The jeep swerved and bounced as it ascended and descended one mound after the other. Everything was barren with the exception of a few patches of grass strewn here and there. There wasn’t a soul to be seen and the deafening silence was only intermittently broken by the rumbling of our vehicle. I tried looking for them and squinted my eyes in order to spot them somewhere in the distance. I could see nothing except for an unending expanse of reddish brown sand. They would venture out only after dark, my guide affirmed and we knew a long but exciting wait was ahead of us. We were after all, in the wild. We were right in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa and the adrenaline just wouldn’t stop kicking.
It was almost evening when I arrived in !Xaus Lodge, an eco-friendly and authentic South African luxury accommodation, situated in the heart of the beautiful Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Park in the Kalahari desert. With a dozen large tents on stilts and a cosy dining and reception area, the camp overlooks a massive saltpan and a waterhole both of which impart the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. We were scheduled to go on several game drives from the next day onward and also associate with the Kalahari Bushmen in order to experience the indigenous way of life. Considering the almost total absence of electricity and communication facilities, I was certain that this particular escapade would be unparalleled. And it already was, courtesy of the million stars and constellations I spotted in the velvety sky after a hearty meal of butternut squash soup, fish pie and malva pudding. But little did I know that there were surprises in store.
Darkness had engulfed the camp and there were no noises apart from our footsteps as we made our way to the tent guided by the friendly manager along with a few candles and a lantern. Bone-chilling winds kept hitting our faces and the wooden bridge beneath us creaked because of the force. Once inside the tent, I changed in the light of a taper and quickly buried myself inside a pile of blankets because the cold felt like it would be the death of me. I find silence exceptionally comforting but in this scenario, I longed to hear human voices. The moon and the stars shone enough for me to look through the glass door to the balcony and the saltpan outside was as desolate as it could possibly be. I decided to read but my eyelids were getting heavier by the minute. As exciting as the idea of being in a desert sounds, it drains you of all your energy in ways like no other. It probably was past midnight when sleep took over my senses. My sheep count was a little over nine hundred, I cannot say for sure.
I awoke with a start and my hands groped for my watch and the tiny torch because it was still dark, in fact extremely so. It was three in the morning and the noises outside my tent were loud enough to wake the deepest of sleepers. I was probably not entirely awake because the sounds to me were very much akin to several bulls braying. They then turned into doleful moos. The grunting was constant, mournful, angry and sometimes just indecipherable. I convinced myself that a group of buffaloes had gathered outside the camp and decided to go back to sleep. I then thought I heard footsteps but I wasn’t certain as sleep was gradually coming back to me. Grunting. Footsteps. Grunting. Footsteps. More grunting. No footsteps. And the grunting then turned into a thunderous roar.
I jumped out of bed this time around because the roaring was only getting louder with every passing minute. All my drowsiness had disappeared within seconds. Something was terribly wrong and I knew that opening the door of the wooden tent would only amplify the terror. I paced around for a bit and jumped back into bed because the angry roars on this occasion were emanating from right outside my door. My heart was in my hand and it literally would have been so because I could almost hear them breathing. They were roaring and breathing with all the ferocity they could muster. I initially thought there were a couple of them but the constantly increasing volume made me scrap my theory. There were a dozen lions just outside my tent and I could do nothing except stay huddled up in bed, waiting for them to go away and imagining the worst case scenario wherein I would become their meal.
It was colder than ever before but I was covered in sweat. I have always been fascinated with the idea of adventure, with looking danger in the face and deriving a kick out of it. However, the reality is a lot less exciting and more traumatic than anything else. The lions just wouldn’t go and it almost felt like they were calling me. The ordeal continued for several minutes, maybe an hour when suddenly, the roaring stopped. It was like the almighty had heard my prayers because the lions receded, probably tired of screaming their lungs out. I kept sitting for the longest time, waiting, because I felt that they would come back, but they didn’t. Sleep had evaded me completely and the fear was gradually transforming into amusement. What a night!
“Did you hear the lions? They usually keep a good distance from the camp but they were so eerily close last night. I hope you and your folks weren’t scared!”, the manager asked me over tea and slices of carrot cake.
“You mentioned yesterday that you’ve never had guests from India, right? I guess they came to say hello”, I said.