A Bush Encounter of a Close Kind
Close encounters with lion seemingly fascinate many people. I’ve recorded another one here, which appeared as part of a chapter on close encounters, in my second book Tracking the Memory. The story unfolded as follows:
During May 2010 a lion attack took place on the shores of Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba, in a public camping ground within the Matusadona National Park. As is normal with nocturnal lion attacks on human beings, it was totally unexpected. However, it was similar in pattern to a few prior attacks in the same area over previous decades. And it was again carried out by a lioness, this time in the company of her three sub-adult cubs. Perhaps in the area, the same genes that drive particular lion to man eating and attempted man eating have been passed on down the generations. Who knows?
Rob Nixon’s Bulawayo based boat manufacturing company; Turboglass, host an annual boating adventure, inviting anyone who owns a Turboglass boat to participate. For one week, as a fleet, they travel the length of Kariba and back. The fateful trip in question, with a total of sixteen boats carrying thirty-six men, was to be the company’s twentieth. The trip started off travelling east from the Olive Beadle fishing camp in the lake’s extreme western basin. The intention being to travel to the Kariba dam wall and back. Nobody at the start of the fun filled adventure would’ve anticipated the trip would end in near death for one of the participants. Andre van Rooyen.
In Rob Nixon’s own words,
‘It was mid-morning on Monday 23 May 2010 when the TurboCharge fleet of sixteen boats carrying thirty-six men arrived at the Matusadona National Park’s Tashinga HQ at the mouth of the Ume River. We were greeted by the sight of a magnificent bull elephant calmly moving around feeding in the camp environs. Our first mooring spot was too exposed to inclement weather so we moved round the corner into a bay. When we got there, the sight of previously buried garbage floating on the bank was off putting, to say the least, and our team members soon got stuck in clearing up the mess. The lake waters had come up to such a high level the previous garbage pits were now beneath the surface.
There was no sign of any other people and we were able to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the place, some, commenting about how wonderful the campsite must have been during its heyday. There were however, ablution blocks that were still working and they were clean. And there were various campsites within the area. After a few hours of entertaining ourselves three of us decided to set out on foot and try and find some National Park’s staff. From the camp to the HQ office is about a kilometre and a half, although walking the road without protection makes it seem a lot longer. Very fresh animal tracks were everywhere and at the office we found the wildlife manager who offered to send the camp supervisor down to the camp to book us in. We specifically asked him if there were any problem animals that we should be concerned about and were assured that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Back at the camp, the supervisor eventually arrived in his Sunday clothes and took our order for firewood. The wood fired donkey boilers were lit and everyone was into the showers quickly. We had permission to have one big bonfire in a central place and we collected a large deadfall to help keep the fire going. During the rest of the afternoon some guys went off fishing, some played scrabble and some even had a few beers. When the firewood arrived the four cooking teams started preparations for the evening meal. A Park’s member then turned up with a weapon, stating he was there to protect us and could he also have a drink, pointing to the beer in my hand. Needless to say, this was denied him. It was Andre Van Rooyen and Rich Elman Brown's turn to cook and it was a superb meal, after which we adjourned to the big bonfire, and as the evening wore on and after various chores had been completed, guys either gravitated towards the fire or to bed. It was in the back of everyone's mind that we were in a wilderness area and that the fast-rising lake was restricting the open ground that normally surrounded the camp. Cooking areas were cleaned up well and sanitised as best possible, the thought of prowling hyenas never too far away. The various campsites consisted of a few rustic asbestos 'A Frame' shelters and a concrete slab, each one able to accommodate four people. Eight guys chose to occupy the site closest to the water. This had two 'A Frames' and a slab, all within touching distance of each other. One even had a back wall. At about midnight there were four of us left at the fire. All the sites had people sleeping in them and all were within about a forty-metre radius. Mike and I decided to call it a night and grabbing our bed packs toured the area, looking for a place to bed down. Our first choice was the camp site by the water but we felt it was too crowded. At this time of night the moon was extremely bright and after having moved from site to site, we returned to the fire where we joined Bruce and Justin. At about four o'clock in the morning an elephant broke down a tree, and in the darkness, it sounded extremely close, waking up the majority of those in camp. Down at the more crowded camp close to the water, Dave and Rich turned on some music and started to chat. Andre was in the next hut less than a metre away. Ben was on his own at his boat, enjoying a cigarette. Lance Nesbitt got out of bed to relieve his bladder, shining his flashlight to his front but not into the close bush. Unbeknown to any of us, a lioness and her three sub-adult cubs had stealthily stalked down through the thick brush line and were extremely close. By this time too, the bright moon had dropped below the horizon and the pre-dawn hours were at their darkest. Andre van Rooyen was asleep with his head against the back wall of the 'A Frame' when he felt a weight on his body, and in his slumber, thought he was at home and that his dog had climbed onto his bed. Rolling over to tell his dog off, he was numbed into sudden shock and fear, when he saw a lioness open her mouth and close it on his head. Andre is a big man of about 100kgs and he immediately started shouting, but ignoring him the lioness slapped him through his air mattress, and then with his head still grasped firmly in her mouth proceeded to thrash his body against the roof of the hut two or three times. In much the same way a terrier thrashes a rat around. Andre was convinced she was going to break his neck, and how this never happened is a sheer miracle, but unable to do this in the confined space she then dragged him out of the ‘A’ Frame, his head still grasped firmly in her jaws.
Above: PH Lance Nesbitt who, although unarmed, and in the dark, courageously initiated the chasing off of the lioness while she still had a firm grip of Andre's head in her jaws as she endeavoured to carry him off.
Professional Hunter Lance Nesbitt then carried out an extremely heroic act. While still getting back into his sleeping bag less than four metres away, he heard Andre scream, and immediately knew what was happening and what to do. His flashlight was still in his hand and he shone it straight at the retreating lioness who was already some distance from the 'A frame' and next to a termite mound. While continually advancing and shining his flashlight directly at the lioness and screaming at the top of his voice, he stopped her. Lance was then joined by Professional Hunter Dean Kendall and Bobo Gibbons, who also using their flashlights coupled to loud shouting, caused the lioness to reluctantly drop Andre and grudgingly saunter away for a few metres, before stopping and turning back. Close by were her three almost full-grown cubs. Had she dragged Andre one or two metres closer to the others, the situation would have been far more serious.
Above: PH Lance Nesbitt was joined by equally courageous PH Dean Kendall during the immediate initial attempts at trying to get the lioness to release her hold on Andre. Both PHs have been friends since boyhood, and I've spent a fair amount of extremely enjoyable safari time with them.
The brave screaming and cussing from Lance, Dean, and Bobo was joined by more voices and more shouting. The four lions then reluctantly retreated another ten metres before squatting down in the light scrub. By then too, I’d grabbed my air horn from the boat, and the combination of this unfamiliar very loud noise, and the many flashlights and advancing shouting humans encouraged the four lions to move off. They were in no hurry and on their way towards the thick bush they walked within ten metres of John and Alex Lucas who were sleeping in the most isolated of the 'A Frames'. Their father, Lex, was shouting for his boys but they didn’t want to shout back in case it attracted the attention of the lions. When we thought the lions had gone Dean stated we were indeed lucky because it was only an hour and a half to daybreak making it very unlikely the lions would return. It has taken me longer to relate the account of the incident than the actual time this part of the attack and rescue took. When I got to Andre, he had crawled back the two metres to the 'A Frame' and he was retching due to pain and shock, and although his face was a mess the bleeding was not too extensive. At this point there was every reason to panic but the most amazing scene unfolded. First Aid kits came out of most boats. Andre was made comfortable. Hugh Roberts, a veterinary surgeon, calmly asserted control and administered a drip. Alex Lucas sat with Andre and monitored his shock. Hugh also assessed the damage and cleaned up the wounds as best he could. Andre remained conscious throughout but didn’t talk much. Those who couldn’t help congregated round the big fire and a head count was taken. Rich found Andre's medical aid card and on one particular spot at Tashinga, Jeff managed to use his South African phone to get a signal from Zambia and phone for rescue.
It is an extremely anxious and frustrating time trying to explain to a faraway voice in Harare at four thirty in the morning where Tashinga is, and to describe the state of the emergency. It was once again, Hugh Roberts' calming influence that prevented emotions running high. We then agreed to casavac Andre at first light to Bumi Hills which was only twenty minutes away by boat. Radio communications were limited but we thought Bumi were aware of our forthcoming arrival. Later, I was told one of the boats had managed to get hold of the Tashinga Parks staff (two kilometres away) who said they’d send an e-mail to Bumi! We prepared my boat for the trip but just before we were going to move Andre, I asked for another boat as it wasn’t safe to only use one. Arthur had his boat ready in seconds and it was decided his decking was more suitable to carry Andre.
As fate would have it, and with Murphy’s Law coming into play, about five hundred metres off shore, Arthur's boat engine cut out, and although he quickly corrected a loose fuel connection, it’d given us the opportunity to envisage just how badly things could go wrong if the rescue boat had been on its own and had broken down. When we reached Bumi I was blowing my air horn as we entered the harbour and a manager (Ian Smith) saw through his binoculars an IV drip being held up in the boat, and he immediately knew there was an emergency. As things turned out, Bumi were not expecting us, so Mike and Jeff decided to run up to the hotel and were met by a vehicle near the top. By this stage and still lying in the boat, Andre was shivering from shock, but the early morning warming sun was beginning to rise. With his head swathed in bandages, he then calmly and bravely stated “I cannot see, and I cannot feel my feet and that disturbs me”. An understatement if ever.
Bumi Hills Hotel management were magnificent, and we carefully loaded Andre onto a Land Cruiser and took him straight to the airstrip, where we tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Anticipating a two hour wait, there wasn’t much we could do, although Hugh Roberts changed the dressing and eventually the drip. Andre was in a great deal of pain and Mike, Jeff, Arthur, Rich and I took it in turns to care for him. All under the calm leadership of Hugh Roberts. We also had a chance to check Andre's back, where the lioness had slapped him through his air mattress, there was a huge bruise in the almost perfect shape of a lion's paw. The mattress had merely prevented her claws from ripping into Andre's flesh. Waiting for the plane was very difficult to say the least, and we later learned that it’d spent nearly half an hour on the runway in Harare waiting for clearance. Finally, on hearing the plane approach, the Bumi staff quickly drove up and down the runway to clear the many animals. The impressive MARS air rescue ambulance then taxied close to us and the professionals took over. Andre was carried on the mattress to the plane where he then got up and walked. At the last minute he suddenly refused to get into the plane but there were enough of us to get him those last few metres. It then took the doctor and nurse about half an hour to stabilise him and prepare him for take-off. Once the plane was airborne, we knew Andre was finally in professional medical hands, and there was nothing more we could do, and as the plane disappeared into the blue, a mentally drained Hugh Roberts could only sigh and rest his wary body against the vehicle, whilst I just wanted to sit in a corner and cry. We were later informed via radio that Andre was telling the pilot how he should be flying the plane - the morphine had obviously kicked in! At the airport in Bulawayo, family and friends were waiting for him and it’s worth noting that from being viciously attacked by a lion in the remoteness of the Ume River, to being hospitalised in Bulawayo took less than eight hours, thanks to all the medical staff and pilots involved.
Once everything had returned to normal, we went up to the Bumi Hills hotel to make some phone calls and then we returned to the fleet. During mid-morning, some National Parks staff had wandered down to our camp, stating they had heard the noise during the pre-dawn and was there anything they could do to help? Had I been there my reply wouldn’t have been polite or diplomatic. Andre was later transferred by air from Bulawayo to hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, where sadly he lost his left eye, but more importantly, he survived the horrific attack. Our most grateful thanks and respect is for the heroes who chased off the lions, and to those who rescued Andre afterwards, and equally important, we salute Andre’s bravery and fortitude.’
Above: Myself with Lance and Dean during happier times on a safari in Chirisa. Both worked with me during their learner PH apprenticeships, and have always maintained a high levels of integrity, and ethics in their professions.