Dark and Dangerous by David Macfie
Gareth and Cathleen, his wife of six months, had entered the Kruger Park early in the morning and explored extensively, seeing plenty of antelope, zebras, wild pigs and two groups of rhinos. Late in the afternoon, they found a large waterhole and decided to watch it from the top of quite a high sand dune nearby. Before long, game started to arrive to join the crocs and hippos that were already in residence. First giraffes, two pairs and their offspring, awkwardly strode to the edge, splayed their front legs and lowered their heads to the water. Next to arrive were two immature buffalo bulls that waded into the shallows and rolled in the mud.
The giraffes stopped drinking, raised their heads, and looked disapprovingly down their noses at the frolicsome duo. Cathleen giggled.
“They look, for all the world, as if they’re saying ‘Do you mind, fellows! Some of us are trying to drink here. We don’t want the water all churned up with mud. Go somewhere else to play.’ Don’t you think so, darling?”
Gareth grinned. “Very well spoken giraffes, I’d say. But they do look a bit snooty, I’ll admit.”
They were hushed by the noisy interruption of a herd of zebra, followed closely by a bigger group of impala. Moments later a small group of wildebeest gamboled closer and settled down at the margin of the water. Gareth nudged Cathleen’s shoulder and pointed off to the left. Cathleen squinted into the dying sun, but saw nothing at first. Gareth pointed again and whispered, “There, just by the small thorn tree.” Now his wife saw the lions, two big males and three lionesses. They were lying very still in the long grass under the tree, and carefully watching the growing crowd before them. Suddenly they all got up and started to saunter to the nearest kink of the waterhole. Instantly all the other animals retreated out of harm’s way, but the carnivores ignored them. They were obviously thirsty and wanted to satisfy that need before any others. Casually they lay, with their front toes in the water, and lapped the warm liquid.
Night fell quickly in the park at the end of an early spring day. One moment the sun was sinking but the light was still good, and the next, it was dark. A half-moon gave some light but not enough to still watch the waterhole so Gareth switched on the car headlights to extend their viewing time a little longer.
“Don’t you think we should go now?” asked Cathleen, with a worried expression. “We’re supposed to be out of the park before dark unless we’re with guides.”
“Just a little longer, please. I want to see elephants,” replied her husband, confidently. “Then we’ll go. Another fifteen minutes only, OK?”
Cathleen reluctantly agreed, but she was quickly distracted by a herd of elephants. The other game moved over to allow the larger members of the group ample space. The babies of all sizes pushed in where-ever there was space. The couple were mesmerized by the antics of these huge beasts as they sucked water into their trunks and sprayed themselves and their young. In the end it was closer to half an hour before they wandered off. By now the lions had disappeared out of the light, and Gareth turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned over a couple of times and then died.
“Shit,” said Gareth, with real feeling. “I left the lights on too long. We’ll have to jump start. We can’t go forward or we’ll end up in the water. We’ll have to go backwards. Have you ever jump started a car, love?”
“Several times, but never backwards. I’m glad our car isn’t automatic.”
“Me too. Right, I’ll get out to push and you get into the driver’s seat and do the business.”
“Be careful. We don’t know where those lions went.”
“I’ll leave the passenger door open so I can get in quickly. You ready?”
Cathleen nodded. Gareth jumped out and moved to the passenger door, while his wife clambered over into the driver’s seat. Gareth pulled open the door and moved to the front of the car.
“Ignition on, gears in reverse, clutch in. Tell me when to push.”
He braced his legs into the sand and, as soon as he heard the call to push, he shoved the car as hard as he could. He managed to edge the vehicle slowly until the slope took hold and the car began to roll faster and faster down the slope.
“Now,” he shouted and Cathleen let out the clutch and pressed the accelerator. The engine caught and then died again. She tried to start the car the normal way but with no success at all. Gareth climbed into the passenger seat with a glum face.
“We’re good and stuck,” he said in resignation. “Looks like we’ll be here until they send a tow for us. Lock the doors and get comfortable, while I phone for help.”
He got out the brochure he’d picked up in reception that morning and used his phone torch to see the number to dial. He rapidly keyed in the digits and pressed call. Nothing happened. He looked at his illuminated screen.
“Oh no,” he exclaimed. “No signal. You try.” Cathleen checked her phone. “Also no signal,” she reported. “We weren’t very organized, were we? No food or drinks, no light, no warmth and no means of communication. Not good boy-scout behavior at all. We’re here for the night and then some. But at least we have shelter and a little light from the moon and stars.”
“I’m sorry, love” admitted Gareth. “It was pretty stupid using up the battery.”
“We all make mistakes,” replied Cathleen, patting him reassuringly on the arm.
Gareth smiled in thanks and reached into the back seat to get the two bath towels they’d brought to dry off the sweat they’d expected. He handed one over.
“Here. It’s not a blanket, but it might help a little when it gets cold. Let’s rest and try to sleep a little. I’ll take first watch until eleven, then you until three and me again until dawn. OK?”
Cathleen nodded and wrapped her towel over her torso and knees. She snuggled down and, closed her eyes. Soon her even breathing told Gareth that she was sleeping. He began to scan the area around the car. The visibility was poor, only reaching about four meters beyond the vehicle. And the sand dune now blocked the view of the waterhole. Gareth kept on scanning. He played mind games to help him stay alert and watched as carefully as he could. He saw the outlines of animals passing by on all sides – most of the stuff they’d seen at the water came by. They were like ghosts floating past in the dim light. When a hippo grazed nearby, Gareth froze, and tried to sink out of sight. He breathed a sigh of relief when it moved on. Next a small herd of buffalo surrounded the car as they browsed. They came really close. Gareth hadn’t ever realized just how big they were. He held his breath for the longest time while they fed. One came right up to the car and seemed to look inside. Then, seeing nothing of interest, it wandered away. Soon all of them had disappeared into the darkness.
Gareth tried to still his rapidly beating heart by taking deep, deep breaths and, finally, it worked. He relaxed as benign animals drifted in and out of sight. Zebra, impala, springbok, wildebeest, kudu, eland, bush pigs and many other animals drifted into sight and back out again. Gareth checked his watch and saw he had an hour to go before the shift change. He was beginning to feel drowsy when he was woken up in no uncertain way. The five lions drifted into sight. They never hesitated in their approach, strolling right up to the doors and peering through the windows. They jostled the car and Cathleen woke immediately.
“What’s going on?” she asked before she saw the predators just outside. She screamed and the sound excited the lioness that was at her window. It jumped its front paws onto the window and stretched up to its full height. The two humans recoiled as far from the windows as they could, then kept as still and quiet as possible. The lioness dropped down again and clawed at the door handle, several times managing to pull it far enough to have opened an unlocked door.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” whispered Cathleen, in a weak and wavering voice. “Do you think they can get in?”
“I’d guess not, but I really don’t know. I think if we don’t move and just stay very quiet they’ll eventually lose interest.”
For fifteen minutes the lions prowled round the car, stretching up to look in a window then pacing around to look in another. The two humans cowered away from the glowing eyes and tried to look invisible. Finally, the lions must have decided that they were wasting their time and moved on. Cathleen sobbed in relief and Gareth was hard put not to join her. Sleep was now far away for both of them and fear kept them quiet. They spent the time with eyes swiveling all around in case the lions returned. Calls of nature were relieved into an empty two liter cold-drink bottle. Neither dared to go outside even a short distance for that purpose.
The night dragged by. At about four in the morning, the lions came back for another look and again, after scaring the couple witless they moved away. Finally, just as the first signs of dawn were breaking, an old bull elephant appeared from the right. He’d obviously been in the waterhole. His wrinkled skin was dark and dripping and his left tusk was broken off about twenty centimeters from its root. Whether, he was in pain from the broken tusk or just in a grumpy mood, he looked at the car and instantly raised his ears like flags on either side of his head. His trunk came up and he trumpeted shrilly.
“Put your seat belt on and hold on. I hope not, but I think we’re in trouble,” whispered Gareth.
The bull waved his ears and trumpeted again. Getting no response he paced forward and stopped ten meters closer. He shook his head and his sail-like ears flapped noisily. Now he lifted his trunk again and the humans could hear him sniffing the air. By now the sun was rising and the light strengthened by the second. The bull looked menacing and he clearly disliked this foreign body in his way. Again he threatened and trumpeted then he charged in a mock attack. He broke it off fifteen more meters closer. Now he was only twenty meters away and in line with the rear door behind Cathleen.
“Get into the back behind me and strap in tight,” Gareth said, quietly. “Move as carefully as you can. We must hope he can’t see very well.”
Cathleen wriggled into the back and followed the instructions she’d received. Meanwhile the bull wasn’t backing off. He seemed to be working himself up. His head shook more and his ears flapped more and he kept darting forward and then retreating before repeating the threat. This lasted nearly twenty minutes before the animal seemed to make up its mind. Suddenly it charged the car and this time it didn’t stop. It hit the rear wing of the vehicle like a battering ram and shunted the car half way back up the sand dune. Now it was too awkward for a charge to reach the car, so the huge beast climbed up beside the vehicle and put his head down. The next thing the occupants felt was the car being flipped over, seemingly with very little effort. It rolled over the brow of the dune and turned over twice on the way down the other side, before landing on its roof.
Gareth and Cathleen hung uncomfortably, upside down and still strapped tightly in their seats.
“Are you OK?’ asked Gareth, anxiously.
“I’m very shaken up and bruised, pretty much all over, and I have a huge bump on my head. I’ve got a splitting headache. You?”
“About the same without the headache. Can you see the old gentleman, who roughed us up?”
“No, can you?”
“Not at the moment. We should stay strapped in for a short while until we’re sure he’s gone. Then we can get the right way up before all of our blood ends up spilling out of all of the openings in our heads.”
“Yuck, that’s gross. Was it supposed to be funny?”
“I guess not. How long do you think it will take for them to find us?”
“Hours I’d guess, but I did see a helicopter at the camp so it might be less.”
After five minutes Gareth dropped out of his seat-belt and added a couple more bruises to his collection when he hit the car roof. He righted himself and carefully released his wife before lowering her gently down beside him.
“Cup half full,” he said. “At least the old bugger didn’t rupture the fuel tank. I can’t smell petrol at all.”
“Neither can I. We’re lucky.”
“Yeah, right,” exclaimed her husband. “We get stranded in a game park overnight without food or water. We can’t communicate, we were on the menu for a pride of lions and then we got assaulted by an elderly and extremely bad tempered bull elephant. Nobody knows where we are and our car is upside down. I’ll say we’re lucky.”
He looked so earnest and cross that Cathleen couldn’t help herself. She burst into peals of laughter as her tension drained away. He looked surprised then cross again, then the lighter side of the situation hit him too and he joined his wife in her hilarity.
In the end they were lucky. After just an hour the helicopter roared overhead and forty five minutes later a digger arrived with a game viewing truck. In no time the couple were drinking hot coffee and eating sandwiches as they drove back to the camp. Meanwhile, the digger righted their car and attached tow chains. The driver lifted the front of the car and set off back to camp dragging the battered vehicle behind him.
It took forty five minutes to get back and the first thing Gareth did on arrival was to thank the digger driver and the guide for rescuing them. The couple made their way to their chalet and Gareth ordered breakfast and a bottle of champagne.
“What’s with the champagne?” asked Cathleen, with a puzzled frown.
“We just survived the longest and most dangerous night of our lives. I think that’s grounds for a celebration, don’t you?”