While on safari you go for a game ride in the morning and another one in the late afternoon that stretches into the night. You spend a lot of time with your safari guide. And sometimes he breaks your heart.
This will surprise no one: Paul memorized the roads in the game reserve. He became almost as good at sighting animals in the brush as our guide, Allyn. By the last day he could hunch over with the guides and the trackers and read the prints in the dust.
Paul and I were desperate to see a male lion. Time was running out. We had only one more game drive. Years ago we watched a TV show called “Big Cat Diaries,” and recorded every episode so we could watch them again. Focused on lions, leopards, and cheetahs, the show featured three experts who each tracked one big cat. We actually checked all of the dates the shows premiered because we didn’t want to find out that one of our favorite cats had disappeared.
We needed a lion.
Allyn checked with the other guides and trackers, and there were reports of paw prints belonging to a pride of lions south of the lodge near the lower gate of Kruger Park. We left in a swirl of dust. We flew down the roads—Cheetah Flats, Trevor’s Hole, The Big Dam, Serengeti Corner—to the far end of the game preserve.
Allyn stared ahead, intent on the road, as we drove. Jimmy rode out on the tracker seat and kept his head down looking for tracks. Watching Allyn’s determined shoulders, I felt a familiar feeling, an ache. I too, knew a young man who was courteous, gregarious, and professional. But he also had this part of him that was convinced he was invincible. We rode in silence. We all scanned the sides of the road looking for a creamy, white underbelly turned up to the sun or the smudge of tawny brown lounging on the top of a termite hill.
Allyn turned off the motor and glided to a stop in a lonely intersection of two dirt roads. Jimmy jumped down and looked at the ground. He nodded to Allyn and took off on foot. He carried a walkie talkie and a cell phone. His job was to make visual confirmation of the lions and then return back to the road to get into the vehicle with us.
“While Jimmy is tracking, we’re going back to look closer to the gate. They are here somewhere,” Allyn waved to us impatiently. He was bouncing on the tips of his toes. We all jumped into the car and roared off. My bladder began to ache and then burn.
“Allyn,” I called when he slowed down to take a corner. “I really have to go.”
He slowed the car and pulled over. He turned around and looked at me high on the third seat. “I don’t know if I can find a good place right now.” We were all quiet. “Okay,” he turned the car around and cruised back towards a break in the road. I jumped out and ran to a tree. I had perfected this squat pose close to the ground, but I couldn’t account for a fifty-year old bladder that had witnessed the birth of two children. I looked up and they were all yelling at me. Jimmy had found the lions.
Allyn left the road without hesitation. He guided the car around rocks, and steered around monpane trees. Their leaves, shaped like butterfly wings, trembled as the slender trunks popped up behind us. We reached the edge of a dry ravine. Jimmy signaled to drive around the far end of it. Allyn drove carefully. We reached the other side.
Paul stood up and motioned to Allyn. We looked. Two gorgeous full-grown male lions raised their heads to look balefully at us. They lay in tall grass facing away from each other. After glancing our way, they flopped back to the ground. Their bellies were full and round, and yes, creamy white. Allyn stood up in the front and pumped his fists. He and I grinned at each other. We had our royal lion decked out in full regalia.
A small sound like the hissing of a popped tire escaped into the air. Then the smell followed. It washed over us. Rotting meat and digestive juice mixed together to create an odor that made our eyes water. I felt the urge to vomit rise in my throat.
“Hold your breath,” Paul said squeezing my hand. “It will pass.”
“If it doesn’t, I’m leaning over you to get to the side,” I gasped.
“Oh no,” Allyn said and sat down. “Look at his leg. It’s all torn up. They must have been in a fight.”
The darkest lion rolled onto his back. His right leg was swollen as large as an elephant’s. In the middle of his bloodied knee something white glinted bright and hard.
“Allyn,” I whispered. “Can’t you dart him with antibiotic?” He shook his head. He looked miserable.
“No. Kruger doesn’t do that. This is the bush.”
Paul pulled me down. “Let him be for a while.”
Allyn was back in his role as the genial safari guide by the time we were within the center of the reserve. We pulled the car over to view a sunset that stretched across the African sky. The lodge had packed us a sundowner basket to celebrate our lion find. Our motley group, now a family, danced and laughed as our teeth tore into impala jerky. Our gin and tonics were cold in our hands.
I watched Allyn’s profile grow dark as the sun finally set behind the Drakensburg Mountains. He is not my child, but I know what it is like to have your boy deliver what he thought was the perfect gift only to discover it was flawed in a way that hurt to the bone.