by Douglas Young
Madikwe Game Reserve—June 23, 2010
“Can’t they get in?” I asked the ranger.
We’d just finished breakfast in an overdone dining room with unsurprising pictures of animals every direction you looked. We were gathered outside in the circular drive of the craftsman style Motswiri Lodge. I wore a brimmer hat with my long auburn hair tucked under to protect it from lightening any more than it had rowing crew back home on the Bay.
“They could, but they never have.”
He said his name was Amogelang, Amo for short. I felt his voice rumble through me from that very first day. He was a few years older and not attractive to me in his bulky ranger uniform. Romantically, he wasn’t my type. He was too serious, but I was too young to have any idea what I’d want in men. I’d been reading up about the park and was eager to learn. Foremost, at fourteen, I wanted knowledge, and Amo had that aplenty. So we were a fit from the start.
“The jeep will be your home away from camp when we are in-country,” he said gallantly as he helped Mom get in. Mom looked just like me with the same hair, just shorter, and she kept fit for her age playing tennis tournaments.
“I love the birds. Will you teach me all of their names?”
Daddy had already gotten in and looked on as Amo nodded.
“Baker, you get up front,” Daddy said, redirecting Amo to seat Mom in back with him.
Our family safari was to reunite us. Daddy worked all the time. I’d overheard their pact to not fight while she’s still at home, but they had too much opportunity on these trips when we were never apart, so I was apprehensive.
The jeep wouldn’t start.
“The engine is cold,” Amo said.
It kicked in on the third try. Amo seemed to take great pleasure revving it.
Our jeep had no sides and no top like the ones we’d rented on beach vacations. We were more exposed than I’d thought.
It was a four-seater, just the right size for our family. There’d be no room for my uncle who was to join us in two days with four tickets to the 2010 FIFA World Cup match, USA vs. Ghana men. It was a knockout round, so win or go home, in nearby Rustenberg. I loved my uncle. He’d practically raised me. He’d taken me for ice cream from our Russian Hill mansion to Fisherman’s Wharf for as far back as I could remember.
Daddy was already sweating in the dry South African summer heat from the extra weight he carried. I was pleased to see him pressed cozily up to Mom, pinning her to one side of the bench seat in the back.
“Why do jeeps have a steel cage in other parks like Kruger?” Daddy asked, slapping an arm over Mom’s bare shoulder.
“Once they learn, they don’t forget,” Amo said. “And Kruger’s a National Park. The rules are stricter.”
“Not until someone’s eaten. That’s a fine way to run a business,” Daddy grumbled. I wasn’t sure if Daddy would say no to the whole thing then—we’d come all the way from San Francisco—but he was quiet. Amo didn’t wait, in any case. We were off.
Amo drove fast, slowing to give Mom warning for potholes and ahead of sharp turns. From the beginning, he was courteous. This morning he was taking us to see lions. It didn’t take long to find them.
We bumped along more slowly off road, through wild grasses that had frayed in the winter sun and ground to yellow dust under the jeep’s wheels. We were alone on the veld when we came upon three females and as many cubs at about thirty yards.
Amo turned off the engine, and the lions ambled toward us. Even from this distance, I could see their tails swishing. It was exhilarating with no vehicles or other rangers in sight, and I didn’t know what to expect.
“Is it okay to make eye contact?” Mom asked.
“Maybe, but be very still,” Amo said. We couldn’t have taken Amo more seriously. Even Daddy was silent.
I first noticed her eyes—deep, dark, glistening pools, open wide, beautiful, ruthless, uncaring, practical. Was I reading in too much? The lioness stopped no more than six feet away. What am I to her but a next meal, I thought, averting my gaze to my hands clenched in my lap.
Each time I glanced up, the lioness caught my eye. It was unnerving. There was nothing but open air between us, and the side door of the jeep was so low it barely covered my white Converse.
As the first group circled, more lions I hadn’t noticed appeared, including a young male, and soon we were entirely surrounded. I’d read of incidents in other parks. A lioness had placed her paws up on the door and bit a woman in the neck through an open window. Our jeep had no windows at all.
“Don’t move now,” Amo said.
I could have reached out and stroked the lioness’s head; she was that close. Her dander was thick, radiating off her coat. She licked her thick tongue over roughened lips. The darker fur bob at the very top of her tail twitched! Was that a tell?
“What’s to stop them hopping up and eating us?” Mom whispered quietly.
I turned my head slowly toward Amo wondering the same.
“I have two weapons, mohumagadi,” Amo said, in barely a whisper. I’d noted the rifle, but it was still clamped down tight to the dash. He barely spread his legs, and I looked down slowly, moving only my eyes. There was a holstered pistol strapped onto the inside of his ankle.
“I am trained by the African Wildlife Defence Force to protect you,” he said proudly. The certainty in his demeanor inspired me for a moment to relax. I realized Amo hadn’t smiled once since I’d met him.
“Impressive,” I whispered with just a hint of sarcasm. It worked. He grinned.
“No worries. They think we are an elephant. The jeep is so big.”
He could joke.
“How can you possibly know what lions think?” Daddy said, but too loudly.
In the side mirror I could see Daddy’s head shaking behind me as he spoke in his exaggerated way. The young male noticed too and stopped mid-stride to study the strange flapping above the rear wheelbase. This could be it, I thought. Would today be the first day that lions in Madikwe discovered that elephant ears were sometimes meaty skulls in disguise?
“Sir, if you step from the jeep just now you will find what they are thinking. You won’t get two steps,” Amo said without malice, raising two fingers from the steering wheel without moving his hand, and Daddy’s gesticulations stopped.
A young cub jumped playfully up on the jeep’s tire, extending its forepaws as high as it could reach toward Daddy’s dangling elbow. Would the cub find us easy prey, far too slow to escape—a bounty of easy-to-kill organ meat?
An adult female nudged the cub from the wheelbase. When Daddy coughed, she turned once more. What might she be leaving behind?
“The real problem is poaching,” Amo said once he’d gathered the family the next day. “Poaching of white rhinos to sell their horns.”
“I read Madikwe is mostly unpatrolled,” I said.
“Seventy-five thousand hectares,” Amo nodded. “And there are big fines and jail time if the poachers are caught. So, as you can imagine, they don’t want any witnesses.”
We spent that morning taking pictures of giraffes and wildebeest, zebras, and elephants. We did see hyenas fighting over an impala, shredding it in a slow death in the middle of the road. There was something crudely satisfying that shouldn’t be admitted watching them take whole bites, and you knew it couldn’t get away, but still it tried to escape.
In the heat of the early afternoon sun, Amo pulled off the road over tawny matted grasses, and we wheeled past a set of orangish boulders.
“I want to visit your California one day. These rocks remind me of your bridge.”
“The Golden Gate Bridge. Only it’s not really golden,” I said proudly.
“It’s the strait that connects to the ocean that’s golden, especially at sunset,” Amo said. “It was known as the Golden Gate long before the bridge was built.”
I was impressed.
“How do you know that?”
“You know a lot about America.”
“I love this city. If I’m elected I’ll move the White House to San Francisco.”
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I laughed. “Now that you mention it, I have heard that one.”
A confluence of delicious smells drifted past. “That’s bacon,” Daddy said.
On the other side of the boulders was one of those fake surprises so obviously staged to impress tourists; Daddy and Mom loved it. A banquet in the open veld was laid out—wild boar, ostrich eggs, putupap porridge, mealie bread, coffee, orange juice, and rooibos punch in sweating tankards.
“Not for you; that stuff’s spiked,” Daddy said, taking my hand as I reached for a mug.
Amo laughed then stopped short when he saw I was embarrassed.
We took our time enjoying the sumptuous feast, especially Daddy. It was set out by three persons from the lodge we recognized. They made cheery conversation with us as we ate.
“Would you like another rooibos, sir?” Amo said a short while later, after Daddy had finished a third helping. As Amo refilled Daddy’s tankard, our boon friends were packing up to go.
“Amo, were we in much danger yesterday when the lions came so close?
“Hey, is this a baobab?” Daddy added as he leaned against a tree root while lounging in the dirt.
Daddy didn’t seem as gruff today. Maybe the time away from the stresses of his business was doing him good. Daddy’s younger brother was running operations while we were touring Cape Town and Durbin, and Mom said it could be permanent, not just while we were away.
“That’s a river bushwillow,” Amo said. “It flowers white in summer until March. The baobab you are thinking of is back at the lodge.”
Daddy nodded, taking a sip.
“But to your question, sir, about the lions. I will answer with a story as your meal is done. It’s not meant to scare you as I will take every precaution on your holiday, you can be sure.
“When I first came here a year ago, Baboloki, my best friend, came with me from Groot Marico to Madikwe.”
“Where’s Groot Marico?” I asked.
“It’s a hamlet, really, not far from here. Baboloki was younger and smaller than me. I had to promise his parents I would be his father, mother, and brother here.”
Mom nodded, absorbed in the tale.
“Baboloki and I were always together growing up, and here we were the same. While we were in training, we did what they asked. One day we went on patrol with two rangers, both experienced Afrikaners. It was routine: looking out for poachers, checking fences, and counting animals by area to estimate their populations. They told us to lead, and the two rangers followed us from fifty feet behind. And just like that, it happened so fast.”
I noticed wetness forming in Amo’s eyes. Mom did too, and I felt her tense next to me.
“When they are hungry, they eat…even before…before he…” Amo looked right at us then. “Baboloki wasn’t dead yet.”
Mom gasped. I watched Amo. He was so overwrought.
“What happened?” Daddy asked.
“They eat the savory parts first…kidney, liver, spleen…” Amo’s voice trailed off. “One moment we were joking, and then the lion attacked Baboloki. Why not me? The lion was waiting for us. It came from nowhere. It bit Baboloki in the neck, broke his spine, and punctured his windpipe. When he screamed, it was a hiss, just a hiss. It was terrible. The lion opened him up…it stretched his intestines fifteen, twenty feet. Baboloki is hissing, and I’m watching, and there is nothing I can do. The lion is eating—he is still alive.”
Amo stopped, wiped his eyes, and was silent for a moment. Then he took out his wallet and pulled out a crumpled photo.
The picture was a young boy dressed in church clothes, grinning. He captured my heart and, I could tell, Mom’s too.
It was so quiet then. All you could hear was the Marico River flowing nearby.
“Sometimes I feel Baboloki is by my side, even though he isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”
Mom was crying now.
The mood from Amo’s story lingered all day. Later that afternoon I was walking in the Lowveld with Amo. A leopard had been seen nearby with its kill dragged up a tree, so Amo carried his rifle slung over one shoulder.
“Right there,” he said gravely, pointing into the dense bush.
“Baboloki?” I felt the hairs on my neck.
Amo nodded. It had a powerful effect knowing it had happened so close. I felt connected to him by his sharing of something so meaningful, and I felt so bad for him then.
I looked into his face. His intelligent eyes, lips, and eyebrows were all the same exact shade. Even his freckles matched perfectly. He wasn’t like the boys I’d had innocent crushes on at Sacred Heart School, and I wasn’t interested in Amo in that way. It was deeper, more spiritual between us.
I’d never met a boy like him. As he spoke about the park and told stories, his words surged through me like a bullet from a gun.
There was a loud report—a rifle?
“Did you hear that?” Daddy said from close behind black thorn trees on the trail. He was breathing heavily and looked upset walking ahead of Mom. She’d been scolding him about eating too much mealie bread and not getting enough exercise from the jeep. I was worried about his blood pressure too.
I looked at Amo—poachers? There was no time. We got back in the jeep for a rough ride, bouncing along without braking over rain-made ditches over barely passable ruts in the dirt road. We heard another gunshot. Amo accelerated.
“Are we driving toward the shooting?” Daddy asked.
“We have to help.”
“Not what I signed us up for.”
They came upon another ranger’s jeep and Amo stopped.
“I tried to scare them off. These things can’t be helped.” The ranger was speaking Afrikaans. He seemed shifty to me, but Amo treated him with deference.
A magnificent rhinoceros, its skin shining brightly, lay bleeding heavily from its ripped snout. Its horn had been sawed partly and pulled out crudely. “They may be close by. You take them back. I’ll take a look to try to find them.”
By the next morning we’d heard little more. “Are we going on a safari today?” Daddy asked when Amo arrived, after a breakfast of poached eggs and dried biltong. Whoever killed the rhino might still be inside the reserve, so we would stay close to Tau Lodge today. It was well into morning when Amo and I found ourselves once again alone.
“Look there,” he said.
Across the plain at fifty yards, three lion cubs rolled playfully in grasses undulating in the gentle breeze. Even from this distance it was a joy to watch. One cub was bigger and when it pounced, it flattened the others, but they weren’t hurt in the least and jumped right back up.
“I like the fat one,” I said, laughing.
A young adult male, identifiable by its lesser mane, took up a cub by the neck.
“Cute,” I said. “Is that their papa?”
“Look away,” Amo said, but I didn’t.
The lion shook his head violently from side to side. A cracking sound, or had I imagined it? Instinctively, I took Amo’s arm.
The lion dropped the limp cub, so rambunctious a moment ago, and in no hurry strolled on. The remaining two continued to play. The lioness watched with interest but did nothing.
I stepped forward. “Why doesn’t she protect them?”
Amo took me more firmly by the wrist.
“It’s not up to her. It’s all his now. Baker, don’t watch.”
I couldn’t look away. The chubbiest cub made no effort to escape as it was scooped up.
“Why doesn’t it run away? Can’t we help?”
“The pride is under the new male’s control. There’s nothing we can do.”
Knowing what was coming, I whirled and tripped right into Amo. His arms encircled me instinctively just as Daddy walked up.
“What’s going on?”
I pulled away awkwardly, and Amo let his hands fall to his sides.
“That’s the mother,” Amo said, haltingly. “If he doesn’t do that she won’t be interested to make more with him.”
Daddy’s face was a snarl, but he grunted in what seemed like reluctant acquiescence.
“See how proud the young male is? He has taken over. The lioness, and there are more of them, are his to protect now. They will mate so it will be his seed of the new pride. If he doesn’t do this another one will.”
“Where’s the father?” Daddy asked.
“Banished. Dying. If he returns now he will be killed, so usually he won’t. Most likely they’ve fought. The old one has given up. There’s nothing left for him. He is either alone or dead already. He won’t last long. Too weak to kill his own food.”
“Sad,” I said taking Daddy’s arm.
From the jeep a short while later, we came upon two lions mating. Amo cut the engine so we could take our time and look. The female was positioned with hindquarters raised, chin to the dirt. I wondered, could that really be pleasure? I felt something, and it seemed that it could.
When we drove on over the next hill, an older male was walking alone. His coat was mangy with bald spots, open wounds, fresh cuts. His eyes were dull with no majesty left in them. He looked down and away from us as we passed. Then, out of nowhere, he roared.
I was impressed and said so.
Mom leaned forward and touched Amo’s arm.
“Is that him?”
Did her hand stay on his arm a little long?
“Most likely,” Amo laughed. “Quite harmless, as you can see.”
I glanced at my parents on the bench behind me, sitting so far apart. I was young and curious and learning from them.
I caught Mom’s eye. Did she smirk? It was infectious. I smiled back, not meaning to. I felt so guilty, though I’m pretty sure Daddy didn’t see.
Did something happen between Mom and Amo—maybe something not so spiritual? I didn’t ask, she didn’t say, and so I’ve never been sure either way. But when Daddy came to say good night to me that night, why wasn’t she there with him too? It’s all circumstantial; it’s impossible to say.
Daddy looked more haggard than I’d ever seen him, and the thought flashed through my mind: were the tastiest parts, his kidney, liver, spleen, being devoured daily right in front of him? And did he know?
In a strange flash of premonition, my world seemed to tumble down. I envisioned Mom standing by, doing nothing, or worse, participating as Daddy’s pride was dismantled. And I’d be unable to protect him, silenced; would my neck be broken by an unexpected usurper taking over Daddy’s kingdom he’d built over his whole life?
The next morning their voices were loud enough from inside their tent to send the gold-breasted buntings out of their nests. The yellow-billed hornbills dispersed. Even Mom’s prized pied babblers that Amo had shown her went silent.
As it turned out, we left early.
We never saw Amo again.
On the twin engine to Johannesburg, Mom couldn’t get a seat near Daddy as we started the long journey home.
We missed the big match, of course. My uncle went alone. When we landed for the next leg in Dakar, I noticed Mom’s eyes were red.
We never escaped my uncle Cranston.
He lorded it over Daddy: that he had missed a once in a lifetime finish as Ghana won in extra time on a kick by Asamoah Gyan; that he had taken over Daddy’s business, leaving him with no purpose; that my uncle was there after school when I got home as Daddy wandered the golf course at Olympic Club alone.
With college four years away, how could I survive this house Mom had divided? And that I missed Amo possibly even more than she did.
Douglas Young is a research writer whose research paper “How to Master the Local Bypass Challenge” sold over 20,000 copies in the B2B telecom market. He has a master’s degree from Harvard and studied fiction writing with Peter Taylor at the University of Virginia. His work has been published in Paragon Journal.