A primal fear..
One of my favourite books in my vast collection of Africana left to me by my late Father was J.H. Patterson's "The Man Eaters of Tsavo". For those of you not familiar with his works, he details the considerable nuisance caused by two marauding man eating lions that severely derailed the efforts at completing a bridge and railroad through Kenya's Tsavo area. I remember shuddering in horror at reading his accounts of how these lions preyed on the workforce and his grim recollections of their pitiful remains were etched in my young mind.
Fast-forward a few years, and I happened to find myself as an apprentice hunting a man eater of my own with my mentor and friend in the vast Niassa Wilderness. A lioness had grabbed a fisherman by the head whilst he was asleep around a small fire at a place called Metarica on the Lugenda river, and had attempted to drag him off to devour him. The fisherman's compatriots had bravely fought her off with flaming branches and she had dropped the man on the edge of the firelight. The man's injuries were grievous and he succumbed that night despite his friends valiant efforts at rescue. A few nights later the cat struck again and grabbed a sleeping fisherman by the foot. Again her efforts were thwarted by alarmed locals, and it was on their frightened reports that I had made the journey to the western area of our concession to deal with the lioness. I remember the thrill of realization that I would be hunting a potential man eating lion, but despite searching for days, we never found her.
Northern Mozambique historically had quite the problem with man eating lions in days of old, and the locals would often relate stories of luckless villagers being dragged into the night by these beasts. Black magic and superstition were never far from the fold and it was widely believed that these man eaters were avenging witch doctors, enacting curses on their enemies. As a young apprentice, I spent many nights in the bush, opening roads or on anti poaching patrols listening to hair raising stories of African folklore and witchcraft. I would have my bedroll in a dry sandy river bed, with my erstwhile staff similarly arranged around our small flickering fire, providing warmth and a semblance of security and comfort from the nights terrors. Besides the folklore, my staff would regale me with tales of bush life and a few stories remain with me to this day. Bilale, my main tracker, once told me a story of tracking buffalo through a small field on the outskirts of a collection of hunts. To call it a village would be overly generous. The setting was primitive and remote. These people had nothing and survived on very little. Life there was tough, of that there was no doubt. In the firelight a stone faced Bilale told me how they happened across a small pair of 'feet' in the scruffy maize stalks. I remember looking at him askance and wondering if maybe my interpretation of his Portuguese and Macua was off. No, he assured me I had understood him correctly. A small child had been caught playing in her families maize field by a lion and all that was left were two small feet. A ghoulish and ghastly end.
The stories of lion depredations continued. This time the story was recounted to me by an extremely lucky skinner called Remicio. We happened to be building a skinning shed, and the staff were ragging the skinner mercilessly about something. He was carrying rocks on his head and the staff were, between giggles, warning him not to. A staff member told me to instruct Remicio to remove his hat and have a look. On doing so he revealed a jagged scar and what I could only describe as a crater in the man's skull. The look of shock on my face prompted him to recount the story of how an ancient lioness had jumped through the thatched roof of his quarters in camp the one night. The old cat latched on to his skull and attempted to kill him but due to her advanced years and absolutely worn canines she failed to do so. The assistant skinner who was sharing the room with Remicio ran wailing into the night to fetch the PH who duly dispatched the cat through the flimsy bamboo walls. Lucky for Remicio, the clients in camp were doctors from Europe. They managed to stabilise him, evacuate him to Pemba and no doubt saved his life. He returned to work a few weeks later sans a piece of his skull and sporting some traumatic memories for sure. At the stories conclusion, the unsympathetic, laughing staff members with me on building duties told Remicio not to carry any further rocks on his head as he was sure to poke any brains he had left!
Humour, even in the terrors and hardships of Africa, is never far away.