The Ghosts of Ngulia

In the shadows of the African night, a pride of phantom lions stalks without a sound.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Do you believe in ghosts? Well, I don't either, but I have to admit that certain things happen in most unexpected ways and forever defy any logical explanation. Some years ago I had a long tussle with ghosts and I eventually had to accept defeat. It all started and finished with lions. Let me tell you how it developed.

Three of us-Ken Beaton, Tabs Taberer and myself-planned to find a new route from Amboseli to the Tsavo River in Kenya-not a great distance, but difficult because of the extremely friable nature of the volcanic soil, and frequent barriers caused by lava flows. We set off from Amboseli in a truck, with enough food and water for a week, intending to pitch our tents at various places along the way and explore a possible road alignment on foot. Ken and Tabs were old-time hunters before they joined me in the National Parks Service, so among the three of us we had a good working knowledge of big game and bush lore. We were supported by three very experienced African Rangers.

The going was rough and slow. At many places we had to build makeshift causeways to get the truck across the gulleys. It was stiflingly hot and huge black storm clouds gathered to the east. We pressed on, making only about five miles an hour, until we all felt it was time to camp for the night. The heavy clouds closed in around us with the astonishing speed of a tropical thunderstorm, leaving only enough time to gather in a good supply of firewood. We huddled inside the truck and watched the deluge and the water surging down the valleys.

It was almost dark when the rain stopped. We tried to move the truck to higher ground, where it would be better for pitching tents, but this proved to be hopeless. The wheels dug deeply into the soft mud and in a few yards the truck was well and truly stuck.

We were tired and had run out of daylight, so we put our camp beds on an outcrop of rock near the truck and hoped that it would not rain again during the night. Two of the rangers, wisely perhaps, bedded down on top of the tents and equipment inside the truck, while the third-the driver-chose to sleep on the seat in the cab.

After a welcome mug of hot soup, we settled in for what we hoped would be a peaceful night. We were glad to have the dry logs, collected before the storm, to make a good fire-ostensibly to keep marauding lions away, but also for good cheer. A camp without a fire is eerie and lifeless.

We had all tucked in and some stars were glistening to the east-a good sign for a fair night. There was no moon. The air was clean and cool after the rain, moving gently through the trees, with the scent of acacia flowers and damp soil. I thought then, as I have many times before, how impressive the silence of the African night is-broken only by the sound of crickets, and the metallic chink-chink of the frogs, and the soothing little purr of a scops owl.

I had already dozed off when something startled me. There was no sound. Even the crickets and frogs were silent, but I had a sinister feeling. I felt that some ominous ogre was moving into the camp. I tried to dismiss these thoughts as nonsense. A bit tired after a long day, I told myself to shut up and get to sleep.

[pagebreak] As I peeped across at the flickering fire I distinctly saw a form moving through the shadows, just beyond the fringe of light-then another, and another. I sat up, hardly daring to admit that a cold shiver was running up and down my back.

The forms drew nearer, and in a way, I was relieved to see that they were lions and not ogres. I watched as they closed in toward the fire. Obviously curious and surprised to find people sleeping out in the open, I thought. Lions are much more aggressive at night than in daylight, and so I was not unduly concerned. But then they moved in between our beds and the fire. This was alarming. Lions in this district were known to be fierce but not m-eaters. I didn't like their attitude. They were getting uncomfortably near our beds.

I gave a shout to wake Ken and Tabs, and the leading lioness snarled and came closer. By now we could clearly see that there were seven, all apparently lionesses, although two were large enough to be maneless males-a curious feature which is not unusual in the lions of Tsavo.

The situation had now become dangerous. All the usual deterrents such as fire and noise had absolutely no effect. Ken, who was also alarmed, gave a tremendous shout. This was a signal to the nearest lionesses to crouch down, ready for a spring. Tabs looked around behind him to see another stalking him from about 20 feet.

The rangers in the truck, who were peeping out through an opening in the tarpaulin, shouted warnings to us. The driver in the cab put on the headlights. Although the lions were not directly in the beam, the extra light helped us to see better and to realize that we were about to be deliberately attacked by seven determined lions.

Tabs grabbed his rifle and fired a shot over the head of the stalking lioness. I fired a shot over the leading lioness on my side, and we both fired more shots, still determined not to shoot at one of these animals. It was our fundamental duty to protect them but it seemed a strange back-to-front ideal, when we needed all the protection we could get from the lions. But not one of us was yet convinced that these lions would actually spring and carry us off. In later years I realized how wrong we had been.

The first few shots made the lions jump back, but not without some sinister growls and snarls. Ken had left his gun in the truck, but Tabs and I went on firing. The noise of these big guns, in the silence of the night, was terrific. The huge booms echoed miles across the valley, and up toward Kilimanjaro, the snow-capped summit of which could be seen silhouetted against the stars. This was too much for the lions, and they reluctantly retreated, but not far. We could still see their pale forms moving about on the fringe of the firelight.

After some pointed comments about lions in general, especially this pride of seven, which appeared to behave like their ancestors, the famous Man- Eaters of Tsavo, we decided to retreat into the back of the truck. This offered some protection, with its high sides and canvas cover. Moving ourselves, and our blankets, within easy range of these aggressive lions, however, presented a problem. We knew that activity and sudden movement might easily provoke the lions to attack.

[pagebreak] We worked out a plan where one of us would move the bedding while the other two kept guard with the rifles. Sure enough, the movement enticed the lions to go down into a stalking position and creep toward us. More shots, some hitting just near the leading lions, kept them at bay until we were all huddled in the truck. It was stuffy, and there was not much room for five of us on top of the tents, but it was preferable to being out on a camp bed, a few feet from seven snarling lions.

We had stoked the fire with the few pieces of dry wood that remained, and we watched to see what the lions would do. They lost no time in moving right up to the truck, and even sniffing at the tailboard. I heard them padding around and around until finally they gave up and silence returned-except for some manly snores from Tabs and one of the rangers. I concluded that there must be at least two kinds of lions: those that are afraid of people and a fire in a camp, and those that are not. We all agreed that we had never encountered such determined lions, and we had to accept that we had been in a mighty risky situation. In the bright light of a lovely sunrise, it seemed that the horrors of the night had been a bad nightmare, but the footprints were there, all around our beds, to tell the story of what had happened, and what might have happened.

It took most of the morning to get the truck out of the mud and move it onto harder ground. By late afternoon we had not progressed more than a mere 10 miles, having had to make many detours to avoid soft hollows of volcanic ash, now looking like thick gravy. We camped on hard ground; this time putting up a tent for shelter, in case of more rain. The night was cool and silent and we all turned in early.

Again I sensed the same sinister feeling of something untoward. The flaps of the tent were open and I had quite a good field of vision, past the fire and toward a ridge of lava rocks. We had taken various precautions, in case of more lion trouble, although not one of us believed we would see the same lions again, as it was about 10 miles from our previous camp, and much more if they followed our wheel tracks.

But they were there-the same seven lions, creeping toward us and snarling. What the hell? I shook Ken and Tabs to wake them and said, "Here we go again." Ken let out some pretty pointed remarks about lions and all kinds of ungrateful wild animals. Tabs was even more outspoken, while he was feeling for his rifle next to his bed. I said something about them being the same seven lions and shouted for the truck headlights to be put on. The lights were well-aimed, and Ken agreed that they were the same lions, with the two larger ones that could be males. We both whispered our utter astonishment that these lions had followed us so far and so quickly.

Tabs checked that his gun was loaded and stood up to start firing. He peered past the fire and said, "Where are they?" I looked and Ken looked, and there was nothing to be seen. Nothing stirred. We all remained silent for what seemed a long time, but there were no lions. Tabs then told us what he thought of bastards who have silly dreams. Ken and I assured him that we were properly awake, sober and relatively intelligent people, but we had to admit that there were no lions. They had vanished.

[pagebreak] We all went out of the tent and had a thorough look around. There was nothing to be seen or heard. Tabs scorned us all the more. I appealed to the three rangers in the truck. Two confirmed that they had clearly seen the lions, that they were the same

seven, and were aggressive. The third ranger, who was in the cab, and who had switched on the headlights when Ken and I clearly identified the lions, said he had not seen anything. Putting on the lights established that he was awake and watching when we were looking at the lions, and yet he was adamant that nothing was there. And so the score was that four of us had seen the lions well enough to count and identify them, while the other two said we had been dreaming-sheer imagination.

We watched and we argued. Ken and I were so certain of every detail, leading up to the moment when we identified the lionsd.

It took most of the morning to get the truck out of the mud and move it onto harder ground. By late afternoon we had not progressed more than a mere 10 miles, having had to make many detours to avoid soft hollows of volcanic ash, now looking like thick gravy. We camped on hard ground; this time putting up a tent for shelter, in case of more rain. The night was cool and silent and we all turned in early.

Again I sensed the same sinister feeling of something untoward. The flaps of the tent were open and I had quite a good field of vision, past the fire and toward a ridge of lava rocks. We had taken various precautions, in case of more lion trouble, although not one of us believed we would see the same lions again, as it was about 10 miles from our previous camp, and much more if they followed our wheel tracks.

But they were there-the same seven lions, creeping toward us and snarling. What the hell? I shook Ken and Tabs to wake them and said, "Here we go again." Ken let out some pretty pointed remarks about lions and all kinds of ungrateful wild animals. Tabs was even more outspoken, while he was feeling for his rifle next to his bed. I said something about them being the same seven lions and shouted for the truck headlights to be put on. The lights were well-aimed, and Ken agreed that they were the same lions, with the two larger ones that could be males. We both whispered our utter astonishment that these lions had followed us so far and so quickly.

Tabs checked that his gun was loaded and stood up to start firing. He peered past the fire and said, "Where are they?" I looked and Ken looked, and there was nothing to be seen. Nothing stirred. We all remained silent for what seemed a long time, but there were no lions. Tabs then told us what he thought of bastards who have silly dreams. Ken and I assured him that we were properly awake, sober and relatively intelligent people, but we had to admit that there were no lions. They had vanished.

[pagebreak] We all went out of the tent and had a thorough look around. There was nothing to be seen or heard. Tabs scorned us all the more. I appealed to the three rangers in the truck. Two confirmed that they had clearly seen the lions, that they were the same

seven, and were aggressive. The third ranger, who was in the cab, and who had switched on the headlights when Ken and I clearly identified the lions, said he had not seen anything. Putting on the lights established that he was awake and watching when we were looking at the lions, and yet he was adamant that nothing was there. And so the score was that four of us had seen the lions well enough to count and identify them, while the other two said we had been dreaming-sheer imagination.

We watched and we argued. Ken and I were so certain of every detail, leading up to the moment when we identified the lions