The moonless night was nearly black except for the soft radiance of countless stars in the Kalahari sky. I had been sound asleep, but for some reason awakened, listening. I couldn't understand this sudden, instinctive alertness, but - there! - a sound I'd never heard before, like distant thunder rumbling. But not like thunder. What was it?
My tent was pitched on the sand under a spreading acacia tree. I'd often enjoyed sleeping under the stars on solo overnight patrols while fulfilling my duties as game warden of Khutse Game Reserve in Botswana. Now I was grateful for the screen of protection the flimsy shelter offered. I propped myself up on my elbows to listen better. An eerie tension filled me as I lay motionless, waiting.
In the next tent slept my friend Karl, who had traveled all the way from Alaska to visit me and see the Kalahari. I wondered if he was awake and listening, too, but I dared not make a sound.
The rumbling rolled through the warm night air at regular intervals. Then I heard dry grass bending, being crushed. Hairs rose on the back of my neck. This was not the foraging of some small night creature like a springhare or even an antelope. These footsteps were heavy, but softly, deliberately placed. This was a hunter. Whatever it was, it was close - right on the other side of the thin nylon wall.
Then, there she stood, her profile silhouetted against the star-filled sky. I could have touched her. Only mosquito netting separated me from a lioness. I didn't breathe. The Bible story of Daniel in the lions' den flashed through my mind, and my muscles relaxed somewhat. She walked on, continuing her thunderous purring.
Karl was missing all this. "Karl," I whispered. Nothing. I whispered a little louder, still nothing. "Karl!" This time a screaming whisper. A mumble came from Karl's tent.
"It's a lion!"
"Oh!" By the sound of his voice, I could tell he had come fully awake.
We listened to the rumbling, and then Karl said, "It's coming back. Should we get in the truck?"
"No." Being in the Land Cruiser would be safer, but leaving the tent would be foolish. To run would invite a chase, and I had no doubt who would win.
"What's she going to do?" Karl asked.
"I don't know."
"Do you think she'll attack?"
"I doubt it," I said as casually as I could, my mind racing. We had to remain calm, not do anything stupid. Karl fired off a volley of questions, none of which I could truly answer. I suppose, since I'd lived in Africa for over a year, he assumed I'd know what to do if a lion came sniffing at my tent door.
Far away, a crowned plover screeched. Crickets sang. And just outside, the lioness purred.
The big cat lay only a few paces in front of our tents. We decided to try shining a flashlight at her. Karl found his. "She's crouching," he said nervously as we stared at the lioness blinking in the glare.
"No, she's not crouching. She's just lying there." I knew enough about lion behavior and body language to know she was showing no threat (at the moment). Her huge paws were not bunched underneath her, ready to spring, but were stretched out in front of her like an overgrown yellow tabby lounging on a sofa. Her long, tufted tail was not switching back and forth, the final signal before an attack, but was relaxed by her side. Sure, just the presence of a large predator a single bound away made my pulse race, but reason told me we had little to fear. Besides, this cat was purring, obviously in a contented mood. She was only curious.
I still hadn't found my flashlight and was searching blindly for it while keeping my eyes on the lioness. The rustling fabric sounds coming from inside my tent apparently puzzled her. She looked inquisitively in my direction and cocked her head. "Oh, you are beautiful," I breathed. In Karl's bright light, I could see her clearly. Every whisker. Her eyes were huge golden pools with flecks of brown toward the center. They asked, "What is this thing? It doesn't move, yet it makes strange noises."
Our tents, glowing faintly in the starlight, had probably attracted her attention in the first place. She'd moved on when she found nothing interesting. Then, with noises coming from them, she was perplexed. Maybe she hadn't connected our tents with us - with humans. Surely, though, she recognized human scent. Maybe it was the sight of the tents that was unfamiliar. At any rate, I figured that if she could see us, her curiosity would be sated and her natural fear of humans would bid her to leave. I decided to act on that notion. Docile though she was, her close proximity made us nervous.
I finally found my flashlight and turned it on. Light flooded the inside of my tent. I couldn't see through the mosquito netting and immediately switched the light off.
Cautiously, I unzipped the door and crawled halfway out. I shone the light on myself "See?" I said to the startled lioness. "It's just us people." After staring at me for another second, the big cat suddenly stood up and walked away.
She never stopped purring. Long after she had slipped into the night, the gentle rumbling resonated through the still air, slowly fading. But her golden eyes remain indelibly etched in my memory. Eyes full of power, strength, wisdom. And innocence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society