The Lion, the Winch, and the Weather

'Water is a problem, make sure you have enough.' The warnings resounded as we prepared to cross the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The desert received us with coquettish charm. Devil thorn flowers carpeted fossil riverbeds in a riot of golden exuberance. Undulating grasslands luxuriated in the crisp scent of sage. For the first time in two years it had rained. She was radiant.

And then, without warning, we sank. Into mud.

We got out to examine our predicament. A thin crust disguised a primeval mire beneath - the residue of a wetter epoch. “Just jack up the wheels and put some sticks underneath,” Cathy volunteered as she lit up her pipe and sat down. By sunset the vehicle's oil sump snuggled in the ooze.

A thick, soupy night descended, so dense you could swim in it. We slept in the back of the Land Rover. All four of us. With a water drum as pillow and jerry cans as bolsters it was hard to tell between jutting elbow and protruding metal. And when the roar of a lion shook the canvas sides sleep became impossible.

I thought over the facts. Our party consisted of three women and one man so brute strength was thin on the ground. The reserve is a vast wilderness where, except for a few scattered bands of Bushmen, no one lived. There was no chance of passing traffic finding us. We were well and truly on our own.

Next morning, after scanning nearby bushes for lion, we offloaded the drum and buried it in the earth as an anchor for the winch cable. Chewing lower lips, we listened as the electric purr of the machinery kicked in, followed by a rifle shot. The cable had snapped. Three sets of female eyes turned to Charles. “Who's for tea?” he said.

For the rest of the day and the next, Old Mother Kalahari played marimba overhead while we shoved and grunted, our lion segueing as we knocked off.

On the second morning as we braced against the tailgate, quads straining, Colleen said: “I've gotta go.” Tucking her shirt in she headed for a bush. Funny, I thought, that's the umpteenth time today. When she returned I noticed a chocolate smear on her upper lip. Later I discovered a wrapper wedged between a jerry can and the pick up tray.

On the third day a furnace blasted our faces. The sun was out. Three hours later the mud dried into bricks and we glided out in two wheel drive.

Yahooing and yodelling we recovered the track and headed east. Three kilometres later our stomachs went through the roof. Again we were cemented in. That night our lion's fainter roars provided familiar comfort.

The next day we made twenty kilometres before we sank. The one after thirty kilometres.

Finally our destination came into view, Deception Valley, shrouded in prison blanket grey. On the valley floor we found another lion. Hunkered down, his rump facing the driving rain and his head thrust into an acacia bush, he endured the onslaught.

We pitched camp in a copse and, after a supper of cold baked beans from the tin, I wriggled into my soggy sleeping bag, its clammy, cloying nylon squeaking its resistance. It was four in the afternoon.

The following morning we looked out onto a vast lake. Paddling to the vehicle we spent the morning gazing gloomily out as granite sheets pounded the valley floor. All the comfort vittles, including Cathy's tobacco, were soaked.

A hiatus in the rain provided the opportunity to attend to a call of nature and, in search of high ground, I walked out into the lake. Positioning myself on a slight rise I was midway through relief when I looked up and saw our lion twenty metres away. Amber eyes pierced my soul as we gazed at each other across eternity. Spraying a ferris wheel of drops, he shook his head and turned to the carcass before him, the crack of bones hanging heavy and sombre between us.

That night images of hamburger and chips, of steam shooting from a shower and a dry, warm bed plundered my sleep. As the first crack of light seeped the eastern horizon we packed our belongings and headed for Francistown, 400 kilometres away, and home to the Marang Hotel where all of the above was available.

Forty kilometres later we sank.

C Hughes

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