Travel can be a transformative experience, especially when you’re looking a lion right in the eye
Author Chris Wright Illustration Sam Washburn
Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with animals. I hate to see them hurt, but will happily place their body parts between two slices of bread. I’m desperately afraid of being mauled by a bear (I have recurring dreams about it), but if I read about somebody else being mauled by a bear, I get defensive on the mauler’s behalf.
“By hiking into the wilderness, the victim invaded the animal’s habitat, and in doing so knew the risks,” I’ll opine. “I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the pub, that the bear is blameless in this tragedy.”
I got the opportunity to put this worldview to the test a while back, when my girlfriend and I went on a one-week safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is quite literally crawling with creatures who are eager to bite, claw, sting, strangle or stomp to death any human being they happen across. Even the giraffes looked at us funny.
That’s the thing about trips like this: They force you to re-examine your priorities. Our guide, a garrulous local boy named Johan, was one of the few in our concession who refused to take a gun out with him, and this bothered me. Johan quickly sensed this, and so would routinely pull up beside a pride of snoozing lions, turn the engine off and, when it was time to leave, pretend the battery had gone dead. Oh, the laughs we had.
My discomfort reached a terrible climax when, one sultry morning, we came across a kill.
The victim was a young hippo; cute little fella. A half dozen or so lions were gathered around it, their snouts covered in gore and flies, their feast occasionally interrupted by an explosion of familial violence. Johan had advised us that the lions would not view us as individuals; the only thing they would see, he said, was our vehicle (which, I should point out, was lacking doors, roof and windows). Try not to move too much, Johan said, and don’t look them in the eye.
I looked them in the eye. Specifically, I looked a young male lion in the eye, and he looked right back at me. Not only this, he stood up and started to walk toward me. I know cats. I knew that look. “Go! Go! Go!” I screamed, flailing my arms in a way that, out here, identified me as one of the day’s specials. Johan, who’d slid to the passenger side to take pictures with his phone, bundled himself into the driver’s seat and started the engine. No jokes this time.
The young lion turned out to be more interested in the mangled hippo than in me, and he soon returned to his spot at the baby animal’s eye socket. The engine was silenced again and we sat there for the better part of an hour, watching a special wildlife rendition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Johan taking photographs, me clutching a machete he’d handed over to shut me up. It was, by a considerable distance, the most stressful 57 minutes and 32 seconds of my life.
The point is this: Sitting there, I wanted those lions dead. In fact, I’d have been quite happy if we’d sped back to the lodge shooting every living thing we saw along the way, including the butterflies. It was at this point I understood that my attitude toward the natural world is not one of sympathy and respect. My priorities had been re-examined all right, and there was no mistaking which side of the us-or-them divide I came down on.
We take it for granted that travel can be a transformative experience. We venture out into the world to broaden our horizons, the thinking goes, and in doing so to broaden our minds. But the real transformation is not intellectual; it is in our blood. In exploring the outer edges of experience, we discover things we didn’t know about ourselves. We encounter impulses and instincts previously locked away in a box marked “Caveman Stuff.” This is not a comfortable proposition. Facing up to who we are is one thing; facing up to what we are is another.
Certainly, I wasn’t proud of my performance with the lions that day. My fellow safari-goers snickered at my histrionics, but it wasn’t the implication of cowardice that haunted me—it was the suggestion that, when faced with an existential threat, I was capable of abandoning every moral principle I ever held. And where does that line of inquiry lead me? Would I enter a burning house to save a neighbor? Would I drive over a kitten for $50,000? Am I even a moral being?
After our day of carnage-seeing, back at the luxury lodge, my girlfriend and I sat in the mock-colonial bar with its rustic beams and zebra-skin rugs and drank themed cocktails. There was a deck overlooking the Sabi River, and we stood out there smoking cigarettes and gazing into the thick brush on the other side, which rang out continuously with squawks and screams.
Soon, a vervet monkey tottered along the rail toward us, an expectant, melancholic expression on his face. “Give me fruit,” he was saying. “Fruit.” I went inside and got him a banana. The way he turned the lumps around in his hands, studying them with such seriousness—it still makes my heart ache to think of that. But then something else happened. The first vervet was joined by another, then another, then another. They started chattering, picking at us from behind, jostling us. And then, with a great clamor, these pretty little monkeys went to war.
Executive editor CHRIS WRIGHT was once terrorized by a school of small yellow fish while snorkeling in the Gulf of Oman.