Umphh. Umphh. My eyes blinked open in alarm and confusion as the unfamiliar sound pierced the night air, instantly forming a knot in my gut. It was no human sound. At least, not one that I had ever heard. No, it was a low-pitched guttural cry – something raw, distinctive, and primal. Umphh. Again, the primal call cut through the darkness, sending another wave of chills up and down my spine.
As I lay paralyzed in fear, the fog of my slumber gradually lifted, allowing pieces of reality to slip into place. Rick and I weren’t snuggled side by side on our king-size bed. No. He was sleeping in a narrow bunk, similar to mine, six feet away. The new sleeping arrangement wasn’t behind the secure walls of our rural Idaho home. We were behind the canvas panels of a wall tent. But unlike most of our outdoor excursions, we weren’t in Idaho’s backcountry wilderness. The distinctive umphh belonged to none of the wild critters we were familiar with. Instead, we were in a remote expanse of the Tanzanian bush: an exotic land where the people, terrain, and animals were far different than anything we had ever experienced. It was a place where lions, hyenas, leopards, and elephants roamed freely throughout the landscape.
With that awareness, I puzzled over the bestial grunt. The umphh sounded nothing like the king of beast’s ferocious roars from MGM movie introductions. Still, there was little doubt that the foreboding sound belonged to anything other than a real, live, honest-to-goodness African lion. Simba, a simple but potent Swahili word. The dread I felt told me that it could be nothing else. We were, after all, in the heart of lion country, a fact that gave Masimba Camp its name.
Three days of international travel and sensory overload had turned us into little more than zombies when we crawled into our beds earlier that first night. Accordingly, we expected to fall asleep as soon as we hit the sheets. That didn’t happen. The second the generator spit to silence and the staff vanished into their quarters, the din of camp life was replaced by an unfamiliar barrage of primal voices. Whoop whoooooop whoop followed by eerie chortles, heeheehees, and cackles. Then another whhhoopp whooop.
“Hyenas,” Rick whispered from the darkness across the tent.
Fisi, I thought to myself. The animal’s Swahili name had been used at dinner in the retelling of a gruesome story, a tale that might have been better left unsaid, especially with a fearful reluctant greenhorn like me gobbling up every word.
Lying wide-eyed, I listened to Fisi’s insane chorus – an ensemble of squeals, roars, growls, and a maniac-like hysteria – as it seeped through the canvas barrier from every direction.
Next, a deep bellowing oozed through the tent’s walls. With this new vocal came Rick’s best guess, “Has to be a hippo.”
The next few hours continued like that, with Rick doing his best to decipher each new dialogue. A conglomeration of chittering, chattering, cooing, cawing, shrieking, growling, grunting, and crying. A symphony, so to speak, of bestial serenades. Still, during those first few hours, Simba’s cries had been missing from the ghostly composition. We listened and waited, but none had come.
When exhaustion overpowered the unsettling vocals, we drifted off, at least until that first hair-raising umphh shattered our sleep. The deafening silence on the opposite end of the tent told me that Rick was also wide awake. After sleeping with someone for 15 years, the sound of their breathing is as telling as any words; he, too, was listening to the lion. How could he not be? The canvas walls, with eight mesh windows, offered little in the way of soundproofing. Even more alarming, the fabric provided laughable protection against deadly predators. Suddenly, our tent which had felt cozy and secure in the light of day felt vulnerable and exposed.
Tense energy filled the air as we listened to the lion’s guttural calls. After a few moments, Rick whispered, “Our first lion.”
With my gut twisted in a knot, a meek “aha” was all I could muster. Neither of us moved a muscle. We stayed frozen in our separate bunks with our ears focused on the unfamiliar sounds.
Eventually, Rick’s hushed revelation, “Honey, we aren’t in Kansas anymore,” was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“No kidding!” I quietly hissed as I slid out of my cot and climbed into his. Cramped. Uncomfortable. Overflowing. It mattered not.
While traveling to Africa had been a dream of mine since childhood, I never imagined sleeping in a primitive encampment where my slumber was cut short by wild creatures conducting their nightly shenanigans. Tromping through terrain riddled with deadly snakes was certainly not on my bucket list, and as a non-hunter, I definitely didn’t fancy the idea of being a sidekick on a hunting safari.
While I do not hunt, I did grow up immersed in a hunting world; my dad, my four brothers, and most of the men in our community hunted. It is therefore little surprise that I eventually married a hunter. So, hunting by association was such a part of my life that I had an innate understanding of its general merits, especially for subsistence and population control. It wasn’t until my husband wanted to hunt in Africa that my stomach did flip flops.
Somehow, the idea of hunting Africa’s exotic animals – especially certain prized species that I had adored since childhood – seemed different from hunting deer, elk, turkey, and bear. Weren’t some of the species endangered? Wasn’t photo tourism a better way to protect lions and elephants? My head told me one thing, but my heart asked questions.
Ultimately, my zest for adventure and desperation to experience Africa trumped my misgivings; I put on my big girl pants, packed a bag, and headed for the Tanzanian bush. Little did I know, that decision would change my life.
I arrived a skeptic of the sustainable use of wildlife when applied to the exotic animals of Africa but left as a staunch advocate, including the prized species that I am emotionally attached to. It wasn’t one huge “Aha!” moment that changed my mind, it was a hundred little truths: battling the blood- sucking Tsetse flies as we bounced along the pitted roadways in temperatures hot enough to scald a lizard; waking to my husband’s alarmed whisper, “Honey, wake up. We might have to run.”; slinking through the long grass trying to get within shooting distance of targeted animals that outwitted us time and time again; hearing stories that left me wide eyed with my mouth gaping open in alarm and disbelief; seeing the logistics involved to tackle mundane tasks in a parched land; experiencing remoteness and animal densities that few photo tourists would appreciate; discovering the many facets of poaching and learning that well-managed hunting is a great deterrent to those illegal activities; and building relationships with the staff, allowing me to see that their livelihoods, and that of so many others, depend on the income derived from foreign hunters.
Aside from all the insight I gained from these day-to-day activities, it was the cries of the savanna that touched me deep in my core. The vocal shenanigans of beastly creatures varied every single evening – a different composition of growls, roars, squeaks, bellows, chortles, and a hundred other ghostly serenades. The primal sounds chilled me to the bone, but at the same time, they filled me with awe. Never have I felt so alive and exhilarated by the promise of the days to come. Yet, I also came to recognize the dangers of living with such dangerous, destructive species. I observed the strategies taken to mitigate those risks, and I came to understand why a monetary value must be placed on such animals.
Thinking back to my time at Masimba Camp, I become all misty eyed. Africa is a magical, wondrous, and intriguing land filled with people and sights that will fill you with awe, but it is also a complex, unforgiving land. Experiencing Africa first- hand offered me a whole new perspective, answering all the questions that had troubled me. There are plenty of facts that support the value of well-managed hunting, but I no longer need statistics; common sense and my heart tell me everything I need to know. With my sentiments and mind aligned, I am now passionate about helping others like me understand the reality of Africa instead of the romanticized version.
The truth is, I am not the same having heard the cries of the savanna. Not only their savage songs, but their cries for the world to awaken and to understand the hard truth needed to ensure their cries forever remain a part of the wild and not just ghostly echoes from a distant past.
ABOUT SUE’S BOOK
This is an excerpt from Sue Tidwell’s book Cries of the Savanna, with select passages from Chapter 1 “The African Symphony.” Sue accompanied her husband, Rick, on his hunt in Tanzania for Cape buffalo, zebra, eland, impala, sable, and leopard. Her story is a testament to how being in the field and experiencing the hunt can help others realize the value of well- managed hunting. If you would like to purchase her book, go to http://hyperurl.co/BuyCriesoftheSavanna.