By Lynn Brindell
Adventure Travel Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards
I think Beatus did it because he felt guilty. Or because he thought we’d give him a bigger tip. He’d gently rustled our tent flap that morning, the bright slit of light slicing through dark green shadows.
“Good morning!” he softly called. “Game drive now!”
We, The Newlyweds, usually slept in. But on our last day in Africa we left camp early, bundled against the mist and chill, our jeep the first to growl out and bounce along the rutted, mud way that passed for a road.
I leaned into Rob, cold air rushing against my cheeks. We weren’t supposed to be in an open-air jeep, without windows or ceiling to protect us from the sudden onslaught of a storm or an animal’s pounce. But I think Beatus wanted to deliver, finally serving up that signature moment, an exotic and extraordinary miracle of nature, witnessed in the bush.
Careful what you ask for.
Our honeymoon had been glorious, gallivanting through Paris, then touching down at rustic bush camps in Kenya and Tanzania. Breathtaking sights dumbfounded us each day. We laughed at the normalcy of spotting giraffes in graceful parades, strutting and loping like the supermodels of the bush, or watching mighty elephants, trumpeting and ear-flapping alongside adoring, fumbling calves. Once, when we were in a jeep riding down a windswept, grassy slope, a zebra herd came thundering around us, swallowing us in their dust-flying gallop, the undulating black and white hides surging like a massive striped wave, the pounding reaching into our very souls. Once, sitting in Ngorongoro Crater’s prehistoric mist, Rob was talking, holding a grilled chicken wing, when a bird screeched above and swooped down, plucked the chicken from his fingers, cawing and soaring triumphantly away. We howled at our idiocy. How dumb we were, plopped down in this world.
One day we spotted two bloated lionesses, snoring and sleeping on their backs, legs splayed open to the sun, passed out, lunch-drunk, their innocence so deceiving. We’d seen them viciously gobbling a bloody carcass an hour before. Once, standing at a water flat, looking out onto thousands of stilled pink flamingoes, the birds rose up in a fluttering pink swath, raucous, flapping and honking, filling the sky, blanking out our view of snow-capped Kilimanjaro. We felt rushed, gone weightless, lifted with them, flying too.
Simply being on the continent was profound, timeless, humbling. We stared down from a plane’s tiny windows, awed by the endlessly stretching patchwork of green and gold vistas below. We were struck by how little we needed, our luggage limited to one twenty-pound bag each. Huddling together at night on our cots, listening to animals groaning in the darkness outside our tent, our New York City existence was instantly reframed. How vast and ancient and resplendent this world was; how small and hurried and repetitive were our concrete and glass lives. Each day I felt my legs swing further in strides, my senses heightened. Peppery sauces prickled and stung my lips and tongue; the touch of the jeep’s handle, cold and dewy each morning, was like pulling a wet bone from the slumbering earth.
But all that was rookie stuff. We still hadn’t scored big.
At night, around campfires low and crackling, sipping rum tangy with lime, we listened with envy as others recounted their game drives. They’d witnessed a baby hippo being born, sliding newly from its mother into water; had followed a cheetah, stalking, then slaughtering a gazelle; had watched a pride of lions, playful and tumbling with their cubs.
“Oh yeah, you guys flew Concorde,” a familiar guy tossed out one night, as if cueing us to tell our best game story. Everyone wanted to know: Was the plane really like a bus? Yes. Was the food great? No. I’d had a curly black hair in my tepid duck. Was it loud? No. Not inside the plane. The best part, I explained, was the flight attendant’s sultry French-accented voice coming over the loudspeaker, directing our attention to the flipping numbers on an electric blue digital Mach counter, up front.
“Ladeez and gentlemen!” she proudly announced, “we are flying at zee rate of supersonic speed!” There was a slight push like a wind thrust behind a sailboat; then our gleaming-white tin can of a plane zoomed even faster through the air. Twenty minutes later, the attendant proclaimed—even more enthusiastically—“Ladeez and gentlemen! We are flying at twice zee rate of supersonic speed!” Another thrust; it was New York to Paris, three hours flat.
But Concorde was a purchased experience, a ticket any money could buy. Out in the bush, we wanted sheer, fantastic luck. And for more than two weeks, our luck had been kind of lousy, gazing through binoculars over vast plains, only common hyenas or prancing ostriches breaking the view.
So it was our last day in Africa and Beatus parked the jeep at the foot of a rounded gray hill, rising abruptly like a tossed-off mound of clay, from the rain-washed Serengeti plains.
“This is Ngong Hill,” Beatus began. “A sacred place, where the Masai gather. See the big stones on top?” He pointed to a cluster of tall oval boulders, balanced vertically against all laws of gravity, like granite jellybeans rising to the stark blue sky.
“Those stones are hollow. The elders would bang rocks against them.” Beatus punched the air. “Gong! Gong! And the sound would echo out.“ Beatus ran his hand along the horizon. “They called the tribes. To gather below. For a meeting.” Looking up at the smooth dark hill, then out at the stretching plains, I imagined an army of askaris, holding spears at their sides, serious faces upturned to the hill, listening.
“There are monkeys around here,” Beatus said, getting out of the jeep. “Baboons.”
“We heard about baboons at another camp,” one of the two women from D.C. said. We’d crossed paths with the women before, gone on game drives together. “The baboons surrounded a jeep and ate all the lunch. People had to wait for hours for them to leave.”
“Yeah. Baboons can be mean,” Beatus said. “Let’s go up.”
I clearly remember the first step of my boot feeling illicit against the hard, gray stone. We weren’t supposed to be on foot, had never taken a walking hike in the bush. I knew Beatus didn’t have a gun or a knife. But we started walking up the hill, idly chatting, the plains dropping farther and farther below. Beneath Rob’s humor and my smiles, regret and sadness, inevitable at the close of a long-anticipated event, bubbled. In a day we’d head back to civilization—the subway’s stink; our florescent-lit offices—and return to sitting like potted plants in corporate greenhouses. I had wedding thank-you notes to write, a dress and shoes to put away; wedding disappointments to put away, too. Things hadn’t gone as we’d planned.
Ah well, nothing did.
My boot slipped a bit on the dust and stone. Maybe the ground was trying to tell me something. Approaching the top, we’d all grown quiet. Rob moved off to the left, through some low bushes; the two women slowed to one side, behind. Beatus went ahead and stood surveying the plains from just over the crest. Alone, I headed straight for those remarkable boulders.
I have to admit we’d been warned. At a casual orientation, when we’d blearily first arrived in Nairobi, our chatty British camp director ran through possible predicaments in a most blasé fashion. “Don’t put your hand in dark places,” he said, running his rugged, tanned hand through his shock of white hair. “Or, your toes, either. Tarantulas like to sleep inside shoes. And for you, The Newlyweds,” he christened us, “people like to play jokes. They might string some meat above your tent at night. To attract activity.” The group chuckled. “Needless to say, this is Africa, not a zoo. We’re among wild animals. Be cautious. And do make sure you’re taking the Larium?” He glanced over us. “We had one got malaria two weeks ago. Had to be airlifted out with a cerebral hemorrhage.”
“Did he live?” a man with round spectacles asked.
“No,” the camp director sighed, shaking his head.
The next morning the bespectacled man and his wife boarded a jeep and left.
“Beverly Hills doctor,” the camp director muttered. “Too rustic, they said. I told them to go hook up with Abercrombie and Kent.” Sure enough, we later passed a van, the Abercrombie logo splashed on its side, and a man wearing an ascot, holding a drink in his hand, peering out from the pop-up top like a privileged gopher. Rob hooted.
But that was the beginning; we were at the end.
It was quiet at the top, my every step loud over the dusty slipperiness. The steady breeze grew stronger, rippling. I passed a cluster of bushes, then stood at the towering ceremonial boulders. Their centuries-smoothed surfaces were decorated by ancient carvings, patterned slashes, geometric and repeated. I wondered if I picked up a rock and banged a boulder, would a deep timpani, like the heartbeat of the very world, echo out, over the plains? Would animals stop, alerted, listening? What messages had been passed down from this place? What joys, sufferings, urgent concerns? I stood imagining, was almost transfixed, mystified and fascinated by the boulders and their carved, sharp strokes.
Two boulders leaned against each other, making a sort of shadowed cave, the carvings decorating their edges, like an entrance. I loved all things tactile, would run my hands over a tree bark’s ridges or brush the nub of a tweed; had been gripping the gritty rocks, steadying myself as I walked up the hill. I leaned to the darkness, my arm outstretched, fingers ready to slip along the carvings; a lion stepped out.
I dropped my arm, felt choked, unable to breathe.
He stood no more than four feet away, paws firmly planted, head raised, snarling. I went frozen, petrified with terror, yet felt awed by his ferocious magnificence. His mane was orangish-gold and messy, leaves and twigs stuck through it willy nilly, like ornaments poking from thick, matted parts. He was dirty and roughed-up; I had the sense I’d awakened him, napping. A damp, musky smell of mud and fur whiffed from him; maybe he’d smelled me, too. Yet it was his eyes, shining like lit honey, focused on me; his expression, flatly taking me in, that was so mesmerizing. My heartbeat was loud, thudding in my ears; I stood frozen, going breathless, so close he could kill me with a swipe of his paw. And I will never forget the words that came to mind: So this is it. You die on your honeymoon.
He snarled, raised one side of his lip in an exhale; it almost seemed he’d heard my thought. Something I’ve never felt before or since, like a hot white light, ripped from the base of my heel up my spine, exploding into my head. I thought this was how death came, a full sensory rush; I could so vividly see and smell the lion, feel the very air beating between us. I stood locked, shocked, humbled, like witnessing God.
And this is what my brain brought forward: You have to tell them. He’ll kill us all.
I took one small step back and pronounced in a flat voice, “There’s a lion underneath that rock.”
Beatus, above me, further off, turned and said, “There is no lion.” Then he saw its head and stood stunned, staring down.
Stark realizations came to me. The jeep was fifteen minutes away, at the base of the hill. We were alone in the Serengeti. Beatus was moving down, off to the side. In my peripheral view I glimpsed Rob moving down; then the white shirt of the one of the DC women, shuttling off, too. I wondered if my carcass would lie bloodied and ravaged on the rocks, offered up like a maiden on the pyre. I was growing dizzy.
The lion growled.
“Sssssss. Cahackkk! Grooowlllll!”
It sounded like he was clearing his throat, ready to roar. I wondered if his claws would slash my neck; if I’d feel his teeth, chomping into the bone of my skull. I remembered guide book phrases, glanced in the back of the jeep. Lion: Four or five hundred pounds. Runs fifty miles an hour. Leaps three feet. He could rip after me; I was doomed. I wondered what it would feel like when he bounded onto me, pushing me down, if I’d black out instantaneously. I grew sick, knowing how bad it would be; tears came to my eyes.
How stupid are we? I thought. How dare we come here and walk in this sacred place like righteous intruders? How dare I plop my silly, little, wedding-skinny self into this vastness, forever ruled by nature? I, and my ridiculous human condescension, deserved to be mauled. I dropped my gaze from his face in apology, head bowed, took another step back, fighting the urge to wail.
“Cahackk. Grrr!” The lion shifted towards me.
I felt off-balance, worried I might faint; considered the pierce of his teeth into my stomach, the hold of his jaws, throttling me like a rag doll. I wondered if, after he bit me, I might wriggle off? Get away with losing just an arm, half a leg?
“Sssssss! Cahackk. Grrr!”
Bile gurgled in my esophagus; I worried I’d vomit, be incapacitated; he’d pounce. I gulped, felt the throbbing heaviness between us. I wanted release, to scream, flee, but I was held there, every muscle clenched. I took one, two, timid steps back. It was a long way down, three, four thousand steps. I knew I couldn’t contain myself that long.
And then I heard the most beautiful sound.
“AR AR AR AR!”
It was above me, to my left.
“AR AR AR AR!” Barking, mean, challenging.
Ever so slightly, I glanced up. A baboon was planted on rocks, yelling down like an angry neighbor.
“AR AR AR AR!” the baboon accused, and the lion answered, aggravated.
“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!” He bared his teeth, swatting a dismissive paw.
His open jaw was massive, big enough to swallow my head; his single paw was wider than my face. I clamped my lips to keep from screaming.
Undeterred, the baboon scolded more.
“AR! AR! AR! AR!”
“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!”
Clearly, they had longstanding issues, were quarreling like New Yorkers on balconies, yelling across an alley. And I knew: This is your chance.
I quickened my little elf steps, back, back, faster, faster—not too fast. I was still facing the lion, hoping to God I didn’t slip on the dirt and stones and tumble off the side of the damn hill. I placed a foot behind, settled it, felt for flat ground; placed another, then another, thinking: Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons.
“Ar Ar Ar!”
Their phrases grew brief, staccato, some bush-profanity exchange over a centuries-old Ngong Hill property dispute. I was still well within bounding range of the lion, but he was distracted, so I kept skittering back. Until I slipped, the slope too steep; almost fell, then froze. I lifted my eyes. The lion, alerted, stared at me; I lowered my head. In my peripheral view I glimpsed the others, clustered below at the side of the jeep, looking ready to jump in and take off when the mauling started. I believed that once I turned away from the lion, once he saw my back, he’d spring, attack.
I stood still, shuddering, trying to breathe,
“AR! AR! AR!”
The baboon reached crescendo, decades of dissatisfaction released; the lion strutted out fully from his cave, and stood planted, head up, chest proud, facing the baboon. His sheer presence was enough to silence anyone or anything.
But the baboon went off—“Ararar! Ararar! Ararar!”—barking a litany of woes, and the lion growled back.
I shifted, wincing, counting—one, two, three—and wishing I were invisible, turned away from the lion, scurrying down the hill, scraping through bushes, tripping on dirt and stones, my heart pounding, ears peeled for a predatory roar.
Which never came.
I reached the bottom and found myself panting, my mouth hanging open, standing next to Rob. I felt displaced, uncertain, not comprehending what had happened.
And Beatus spoke quietly, staring at me with glowing eyes.
“In the Masai,” he started, “we have the woman warrior.”
“Yes, Beatus,” I whispered, tears filling my eyes.
“You have seen the lion,” he declared with amazement.
“Yes,” I smiled, still whispering. “I have seen the lion.”
“You—” Beatus stopped, took on dignity. “You Masai Mama,” he pronounced, nodding, as if in honor.
“Oh! Thank you, Beatus,” I said, nodding in return. But I felt unsteady, thin and transparent, as wispy as onion skin; I thought I might float away. I forced my boots into the ground. Every sensation—the breeze, that musky mane-scent, the gritty touch of the rocks, the warmth of the now-full sun—seared into me. I was overwhelmed, had to quell it, bring it down.
“Beatus, do we have any beer?”
“Yes,” he nodded, still staring as if astounded. He went to the little plastic cooler, handed me a cold one.
“We could all use one,” Rob said, helping pass the beers. He threw his arms around me, kissed the top of my head. “Pip,” he said, “let me get your picture.” I stood dazed, posing with the beer, my other hand pointing at the hill.
“I think we got a story for the campfire,” Rob grinned.
But our last day in Africa had just begun.
Lynn Brindell is a writer currently working on a memoir about her experience as caregiver to her late husband during his battle with cancer. The memoir’s title is “Driving Through Tornadoes,” and this story, about an experience in the Serengeti in 1996, is excerpted from it. She previously had a career in media.