For the love of the lion

Barnes, Simon


Book ID 430

See also

Barnes, Simon For the love of the lion, 2000
Extract Author: Simon Barnes
Extract Date: 2000 July 2

For the love of the lion

Simon Barnes still has a passion for the lions of Zambia, despite a fearful encounter

Lions have a knack of sneaking beneath your guard. They get into your mind, into your heart, into your blood. A lion is the big tick for the first-time visitor to Africa: the No1 must-see animal. For some people, one sighting, one snapshot, one brief moment of collector's thrill is enough. But not for all. Not, I think, for most.

The fact is that a lion is more than you bargained for. In a close encounter with a lion - and I have had many - fear mixes with an extraordinary fellow-feeling. There is something about that combination of ferocity and lazy companionability that undoes you.

I have gazed into the pale amber eyes, and every time it is a disturbing experience. Your tabby on the hearth rug has vertical slits for pupils: lions have round pupils like your own. Looking into the eyes of a lion is alarmingly like looking at yourself.

And so to Zambia: where else? I met my first lion here 10 years ago. I have never forgotten it. On another occasion, I walked almost into the jaws of a huge black-maned male. I have never forgotten him either: I can see him whenever I want, and quite a few times when I don't. This was during a time when I spent two months following the same pride.

It all happened in the Luangwa Valley, a place I know with the intimacy and half-distracted love other men have for a tempestuous mistress. Now I was revisiting the valley, and its places of fright and beauty: and then on to the Busanga Plain, a place one- third the size of Wales, which supports a maximum of 14 visitors at any one time. I had had been promised some rather good lions.

It's a girl thing, lion civilisation. Traditions carry on from mother to daughter, and through a network of aunts and cousins. Males are shifting and shiftless, here today, gone tomorrow. Young males are kicked out when they start to grow manes. The moment they look as if they need a shave, the boss male tells them, in the uncompromising fashion in which lions pass on messages, that it is time to leave.

Thereafter they roam as nomads, often with a brother kicked out at the same time, sometimes with a chance-met acquaintance. They roam until they die - or until they luck out and take over a pride full of luscious lionesses, there to live life high on the hog for a brief but gorgeous while, until they pass their primes and are bullied out into the wilderness by the next ambitious nomad. And all the while, the sisterhood remains: the heart of the pride.

In the Luangwa Valley, lion tradition is based around buffalos. This is deeply mad. Buffalos are perhaps the most dangerous animals in the bush. They weigh a ton and more, and are lethally armed: great curling horns, the males with enormous bosses at the horn's base.

Crusty old males gather in small groups: disgruntled old gentlemen with a grudge against the world, kicked out of the herd and forced to eke out their last ill-tempered days on their own. Lacking the security of 500-odd companions, they are swift to take offence.

Or they come in the aforementioned vast herds: a noise like thunder and a pleasant smell of farmyard. Close to, you hear the mooing, and the constant sharp click of horn against horn. A big herd is a highly confident organism: very swift to close ranks and protect the daft little calves in the middle.

Either way, they are fearsome beasts, but this is the animal the lions of Luangwa have chosen as their principal prey. Luangwa is teeming with game - it has antelope by the thousand, each one 1,000 times easier to kill than buffalo. Everywhere else in Africa, the lions take the easier option. But not here.

And so I found myself once again walking through the bush with my old friend Abraham Banda. Walking is a tradition of the Luangwa Valley: the best way to see the bush. In a vehicle, you are a noisy, smelly and incomprehensible intruder: on foot, the animals relate to you as manimal to mammal.

I have appeared on foot close to lions on a kill, and the lions have turned tail and fled. Don't rely on that. In fact, don't rely on lions at all. Lions make up the rules as they go along.

We could see the distant black hump of a dead buffalo, and the far more distant black line of the herd, perhaps 500-strong. There in the sand - not far from where the buffalos had come down to drink - the sandy circle of lions were crouched on their bellies.

A buffalo is huge, and 12 lions can easily accommodate themselves around it like cows at a trough. There is no anger, no bad vibes. There is more than enough for all and that is what lion like best: more than enough.

We stopped walking and watched from 200yd away. One female decided, even at this extreme range, to take an intense dislike to us. She flowed bonelessly from her lying-down troughing position to the seated, paws-together position that cats like. She looked exactly like a largish domestic cat - save for the fact that she was giving us a stare like a death ray. Every muscle relaxed: her mind tense with the possibilities of action.

Our plan was to loop towards the river, but she was having none of it. We moved away, and then began to cut back towards her: she remained still, tense, eyes locked on the party of two-legged strangers. Her anger, even at this range, was a tangible thing. It was defensive rather than aggressive, and all the more dangerous for that.

And so a discreet withdrawal. Walking is the richest experience in Africa, and Luangwa is the place for it: the wooded savannah allows you to get close, but not dangerously so, unless you act the fool as I did with my black-maned lion.

ON THEN, to the Busanga Plain, to country where a walking man shows up five miles away. So you don't walk. But the animals tolerate the clanking engines of vehicles: they behave as if they were not there. At the wheel, a man who likes lions, in fact a lion junkie: Dorian Tilsbury. 'Phwoar! Get a load of that!' It was a lioness he was talking about. Some people might think Dorian has been in the bush too long.

Dusk on the Busanga Plain: and, as if at a signal, the snoozing lions are suddenly awake and on their feet, walking towards us. I always want to stroke lionesses as they pass, much as people want to fling themselves in front of tube trains. A dozen, parting rather reluctantly on either side of the vehicle, within easy-stroking range.

You couldn't really see them, a deeply spooky feeling, but spookier again, you could hear them: the crickle-crackle of the huge paws in the dry grass, swaggering out into the night in search of trouble, like the Jets in West Side Story. 'Off to kick some lechwe butt, man,' Dorian said. An awful feeling: as the night closes in, the lions close in on the night's destiny.

Lechwe are the swamp-loving antelope of the Busanga Plain. They're the staple of the Revival Pride, and Dorian lives with this pride on terms of almost conjugal intimacy. He knows each individual from size, mien, nicks and scars, and from the pattern of whisker-spots as individual as a fingerprint.

Two males have pride of place: Credence and Clearwater. They are not brothers: the discrepancy in age makes that quite clear. This is an ad-hoc alliance: two wanderers bound together by ambition and convenience. Credence was a good deal older, to the extent of being gone in the tooth, able only to suck at his meat. But Clearwater, in his absolute prime, still deferred to him.

The dark shapes in the night moved towards the place where the lechwe lived in fearful peace: later, we heard the drumming of the hooves. Three times in five nights I caught that dreadful moment: that

sudden leaping of one shadow at another shadow, and the sound of savage triumph.

Away from the stresses of the kill, particularly in their orgies of digestion, nothing is more peaceful than a pride of lions. They lie about, often with all four paws in the air, round bellies up, in between and on top of each other. They love physical contact, they love community: and yet they are always quarrelling. Not unlike their two-legged observers.

They extort from the human observer a fascination few other animals can. It begins with the first big tick, and grows with every new meeting, with every long absence. The more you know about lions, the more you need to know.

Out in the deep bush you can share fleeting moments of an animal's life: sometimes, when you have the luxury of sustained observation, an entire episode in that life. With Dorian's knowledge of the Revival Pride, I was able to move a step further: beyond the single episode, and into the entire soap opera, or if you prefer, the epic of leonine life. I left, replete as a gorged lion, filled with new knowledge and new understanding. And now I find myself eager as a hungry one - but it is lions I am hungry for. Again.

Simon Barnes was a guest of Wildlife Worldwide (020 8667 9158) Detailed sections on wildlife, birdlife and where to stay in Zambia

Getting there: British Airways (0845 773 3377; has the only direct flights to Lusaka, fares from "526 in August. Other airlines include Air France (0845 084 5111), Air Zimbabwe (020 7491 0009), Kenya Airways (01784 888222) and South African Airways (020 7312 5000). Better fares are usually available through consolidators; try Bridge the World (020 7916 0990;, Flightbookers (020 7757 2000; or Trailfinders (020 7938 3366).

Tour operators: Wildlife Worldwide (020 8667 9158; has 10-day walking safaris in Zambia from "1,695pp. Simon Barnes stayed in the lower Zambezi, south Luangwa and Kafue national parks; a similar trip to his would take 15 days and cost "3,511pp all-inclusive.

Other operators that can organise trips include Safari Consultants (01787 228494), SAR Southern Africa Travel (020 7627 3560), Sunvil Discovery (020 8232 9777) and Tana Travel (01789 414200). For others, contact the African Travel and Tourism Association through its website (

When to go: anytime between May and October before the November rains. The best time for game-viewing is September and October when the vegetation is low.

Best guidebook: Zambia (Bradt "12.95).

Further information: the Zambian Tourist Board on 020 7589 6343.

Extract ID: 1510