This account of a close encounter with a lion near the Limpopo River in 1845, appears to have been written by William Oswell, a former big-game hunter, three years before his death.
7 July, 1890.
My Dear Baker
Mrs Oswell and myself thoroughly enjoyed our stay with you and your charming wife in June. It was a true pleasure for us both to renew old times and friendship. We trust that your trip to India will be a pleasant one, and the ship you are travelling one, the Arcadia, will once again provide safe and pleasant transport to Bombay.
I have taken your advice, bought a ream of foolscap, a box of J pens, and a gallon of ink, and have decided to write a book. As you say, the Africa we knew is long gone, and the new smokeless rifles take all the fun and danger out of hunting. Readers might well be interested in my encounters with big game.
As you have written many books, I would appreciate your comments on what follows: my close encounter with a lion, in the country of the Ba-Wangetsi in 1845.
One morning, our head man told me there was no food for the fourteen dogs that protected us at night. I thus took up my gun, which was loaded only in one barrel, and strolled out on the chance of a shot, but as, kill or miss, I intended to return immediately, I did not carry any spare ammunition. A reedy pond lay close in front of the wagons, in a little opening; beyond this, as on every other side, stretched a sea of bush and mimosa trees.
Two hundred yards from the outspan I came upon some quaggas and wounded one, which, although mortally hit, struggled before falling. I followed, and marking the place where it fell, turned back, heading (as I thought) towards the wagon, meaning to send out men for the flesh.
No doubt of the direction crossed my mind – the pool was certainly not more than four hundred yards away in a straight line and I thought I could walk down upon it without any trouble; so I started, not realising how the line of my own tracks had to follow the quagga.
It was now about 10 a.m.; little did I think that 5 p.m. would find me still seeking three vans nearly as large as Pickford’s [a furniture removal company], and half an acre of water. In my first cast I cannot say whether I went wide or stopped short of the mark I was making for, and it was not until I had wandered carelessly hither and thither for half an hour, feeling sure that it was only the one particular bush in front of me which hid the wagons, that I very unwillingly admitted that I was lost in this sea of bushes and trees.
The sun was nearly overhead, and gave but little help as to direction, and having to constantly turn to avoid thick patches of thorns made it practically impossible, to walk in a straight line. I tried walking in circles in the hopes of crossing the wagon’s wheel tracks, but though this plan had worked before, it now failed.
I plodded on with the empty gun. Occasionally, small herds of rooyebuck [rooibok, impala] and blue wildebeest, evidently very much at home, swept and capered past me, and stopping and looking at me with wondering eyes, increased my feeling of loneliness. I had no doubt of regaining my party next day at latest, and cared but little for passing a night in the jungle; but bewildered and baffled, I envied the instinct of the co-called wild animals, which careless of their steps, never got lost.
Twilight near the Tropics is very short. Just before the sun set, therefore, I followed a game track which I knew would lead to water, as it was still early in the season and the rain supply had not dried up in the hollows. At dusk I reached a pool similar to the one I had left in the morning. After a good drink of water, I began collecting firewood. But, because it was very scarce and the night closed in so rapidly, I had barely got enough for an hour’s fire when the sun set.
Partly to save fuel, partly in the hope that as night crept on signals would be made from the wagons, I climbed a tree which stood by the side of the water, and had not been long perched before I heard, though so far off that I could hardly catch the sound, the smothered boom of guns. Alarmed at my absence my companions suspected the cause and were inviting my return; but it required a very pressing invitation indeed to induce a man to walk through two miles of an African wood, in those days, on a dark night.
This particular spot, too, was more infested with lions than any other, save one, I had ever been in. Although lions are harmless and cowardly enough, as a rule, in the day, they are far more active and dangerous at night.
But I had been walking all day under a tropical sun, my clothing was wet with perspiration, and it now froze hard – for freeze it can in Southern Africa – and I was bitterly cold. I determined to come down from the tree and light my fire. I knew it would last but a short time, but thought I would make the best of it and thaw myself before attempting to return.
I had just reached the lowest branch of my tree, and placed my hand beside my feet to jump off, when a loud growl from the bush immediately under me and the sound of a heavy body slipping through the thorny scrub, warned me that a lion was passing by. Whether the creaking of the tree had aroused his attention and made him speak just in time, I don’t know, but without the warning in another half second I should have unwittingly jumped onto his back. I very quickly climbed two or three yards back up the tree.
Presently from the upper end of the pool came the moaning pant of a questing lion; it was immediately answered from the lower end. The lions were searching for their supper, and had divided the approaches to the water between them. It was much too dark to see anything, but from the sounds they seemed to walk in beats, occasionally telling one another of their whereabouts by a low pant; of my presence I think they were not aware.
This went on for an hour or more and I grew colder and colder; my beard and moustache were stiff with frost; I could not much longer endure the cramped position in my scraggy tree, and I felt I must get down and light the fire, when suddenly up rose the blessed moon and right beneath her the sounds of three or four muskets fired together. With the help of her light and partial direction in case my companions grew tired of firing, I was not going to stay up a tree to be frozen.
Waiting, therefore, until the moon was about one tree high above the horizon, and until the lions were as far away as I could hear from their sounds, I came down and capping [loading detonating caps into the gun] my empty gun [Oswell had not loaded it with balls and gunpowder], I ran to the end of the water, and dived into the bush on the opposite side.
Oswell suddenly realises there is a lion just below him.
While I was in a hurry, I soon decided to move slowly and cautiously. An African forest was then alive at night. I thought only of the lions, and especially of the two I had I had left at the water; but every nocturnal animal that stirred kept me on the stretch – the less noise the more danger; the movement of a mouse might well be mistaken for the stealthy tread of the King of the Cats.
Among the trees the moon gave but a scanty light, and nearly every minute I had to stop and listen as some unseen animals passed near me. Sometimes I could recognise them by their cry, but mostly it was a running that could not be seen of skipping beasts, that troubled me. The only animal that I really saw that night was a rhinoceros with head and tail up, and in a terrible fuss, that crossed my path a few yards ahead of me.
A sound in front, and I strained my eyes into the shadowy darkness in advance: the rustling of a leaf could be life to the right or left; the snapping of a twig of possible death in the rear. But I struggled on for an hour I should think, when, stooping to clear a low bough, four or five muskets fired together within fifty yards, told me that I was at home at last.
I hope I was thankful then; I know I am now. Two of my assistants and some helpers had come some distance into the bush in the hope of meeting me, and escorted me to the fire in triumph. As I held my half-thawed hands over the fire, the baulked roar of a disappointed lion rang through the camp. He had not been heard before that night. “He has missed you, Tlaga, by a little this time,” said my black friends, “let him go back to his game”.
They were right, for in the morning we found his spoor following mine for a long way back. Whether he had come with me from the water, or I had picked up a follower in the bush, I never knew. My constantly stopping and listening probably saved me, for a lion seldom makes up his mind very suddenly to attack a man, unless hard pressed by hunger. He likes to know all about his prey first, and my turning, and slow jerky progress had doubtless roused his suspicions.