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Vail Valley Voices: A tale from Africa’s bush

Anyone who’s ever been on an African safari knows the thrill of getting up close and personal with elephants, rhino and big cats.

The lucky ones will have a tale or two about the encounter.

My wife, Bobbi, and I are no different. In fact, our travel agent has told us about a about several incidents he’s experienced while living in the bush.

Unlike your average travel agent, Bill Given of The Wild Source is also a wildlife biologist and is deeply involved in a critical research project to conserve African predators. As a result, Bill spends a great deal of time in the African bush.

So when Bill relates a story, you can rest assured it’s not apocryphal.

He once told a story about his team of researchers tracking a particular lion pride in the Masai Mara in Kenya.

The team hadn’t had much luck in finding the pride and had just settled in to their individual one-man tents for the evening.

That evening he was awakened around 3 a.m. by a rustling he heard coming from just outside his tent. Thinking it was some innocuous creature, he rolled over and went back to sleep.

When he awoke at sunrise, he found that the disturbance hadn’t come from porcupine or bat-eared fox, but rather a male lion that left his large paw print inches from the entrance to Bills tent. Humans aren’t normally a part of a lion’s diet. Nevertheless, I would have found the experience more than a bit unnerving, even after the fact.

Bill also told how on another occasion a guide and tracker were taking a group of safari goers on their afternoon game drive when after turning a corner in their Land Cruiser, they came upon a pride of seven or eight sleeping lions.

To avoid running into the lions, the guide, who was also the driver, slammed on the brakes. The tracker, sitting atop a special tracker seat rigged over the left front wheel, was accidentally thrown forward from the vehicle.

The tracker, a young Matswana named Ben, landed directly on top of the 500 pound pride male. This so startled the lions that the entire pride scattered into the bush.

As the story goes, Ben moved so fast in returning to the vehicle it was as though his feet never even touched the ground. When recounting the event, several guests later said that Ben literally flew back onto the vehicle.

Meanwhile, after retreating about 20 feet or so, the big pride male stopped, turned and looked back toward the vehicle as if to say, “Hey, what am I running for?” and casually walked over to the Land Cruiser and marked his territory on its right front fender.

Perhaps not to the same harrowing degree, but Bobbi and I had our own close encounter last November in Botswana. We had just returned from our morning game drive to discover a bull elephant in camp.

It’s not unusual for elephants, lions and other animals to wander through camps, but they do so usually at night.

On this day, however, this 6-ton bull decided to take his lunch next to our tent.

Because the elephant appeared relaxed, our guide motioned to me to come stand between him and our tent, about 20 feet behind the elephant. Being on foot that close to a bull elephant in the wild certainly got my heart rate up. However, I soon tired of shooting pictures of the elie’s hindquarters and decided to gain a better perspective from the partially enclosed outdoor shower stall attached to our tent.

Our tent was raised about three and a half feet off the ground, putting me in an excellent position to photograph the elie, especially since I could stabilize my camera on the stall’s 5-foot wooden privacy fence. The big bull saw me, but didn’t pay much mind until he heard my Canon’s motor drive.

Suddenly, he took an interest. As he moved toward me, I was in such awe that I literally lost myself in the viewfinder.

Sensing potential danger, Bobbi called out, “Butch, you better come back in. He’s getting kind of close.”

I disregarded Bobbi’s warning and kept shooting until the old bull began to reach into the shower with his trunk.

Then, realizing that only a 1.5-inch-thick gum pole privacy fence separated us, I quickly decided that safety was more important than capturing a National Geographic moment.

Butch Mazzuca is an Edwards resident. To see more of his photos from Africa, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/72445657@N06/sets/