I have been visiting Kruger National Park since I was a young boy in the sixties. However, it wasn’t until July 2000, while on a celebratory trip to the park with my wife, that Kruger served up something we’ve been dining out on ever since – and which, ironically, involved something very nearly dining out on us.
It was our fourth wedding anniversary, and we were staying a few nights in a bungalow at Satara rest camp – an area famed for its high concentration of lions. Being mid-winter it was quite cold, misty and still dark when the camp gates swung open at six o’clock and we headed north along the tarred road up to Olifants. As always, we were eager to see what Kruger had in store for us, and with this area being ‘predator central’, lion sightings were high on our wishlist. We didn’t have to travel far.
We had barely driven four kilometres when we came across two male lions and a lioness in the middle of the road. A few other cars that had been ahead of us at the gate had all stopped too, enjoying this early stroke of luck. It was a skin-tingling sight watching the lions moving around in the mist and darkness like ghosts in the headlights of the cars.
The lions were gradually padding along the road in a northerly direction. Anticipating a better view a little further on, I passed the lions and the other cars and stopped a short way ahead of them, before switching off the engine. With video camera ready, I prepared myself to record some close-up footage. I had no inkling of just how close-up that footage would eventually turn out to be.
From my new vantage point I was able to see the lions a lot clearer. It soon became clear that the lioness was in oestrus, and that she and one of the males were a mating pair. While the other male was idling around, keeping a relatively safe distance, the mating pair were weaving in and out between the cars, much to the delight of the occupants.
The lioness was clearly in a mischievous mood, licking the dew droplets from the sides of some of the vehicles and even nibbling on the wing mirrors of a couple of the others. Some of the drivers lost their nerve, or got worried about having to explain lion damage to their insurers, and left. But driving off was not on our agenda – we were all set to make the most of this sighting.
As traffic began to build up behind us, we again decided to move forward. But when I turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened: no dash lights blinked, no starter motor whirred – nothing. The car’s battery was completely flat, it seemed. My wife and I shared a nervous chuckle as we realised simultaneously that we’d not be able to move should the lioness start nibbling on our side-mirrors or chewing on our tyres.
Within moments the male lion was next to my door. Up close, it was even bigger than I had thought and sported the most magnificent mane. I watched it through the viewfinder of the video camera and was getting some great close-up footage when my wife breathlessly suggested I record the action on her side, where the lioness was right next to her door, looking in through the closed window. It too was huge up close, and its yellow eyes, just inches from the glass, were focused chillingly on my wife. To this lioness, I don’t think we were any longer a big metal object to be ignored – we were a meal in a tin can.
What happened next is the stuff of nightmares. Having eyeballed my wife and deciding it liked what was on the menu – or perhaps just through feline curiosity – the lioness shifted its focus to the door handle, opened its mouth, got a hold of the handle with its lower canines and, with a heart-stopping clunk, opened the door.
Although this all happened in just a couple of seconds, I still recall it playing out in slow motion.
Surprised that the door had given way, the lioness stepped backwards and the door swung open. Suddenly, my wife found herself 10 centimetres away from the jaws, and the rapidly refocusing yellow eyes, of Africa’s apex predator.
I dropped the video camera onto my lap, reached over my frozen-stiff wife and pulled her car door closed. To this day, though, she still maintains it was her who closed the door – but, really, it was me. The lioness, meanwhile, looked in at us, half-puzzled and half-annoyed that the restaurant door had just been slammed in its face.
Frantically, I tried to lock all the doors – but they refused to engage. It is still beyond me why it was impossible to press my door button to lock all four doors. Perhaps it was stuck, or maybe the air-system was unable to operate without battery power. Whatever the reason, I knew we were in deep trouble; if that lioness could open the door once with such ease, it could open it again.
That was when the panic set in. It is difficult to explain the feeling of iciness that overcomes you when you’re trapped in a car that won’t start, with doors that won’t lock, and an enormous lioness has just worked out the simple mechanism of a car door handle.
‘Hold your door shut – the locks won’t work!’ I screamed.
We were terrified that the lioness may try to open the back door, which was difficult to hold shut while we were both trying to hold our own doors tight. I had visions of the lioness clambering onto the back seat, which would have flushed my wife and I out of the car – and straight into the mouths of the waiting males.
Fortunately the lioness soon tired of this game. As it sauntered off into the mist, we broke out into very nervous laughter. We couldn’t quite believe what had just happened.
Visitors behind us saw the whole thing, and a couple of them drove up alongside us and asked whether the lioness had really opened the car door. They said they thought that their eyes were deceiving them.
When the mating couple had moved about 50 metres up the road, which we judged as a relatively safe distance, a good Samaritan alongside us offered us a jump-start. He and I both scrambled from our vehicles and quickly jump-started my car – all with our backs to the lions. My wife failed to videotape this procedure, as she was caught up in the surveillance of the area from inside the safety of the car. What happened to the second male lion remains a mystery. For all we know, it could have been watching me jump-start the car from the cover of the surrounding mist.
Fearful of a similar incident, we immediately turned the car around and returned to Satara to check the battery. Great was our surprise to find the battery fully functional and all systems operating perfectly. Perhaps the problem was caused by a loose connection due to the cold, or perhaps the mist had played a part in shorting a vital connection somewhere – we just don’t know. The only remaining evidence of the incident was some lion spit below the handle.
We enjoyed many problem-free kilometres in that car in the years that followed, and never once, up to the day we sold it, did anything similar happen with the battery or the locking mechanisms. How strange it was that the only time it ever happened was when we were parked up in the middle of a pride of lions.
Since then, we have shared this story around many campfires in Kruger. But, admittedly, it is always accompanied by a few nervous laughs from our side – as well as the inevitable disagreement over who really closed the car door in the end.
This article was originally published in 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of 101 jaw-dropping stories as compiled by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The authors of this particular tale, Theuns and Elzet Hurter live in Pretoria. Theuns’ late father was a senior State Vet whose areas included the Kruger National Park, which gave Theuns a taste for the excitement of the bush. He first introduced Elzet to Kruger in the mid-1980s and then later their daughter too when she was just one year old. They now keep their car doors firmly locked at lion sightings.