It turned out to be a spectacular lodge and the game drive early the next morning was amazing, but I didn't see any lions. The hearty South African breakfast afterwards provided more excitement when the manager came over to tell me that I would need a vehicle escort to get out of the reserve because the lions were hanging out at the gate.
And so the adventure continued.