It was mid-morning on a Sunday when the TurboCharge fleet of sixteen boats arrived at the Tashinga Camp in the Matusadona National Park at the mouth of the Ume River. We were greeted by the sight of a magnificent bull elephant in the camp calmly feeding himself. Our first mooring spot was too exposed to potential weather, so we moved around the corner into a bay where the sight of previously-buried garbage floating on the bank was very off putting. The water had come up to such a high level that previous garbage pits were now under water. Within minutes, a gang of TurboChargers were collecting the rubbish and storing it in dustbin bags. There was no sign of any other people. We relaxed and marveled at the tranquility of the place and of how wonderful the campsite must have been in its day. There were ablution blocks that were still working and were clean, and there were various campsites within the area.
After a few hours of entertaining ourselves, three of us decided to set out on foot and try and find some national parks staff. From the camp to the offices is about a kilometer and a half. Walking the road without protection makes the road seem a lot longer. Very fresh tracks are everywhere. You enter the park’s offices via the workshops where various recent model 4x4s are in various states of disrepair. One cruiser was parked against a rock, and we assume this means it was a runner. At the office we found the wildlife manager who offered to send the camp supervisor down to the camp and book us in. We specifically asked him if there were any “problem” animals that we should be concerned about and were assured that there was nothing to worry about. We returned to camp via the same road, not as worried about animals as before.
The camp supervisor duly arrived in his Sunday clothes and took our order for firewood. The boilers were lit and everyone was quickly into the showers. We had permission to have one big bonfire in a central place, and we collected a big tree to help. During the rest of the afternoon some guys went off fishing, some played scrabble, and some even had a few beers.
Firewood arrived, and the four cooking teams started preparations for the evening meal. The sunset was as spectacular as one could wish for. It is beyond my command of the English language to describe the colors of red and pink that were exploding out of the clouds. A parks member arrived with a weapon stating that he was here to protect us and could he also have a drink pointing to the beer in my hand. Beer denied!
It was Andre Van Rooyen and Rich Elman Brown’s turn to cook, and it was a superb meal. We all ate well, and there was enough left over for breakfast. We adjourned to the big bonfire. The other cooking teams had cooked on the highest part of the camp site and had had a good loud party. Slowly but surely everyone either gravitated towards the fire or to bed. It was in the back of everyone’s mind that we were in a wild habitat and that the fast-rising lake was restricting the open ground that normally surrounded the camp. Cooking areas were packed up well and the thought of hyenas was never far away.
The various campsites consisted generally of one or two asbestos A-frame huts and a concrete slab. Four people could sleep in or on each. Eight guys chose to occupy the site closest to the water. This had two A-frames and a slab, all within touching distance of each other. One even had a back wall. At about midnight, there were four of us left at the fire. All the sites had people sleeping in them and all were within a forty-meter radius. Mike and I decided to call it a night and grabbed our bed packs and toured the area. Our first choice was the camp by the water but we felt it was too crowded. The moon was as bright as daylight, and we wandered from spot to spot before returning to the fire to join Bruce and Justin.
Just before four o’clock in the morning, an elephant broke down a tree. In the still of the night, it sounded very close, and the majority of the camp was instantly awake. Down at the crowded camp close to the water, Dave and Rich turned on some music and chatted. Andre was in the next hut less than one meter away. Ben was at his boat having a cigarette on his own. Lance got out of bed to relieve his bladder, shining his hunting torch at his target but not into the close bush.
Unbeknownst to any of them, a lioness and her three adult cubs had crawled down the thick bush line and were just meters away. The bright moon had just dropped below the horizon, and the night was at its darkest. Andre was asleep with his head against the back wall of the A-frame. He felt a weight on his body, and in his slumber thought he was at home and that his dog had climbed on his bed. He rolled over to tell his dog off when he saw the lion open her mouth and close it on his head. He started shouting. Andre is a big man of about 100 kgs. The lioness slapped him through his air mattress and then proceeded to slap his body against the roof of the hut two or three times with his head in her mouth. Andre was convinced she was going to break his neck. Unable to break his neck in the confined space, she then dragged him off still holding his head in her mouth.
Lance Nesbitt was the first hero. Still getting into his sleeping bag less than four meters away, he heard Andre scream and immediately knew what was happening and what to do. His torch was still in hand and he shone it straight at the retreating lioness who was already two meters away from the A-frame next to an anthill. By advancing and shining his torch on the lioness and screaming at the top of his voice, he stopped the lioness. When Lance was joined spontaneously by Dean Kendall and Bobo Gibbons, also with torches and loud voices, she dropped Andre and grudgingly walked away a meter before stopping and turning back. Very nearby were her three almost full-grown cubs. Had she dragged Andre one or two meters closer to the others, the situation might have been far more serious. The brave screaming and cussing from Lance, Bobo, and Dean was joined by more voices and more screaming. The four lions reluctantly retreated another ten meters and then squatted down in the light bush. I had grabbed my air horn from the boat.
The combination of this unfamiliar very loud noise and many torches and advancing shouting humans encouraged the four lions to wander off. They were in no hurry and on their way towards the thick bush; they walked within ten meters of John and Alex Lucas who were sleeping in the most isolated of the A-frames. Their father, Lex, was shouting for his boys, but they did not want to shout back in case it attracted any attention from the lions.
When we thought the lions had gone, Dean stated that we were very lucky that it was only an hour-and-a-half to daybreak and that it would be very unlikely that the lions would return. It has taken me longer to write the account of the incident than the actual time this part of the attack and rescue took place. When I got to Andre, he had crawled back the two meters to the A-frame and was vomiting. His face was a mess, but the bleeding was not extensive. At this point, there was every reason to panic, but the most amazing scene unfolded. First-aid kits came out of most boats. Andre was made comfortable.
Hugh Roberts calmly asserted control and administered a drip. Alex Lucas sat with Andre and monitored his shock. Hugh assessed the damage and cleaned up the wounds as best he could. Andre remained conscious throughout but did not talk much. Those who could not help congregated to the big fire, and a head count was taken. Rich found Andre’s medical aid card and on one particular spot at Tashinga, Jeff managed to use his South African phone to get a signal from Zambia and phone for rescue. It is an extremely anxious time trying to explain to someone in Harare at 4:30 in the morning where Tashinga is and the state of the emergency.
It was Hugh Roberts’ calming influence that prevented emotions running high. It was agreed to medevac Andre at first light to Bumi Hills, which was only twenty minutes away by boat. Radio communications were limited, but we thought that Bumi were aware of our forthcoming arrival. Later I was told that one of the boats had managed to get ahold of the Tashinga Camp (two kilometers away) who said they would send an email to Bumi. We prepared my boat for the trip, but just before we were going to move Andre, I asked for another boat as it was not safe to go in only one. Arthur had his ready in seconds, and it was decided his decking was more suitable to carry Andre.
Five hundred meters off shore, Arthur’s boat stopped. He quickly corrected a loose fuel connection and it gave us the opportunity to imagine how badly things could go wrong if the rescue boat had been on its own and had broken down.
At Bumi, I was blowing my air horn as we entered the harbor, and a manager (Ian Smith) saw through his binoculars a drip being held up in the boat and knew there was an emergency. Bumi was not expecting us. Mike and Jeff decided to run up to the hotel and were met by a vehicle near the top. Lying in the boat, Andre was shivering from shock, but the early morning sun was beginning to rise. With his head covered in bandages, he calmly and bravely stated, “I cannot see, and I cannot feel my feet and that disturbs me,” a true masterpiece of understatement for us.
The staff at Bumi were magnificent. We loaded Andre onto a cruiser and took him straight to the airstrip. There we tried to make Andre as comfortable as possible. Anticipating a two-hour wait, there was not much we could do.
Hugh Roberts changed the dressing and eventually the drip. Andre was in a great deal of pain and Mike, Jeff, Arthur, Rich, and I took turns caring for him – all under the calm leadership of Hugh Roberts. We had a chance to check Andre’s back. Where the lioness had slapped him through his air mattress was an intense bruise in the almost perfect shape of a lion’s paw. The mattress had merely prevented her claws from ripping into Andre’s flesh.
Waiting for the plane was very difficult. We later learned that it had spent nearly half an hour on the runway in Harare waiting for clearance. On hearing the plane, the Bumi staff quickly drove up and down the runway to clear the many animals. The very impressive MARS air rescue ambulance taxied close to us, and the professionals took over. Andre was carried on the mattress to the plane where he got out and walked. At the last minute, he suddenly refused to get into the plane but there were enough of us to get him those last few meters. It took the doctor and nurse about half an hour to stabilize him and prepare him for take-off. The plane took off and Andre was in safe hands. There was nothing more we could do. Hugh Roberts could sigh and rest against the vehicle. I wanted to sit in a corner and cry.
We are told that Andre was suggesting to the pilot how he should be flying the plane – the morphine had obviously kicked in! Family and friends were waiting for him in Bulawayo. From being attacked by a lion at the remoteness of the Ume river to being hospitalized in Bulawayo in less than eight hours is praiseworthy, and we need to thank all medical staff and pilots involved.
We went up to the hotel to make some phone calls and then returned to the fleet. Some national parks staff had wandered down mid-morning stating that they had heard the noise and was there anything they could do? Had I been there my reply would not have been polite.
Andre is currently in the hospital in Johannesburg. Sadly, he lost his left eye, but his life is no longer in danger. His wife Clare is with him while their three sons remain in Bulawayo to get on with their schooling. Friends have been amazing in their support for the family. Our most grateful thanks and respect goes to the heroes who chased off the lions and those who rescued Andre afterwards.
To Andre, we wish you a complete and speedy recovery. We salute your bravery.