Outside The Gate

“What have they got in there, King Kong?” my cousin mocked as we approached the extravagantly high gate arch that marks the entrance to Botswana’s Chobe National Park. We were greeted there by a man who introduced himself as Mr O. As he sat lounging idly in his chair, Mr O. told us it was too late to enter the park that day. He explained that because road ahead was a sand track, we would not reach the nearest campsite until well after dark. Having learned that most things in Africa are negotiable, we pleaded with him until we reached a compromise. He allowed us to drive into the forest beside the gate and pitch our tents somewhere out of sight.

We gratefully accepted and weaved our car through the maze of wreckage left by plundering elephants and set up our camp in a small clearing. We scouted the area as we collected firewood, trying to determine how fresh the damage was until we were satisfied it had been some time since any animals had been this way. Mr O. returned to check on us before he and the other guards left for the evening. As he scanned our campsite his eyes rested on my single-man tent. I was promptly ordered to pack it up and share the double with my brother and cousin. “Because of hyenas” he said casually “and remember to pack everything into the car before you sleep”.

The guards left shortly after the sun set, leaving three of us sitting around our modest fire in peaceful isolation. As we were enjoying our baked-beans, we saw the silhouette of a hyena dart silently past the solitary lamp at the gate. Startled by this brief appearance and the accuracy of Mr O’s insight, we quickly finished eating, buried the fire and threw everything into the car with military efficiency. Within five minutes we had all crawled into the tent and lay tightly bundled together.

Already uneasy, we slept fitfully, waking sporadically with an instinctive alertness. It was not until later that night when I woke to the distinct rumbling moan of a nearby pride of lions that I was on serious high alert. The sound of the lions continued all night, amplified by our own defensive silence. Sometimes distant, at other times no more than a stones throw away, it was impossible to tell exactly in which direction or how far they were. We lay still until morning trying to contain our wild imaginations. For the first time I became acutely aware of just how thin the walls of a tent really are.

We emerged early, bleary eyed and yawing. Returning to the gate, we told Mr. O what we had heard. “Oh yes” he laughed “there are also many lions here”. Unable to share his humour about it, we got back in the car and proceeded through the gate.

J Theys

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