Friday 2 August 2013

o : Pendjari

Pendjari Lodge
Pendjari National Park

Dear o,

There is something incomparably unsettling about glaring just five or so metres away into the eyes of a lion in the wild.  You don’t want to look away.  You think, when will I see this again?  When will I see it so close?  You try to savour him, investigate him, memorise the shape of his paw and the lines on his face and the tint of his eyes.  He’s like the last of your grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies when you’re hundreds of miles and several months away from the next batch.  But all you can do is stare, eye to eye.  All you can do is wait for him to get bored and look away.  

He doesn’t.  He is looking at you too, right into your eyes, savouring, investigating, memorising.  He’s barely breathing, unperturbed; he’s lying lazy out of convenience, complacent in the mutual knowledge that you’re not a threat.  He knows why you’re looking and what you’re looking for.  He’s waiting for you to recognise not so much that he can leap up to the top of the truck where you sit, and rip you apart without a blink, but that out there he’s lord and master.  You think, I’m human, I’m a member of the most powerful species to ever live, I walk under Pax Humana.  But you remember something deep in your genes, a warning from a hundred thousand years ago, a siren of terrestrial hierarchy: you’ll fetch your water from the pond only when he’s finished enjoying his.  So, you shudder, and he doesn’t.  He has already defeated you.  And that’s when he looks away.

I recognise that all this stuff about lion’s eyes and going back to the wild (from the security of a 4x4) is clichéd and worn out.  But despite all the times I’ve seen on a screen a zebra get had by a lion in the bush, I’ve never felt that fear before, that split-second primal knowledge of savannah justice.  To be honest, being so close I thought the lion would walk away, gracefully, or at least get up and be wary of my presence.  All the antelope (topi, waterbuck, kob) gave their signature 180 degree turns and looked with ears perked up, dead still, waiting to bolt.  The baboons in their large bands rushed off the road and into the grass, to regard us from a safe distance.  The patas monkeys in their trees got away, got out of sight, or just got still.  The elephants pretended not to notice or mind, but sometimes their charging, stamping, snorting bluster got the best of their patience, and betrayed their discomfort.  And the two hippos we saw out of the water just ran away, while the rest hid and belched under the surface.  But for the lion I was just another subject of his kingdom, having long ago signed our social contract with blood.

We are spending two days here at Benin’s UNESCO-affirmed Pendjari National Park, in search of the animals listed above – plus the cheetah.  We haven’t yet seen the elusive cheetah, and we likely won’t.  Our short time here, the fact that we’re sleeping in a tent underneath a roof at the park’s main lodge, and the otherwise haphazard nature of our voyage (while driving we sit on old bus seats locked into the roofrack of the Toyota; this is actually fantastic) doesn’t really make this seem like a safari.  But the word in Swahili only means journey, and that’s what this is.  Tomorrow we complete the circuit of this spectacular place.

And even if this was going to be the kind of safari I imagine – a caravan of covered brown 4x4s driving through the grass, where everyone wears wide-brimmed canvas hats and khakis with 87 pockets, and with that one sweaty photographer whose lens-lengths are proportionate to the amount he will be an asshole – I still couldn’t have predicted how immediate it all is.  During lunch here at the lodge an elephant wandered up and started eating right next to the out-of-service swimming pool, munching and lumbering closer and closer for better greens.  There is no fence around the lodge.  If a cheetah wanted to pay a visit, nothing could or would stop her.  This is apparent now, as I write in the dark.  There are animals out there, bats and lizards and bigger things, passing by the tent on their way to the kitchen maybe, or stopping next to the mesh flap to have a peek.  In the distance there is a long, tired groaning.  Our guide, Razac, told us earlier that this is a lion.  They start at sunset.  The night here is louder, much louder, than the day.

The lodge is officially shut from the end of May to 1 December each year, and a skeleton staff manages and guards this site.  Aside from these staff, our guide and his ‘trainee’ (in other words, his new girlfriend riding the in-training story for a free trip out to the park), we’re all alone.  I asked Razac earlier today if the elephant came so close because there is nobody here.  No, he said, that was nothing.  In the dry season, when the lodge is full with up to 50 guests, and when the animals are a lot more motivated by thirst and hunger, the elephants walk right through the grounds, between the main building and the toilets, trampling on the subsistence crops and nudging the 4x4s.  And not just elephants: the lions come close, too.  Investigating, memorising, dominating,  But now, when the rains are here (though not today, luckily) and the lakes are full, they only have this place surrounded.

Is it ever dangerous? I asked.  I had to ask.  I hoped my stuttering French would mask my cliché tourist question behind an inability to formulate intelligent thought, but he smiled and answered kindly – as he’s probably done to hundreds of other awe-struck, knee-rattling city-slickers.  No, it’s not dangerous.  They never attack anyone.

His answer was a little undermined by the park worker we passed earlier, who told us a quick tale about last night: he was sleeping outside, under his mosquito net, when a lion came right up to him, stared him down, and gave a groan.  He said he was scared.

I just heard another groan.  Is it getting closer?  I don’t know.  There’s a bird or bat or reptile digging too loudly in the straw roof.  I shouldn’t have to worry, though.  He knows that I know that he’s the boss.

Yes, I realise it is probably a different one.  But go ahead and include the baboons and the elephants and even the hopping, prancing kobs.  I’ve surrendered to them all.



Tangueita entrance,
Pendjari National Park
Yellow Cardinal
Male lion, just hanging out 
The statuesque pose
A family of African Elephants;
this type has small tusks, which is to their
advantage when it comes to poaching
A kob (medium-sized type of antelope)
The elephant at the Lodge
Baby baboon learning to climb a tree
Female lion
Female lion
Not growling: yawning; one of her young behind
Baby elephant: only a few months old
Solitary elephant near dusk
Our carriage
The same mother and her three cubs 
Female and male kobs, side by side
An African Fishing Eagle
The lion winks