Honeymoon Safari – Zambia – August, 2009

August 2009, deep in the heart of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, we set out at first light for our morning walk. The trip up to this point had already exceeded expectations. My wife, Amy, and I were on our honeymoon. For me, it was a much needed break from dealing with the increasingly difficult summer crowds of Yellowstone National Park. What a contrast. Yesterday we walked within the vicinity of lions and sparring hippos; just us, our guide, scout, tea bearer, and one other couple visiting from Italy. Not another soul.
We had just arrived at a spot along the Luangwa River, disembarked off the game viewer (retro-fitted Land Rover with bench seating), and prepared for another thrilling walk in the bush. Our scout, Edgar, with well trained eyes from living and growing up in the bush, spotted lions off in the distance soaking up the warm rays of the morning sun. They were probably the same group of lions we saw yesterday, across the river, feeding on a hippo. They were now on our side of the river.
We quickly hopped back up into the game viewer and slowly chugged, rocked, and bounced along through the sandy soil towards the lion pride. August mornings can still be quite cool, with temps in the 40’s. But as soon as the sun breaks free of the Chindeni Hills, the temps quickly begin to heat up. This morning was no exception. I had started the morning wearing my Patagonia fleece, but as we prepared to drive out to the lions, I stashed it next to me on the seat.
I am the type of person who is quite particular in keeping track of his personal items. As we drove closer to the lions, I reached down to ensure my fleece was still on the seat next to me. It was not. We soon stopped within 100 meters of the lions. I quickly did a visual search of the immediate area around me. I figured the fleece must have fallen beneath the seat, but at this point I was much more interested in watching and photographing the group of lions. The fleece could wait.
From what I can remember, there were nine lions; three male lions approximately 4-6 years old as evident by their semi-full manes, three lionesses, and three older cubs. All had distended bellies full of hippo meat. Some were sprawled on their backs, bellies exposed, and feet sticking up in the air in a classic ‘happy baby’ type pose. The big males were laying stoic, in the classic shape of the sphinx. Others were lying entangled with each other, using the other as a big feline pillow. It was a classic scene one would envision of Africa.
The morning was still and peaceful. As the lions rested on the sand, not much else could be heard other than the familiar, soft, purr-like song of the cape turtle doves echoing across the landscape. The only man made noise was the clicking of camera shutters from the other guests and me. We were the only ones enjoying this quintessential scene of the African bush. No crowds, no scores of vehicles, and especially no idiots putting the animal and themselves in danger in order to get a closer ‘look’.
There was one male lion who sat off on its own. It had a large scar on the left side of its face. The guide, Fannuel, whispered to us about how the lion had gotten the scar. The lion he referred to as “Scarface”. This lion had developed a reputation for killing crocodiles; crocodiles measuring over 12 feet in length. It is assumed he had gotten the scar during a battle with one of these large, prehistoric reptiles; a battle witnessed by another guide. Scarface and an enormous crocodile, had both reared up on hind legs, and became entangled in a violent struggle. Scarface muscled the crocodile over and delivered a crushing and fatal bite around its throat. Two of Africa’s largest and most powerful gladiators entwined in a battle to the death.
As we watched and photographed the lions, some members of the pride started to stir. Two older cubs began grooming one another with licks to each other’s faces. One lioness got up, stretched in a ‘downward dog’ yoga position, and began moving closer to us. Approximately 50 meters away, she lay down in a small patch of tall grass, completely disappearing from view. Her movements though were noticed by the other males. One male got a bit too interested. The lioness directed growls, teeth, and claws towards the unwanted advance. He responded with a dejected growl and snarl, exposing huge canines.
Scarface moved in and settled down in close proximity to the lioness and the other males. One of the other males, a brother of Scarface, became fixated on something behind our vehicle. His gaze appeared to be directed into the bush. We watched him stand up and walk towards the rear of the game viewer. Boy, he was getting real close. He glanced over at us briefly as we made some noise turning around, but he quickly returned his gaze towards something.
The lion passed behind us and we could see he was interested in a brown pile of something on the ground. Was it elephant dung? At the time, I heard of lions rolling in elephant dung to help hide their scent before a hunt. But this pile did not look like elephant dung. Once his huge head and powerful front legs arrived at the mystery pile, I soon realized what it was. It was my fleece. It obviously fell off the seat during the bumpy ride over.
No sooner did I realize my fleece was now lying helpless beneath the lion, the lion dropped his head, opened his mouth, and with the gentleness of a mother cat picking up its young, lifted my fleece off the ground. As he lifted my only piece of warm clothing, he turned and faced us, his gaze now seemingly fixated on me. And with one big shake of the head, he seemed to acknowledge the fact he was now the proud owner of a Patagonia fleece. Finder’s Keeper’s.
I continued to snap pictures and whispered to the guide that my fleece was now in the mouth of the lion. My wife and the tea bearer, Mike, began to giggle uncontrollably. I too began to smile at my ‘misfortune’. The mood was quite jovial for obvious reasons, but things would even get more comical.
As Scarface’s brother was mouthing my fleece, he began to prance in such a fashion as a cat or dog would with a new toy. He strutted away towards the bush. But his mischief did not go unnoticed. The lioness lying in the grass and her pushy male partner got up and approached their fleece stealing comrade.
Scarface’s brother would stop every now and then to look back towards his approaching pride mates, making sure he was staying well in front of them as he entered the bush. This was his find and he did not appear to be in the sharing mood.
Fannuel tried to drive around the lion in hopes he could frighten the lion into dropping the fleece. No luck. The lion was quick to put space between us. We watched as he entered the bush. He found a nice sheltered spot among the thickets, faced us and his would-be feline thieves. He dropped the fleece and began to rub his cheeks and chin all over it. And why would he be rubbing his massive head all over my fleece? He was enjoying the new scent. My scent. Pretty cool. Well if I was to lose my fleece during this vacation, I could think of no other way I would want to lose it. We resigned to the fact the fleece was all but lost and drove off to find a place to spend the rest of the morning walking in a forest made up of white thorn acacia, sausage trees, and leadwood.
Two days later my wife and I were staying at a bushcamp just up river. I got a special delivery. It was my fleece and it was still intact! Well mostly intact. Fannuel had returned to the area and found my fleece where we had last seen it with the lion.
I figured the lions would have gotten into a tug of war match with my fleece, tearing it into tiny little pieces of shredded, brown fabric. Heck, I even expected some of it to pass through the digestive track of one or more of the pride. The only evidence that a lion even had my fleece was the presence of two large canine holes framing the Patagonia logo. Throw in a very distinct, almost sweet smell of lion slobber, and I had the perfect souvenir courtesy of the African bush. You can’t script this stuff.

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