A Car and A Cat
Updated: Jan 28
I spent seven years living a very long way from the sea when I was in South Africa. As a girl of the ocean I like to feel the expansiveness and infinity of the horizon on a regular basis. Surprisingly this not a problem in the hinterland of Africa as endless space is easily found in the bush.
I escaped to the Kruger National Park in the Eastern Transvaal as often as time allowed, frequently to Oliphants camp, so named after the many elephants that regularly bathed in the river that ran through the gorge next to it.
I remember in particular one cold mid-winter night. I was the only guest in the camp. At dawn a knock on my rondavel door woke me from my slumber. It was the warden on duty who had come to tell me he had just seen a pride of lionesses with young about four kilometres north of camp. In a dozen or so visits to the park I had yet to see lions. This was an opportunity I was not going to miss.
I dressed in the blink of an eye, grabbed water, my camera and the keys to my faithful old VW Beetle named The Bug. She had seen far better days but we had a love affair that wasn’t broken by a few bits of rust and a temperamental engine.
As I ran across the grass in the chilly, early morning light I sent positive thoughts to my beloved car. The Bug didn’t like cold winter mornings. She much preferred to stay in her night time slumber until the sun was high in the sky and had warmed her engine somewhat. I put the key in the ignition, slowly turned it and crossed my fingers. She started first time. My heart was beating with anticipation and excitement.
It was a glorious morning. Vibrant, fresh and clear with not a hint of the heat that would be burning the earth at noon. The sun nudged above the horizon lighting the bush with a silvery-gold glow. As I headed up the dirt track to the area the pride had last been spotted, dust found its way into the car making me cough.
Before long I saw them, off to the right, no more than twenty or so metres from the edge of the road. The Bug and my heart came to a stop. My heart not for as long as my car, thank goodness. A magnificent sight. A dozen females with four cubs.
In the time I had been told about them the lionesses had made a kill, a small antelope. Feasting was well underway. Bloody. Primal. I was unable to tear my gaze from them as they pulled chunks of meat and gristle from the limp form lying on the ground.
Already scavengers were gathering. Vultures. Rows of them, like ugly politicians in parliament. Hyenas circled, their lips drawn back in rictus grins. Time disappeared, both minutes and epochs. Before me was a scene older than mankind itself.
I heard a roar. Deep, guttural, primordial ... and very, very close. It resounded in my body making my skin crawl over my bones and the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. Slowly I turned my head and looked in the rear view mirror. Maybe five metres behind The Bug, slightly to the right, stood a lion. An alpha male with a deep golden body and a sandy, grey-tinged mane framing a large, bony head. With jaws wide open he was loudly staking his claim to the remains of the antelope.
His eyes locked on the largest of the females as he advanced towards the carcass. An unnatural stillness hung in the air. Expectant. Vultures took to the wing. Hyenas backed away. Reluctantly the lionesses gathered their young and relinquished their kill to the obviously dominant male. Nature’s hierarchy eternally present.
The lionesses moved towards the road, approaching me and The Bug. There was nowhere for me to go as by this time there was a car behind me and two in front. I could do nothing but sit and wait.
The hammering of my heart was the only sound present in my awareness as the lionesses and their young came closer and closer. All bar one lied down in the dirt a little way from the car. One large cat with ragged ears, scars on her flanks, bloodstains on her face and curiosity in her mind carried on walking, right up to the driver’s door of The Bug.
For the second time that morning my heart stood still, only to start again with a speed that took my breath away. The lioness walked slowly around the car, pausing by the left front wheel, her vibrant tawny eyes cast up to the windscreen. The voice in my head was screaming for me to drive. Anywhere would do, just drive. The one in my heart, however, was whispering for me to wait quietly for the animal’s next move, to be still and enjoy the moment. An easy decision, to be honest, as my body was paralysed with fear. I was incapable of movement.
In a flash the lioness was on the bonnet of the car, her sudden weight causing The Bug to rock violently. She settled down with her spine to the windscreen, her head turned back against the glass. Her front paws dangled somewhat nonchalantly over the right side of the bonnet, the back ones stretched out to the front. With a deep breath she relaxed, comfortable with her place in the world, completely at ease.
Totally unlike the occupant of the car it has to be said. Blood pumped through my veins, pounding loudly in my ears as sweat poured down my face and back. Every nerve ending in my body tingled, on high alert. In that terrifying moment I was so glad I had not eaten breakfast.
In hindsight the scene through the windscreen would have made for some truly remarkable photographs however preserving the moment for posterity was far from my mind as I still could not move a muscle. I simply sat, transfixed by the sight on the bonnet in front of me. A wild fully-grown lioness just inches away, separated only by a few millimetres of non-toughened glass. One swipe of her dinner-plate-sized paw would be all it would take and I would go the same way as the antelope.
Long minutes passed with the heat of the day beginning to build. The Bug became a sauna. My thirst raged but I was too scared to reach for my water. A part of me was doing its best to make me disappear into the ether; the ever-present voice in my heart still whispered in my ear, telling me to let go and simply be. To trust that all would be well. To fully live and appreciate the fragility and rareness of this astonishing experience.
And so I did. I sat. In a car with a cat on the bonnet. A very large cat at that. Don’t ask me for how long. I have absolutely no idea. It might have been seconds, it could have been hours.
Eventually the lioness had enough of the heat and slowly slid off the car onto the dusty dirt track. Without a backward glance she walked off into the bush, the rest of the pride following her leaving behind a the alpha male, a bloody carcass, a pack of hyenas, a gathering of vultures and a shell-shocked human in a car.
The Bug bore the marks of her encounter with the lioness on her bonnet until she was retired three years later. Two small dents and several deep scratches. I still bear the impact of that encounter in my soul more than three decades on reminding me ...
... to trust, even when filled with fear
... to let go and be fully present in the moment, even when I feel like running away
... that being vulnerable can bear the greatest of gifts.
© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2005 | Edit March 2018