You must have a strong heart…

On July 25 Noreen, Tina (Noreen’s, and now also my, friend from Canada), and I travelled from Lilongwe to South Luangwa, Zambia for a safari adventure and what proved to be a very relaxing weekend. It was a memorable adventure.

We stayed at a beautiful lodge called Croc Valley Camp. On our last night, we ventured to the outskirts of the camp to one of the empty chalets — we wanted to sit on the balcony to watch the animals and the breathtaking African sunset.

As we arrived at the stairs to climb the 5 steps to the balcony, a man jumped up and awkwardly greeted us. Benson, a night security guard at the camp, who turned out to be a very friendly and interesting individual. He shared with us many stories.

Benson, from the South Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Our conversation turned into tales of Benson’s multiple and unique encounters with African animals. He first told us of how there is a ladder of about 15 giraffes that sometimes sleep in the open space in front of the very balcony we were sitting. This blew me away — I can’t fathom 15 giraffes sleeping close enough to see their bodies rise and fall with every breath!

One night, a few weeks ago, Benson was sitting quietly on another balcony in the camp where he was posted for watch. He was quietly sitting, being rather inconspicuous, when suddenly a lioness walked up about 4 feet away from him. Personally, I would have panicked — something that would likely have not ended very well for me. Benson, on the other hand, did not jump or react. He calmly sat still as the lioness walked by him behind the chalet, followed by the remainder of her pride. They blended in with the nighttime, so he did not see them until they were only a few feet away from where he sat.

Benson did not move for several moments. Apparently lions sometimes trick people by ignoring them, until the prey gets up and walks into what turns into an easy meal for the pride. Thankfully, he was downwind from them so they were not necessarily aware of his presence. Luckily he stayed put because a large lion, the male of the pride, walked not more than a few feet from where he sat a few minutes later.

I would have been shaking like a leaf….. Benson said, “You must have a strong heart” to be able to work near such animals. I learned that a strong heart means the ability to keep your cool when others would be freaking out.

We asked how he managed to be so brave and calm.

Benson used to go poaching with his father and brothers when he was a young boy before it was criminalized in Zambia. So he’s used to the danger and the feeling of fear from being near these wild and dangerous animals.

Benson is no stranger to being chased by large African animals. When a buffalo, lion, leopard, hippo or rhino (rhino’s are sadly now extinct from this area) would chase him, he would find a tall tree and climb it — ASAP.

When elephants would chase his brothers, father, and himself, a tree would not make a strong enough escape; Benson would have been as good as dead. The only strategy that could improve his chances of survival was to run away in a zigzag formation and hope that the elephant does not catch up or catch on to the ‘sneaky’ escape tactic!

I naïvely asked why the tree-climbing rule did not apply to elephants, despite the realization hitting me almost as soon as the question left my lips. If he had climbed a tree, the elephant would just knock him off, or knock the tree down.

When other animals come up to tree’s with escaped victims and try to do the same, it would not work. They do not have the reach, weight, or strength to knock a person out of a tree, let alone to knock a tree over.

If you make it up out of the animals reach, you’re not to make a noise and you’re to hold on tight. Again, Benson told us that to survive something like this, “You must have a strong heart” to not react poorly to this situation — to survive.

As we were saying our goodbyes, Benson tells one more story. His commute to work is an hour and a half long bicycle ride from a [relatively] nearby village. He does not make enough money to support his family from this job, but he is smart and resourceful and his family pursues other avenues to supplement their income. Benson is an experienced and resourceful man. His stories were awe-inspiring and all around impressive. This final fact he told us stripped away the fantasy in the stories he recounted to us that evening. It was a wake-up call and I realized that learning these skills and growing a strong heart was born out of necessity….. not necessarily from a love of African wildlife.

I suspect that he still loves the wildlife, though, considering the sparkle in his eyes as he remarks on the beautiful animals he has encountered in his lifetime.

We also noticed that he really does need to have a strong heart. The “safety equipment” the camp provides for him is a flashlight that is barely strong enough to light the 10 feet in front of him. An animal could easily sneak up from his limited field of vision. At least Benson is strong, smart, and has a strong heart to think clearly and handle dangerous situations involving wild African animals.

I left this encounter awe-struck.