In Uganda, The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Oman was disappointed we didn’t see a lion – almost as if it was a reflection of his masculinity. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said, a tone of defeat pervading his voice, as he swung our jeep back toward the lodge. I was spending a couple days at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. The park is filled with ample amounts of water buffalos, hippos, wart hogs, elephants and variations on the theme of horned bovines. There’s a large troop of chimps, as well as a sprinkling of cougars. But, so it seems, it’s not a real safari unless it’s a lion safari.

I’d always felt that the wildlife of Africa got far more attention in travel publications than the people of Africa. For this reason, I eschewed going to Africa. But I’d never been on a safari and felt like it was time I see what it’s all about, to do some wild animal gawking that wasn’t in a zoo. For the most part, I was enjoying myself. I saw mountain gorillas and chimps and everything else such a safari has to offer – everything except a lion.

All that changed the next day.”Look,” said Oman, as we were driving through the park. He slowed the jeep to a gentle stop and pointed to a tree where a flock of large birds had planted themselves. “Vultures. That means there’s a kill nearby,” he said. “Which might also mean there’s a lion near.”

​And then 10 seconds later: “There it is! I see its tail!” Sure enough, lying in the tall grass next to a dead buffalo was one male lion. The panels on the roof of our jeep came off and I was snapping pictures of the partially viewable beast. It was just the lion and us for a few minutes. And to celebrate Oman busted out a bottle of vodka and poured me a cocktail. But what seemed like seconds later, a van full of Germans pulled up. “Oh ja, ein Löwe!” they said. And then a French van: “Un Lion!” The Italians followed: “Leone! Leone!” And, as an added bonus to the spectacle, some American hippies: “Whoa, trip out, man, it’s a lion.”

Telescopic lenses were unpacked, safari goers climbed on the roofs of cars, the sound of digital cameras snapped in the distance. With my prime position in front of the beast, some safari goers asked if they could join me. I obliged. “Zis ees very abnormal,” said a German man with a camera lens the size of a bazooka, who had made a home on the hood of my jeep. “Ze female al-vays makes zee kill.” Just then two school busses full of Ugandan school children stopped. Even though they live in a land where lions are indigenous, they weren’t cavalier about seeing the big cat. They screamed and hollered at the lion, which was lying down, its head sometimes visible through the tall grass.

There were now at least a dozen and a half safari vehicles and two school buses parked on the dirt road, about 60 feet from the cat, who was still only about 20 percent visible. An elephant strode by on the other side of the road, which got the crowd’s attention for about 39 seconds before aiming their gaze back at the lion.

I wasn’t exactly sure what we all wanted the lion to do. To stand up? To stand up and dance? To stand up and dance to The Tokens’ classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“? Whatever it was, the growing crowd was becoming impatient. “Hey lion!” someone yelled out. The Italians clapped their hands, hoping to startle it into action. The hippies began honking their horn. The lion was unfazed.

An hour had gone by and it had hardly moved a paw. I began paying more attention to the crowd that had gathered. The German photographer, who was on his umpteenth safari, was similarly unfazed by the lazy lion. “Zis ees normal,” he said when we accidentally made eye contact. “He eats and zen he must make a rest.”

I had enjoyed myself thus far but I began wondering what the point of all this was. With several dozen people standing around, how different was this from a zoo? Sure, I’d found the experience hitherto fairly rewarding but my encounter with the jungle’s piece de resistance was the most anticipated and least satisfying on my trip.

About 90 minutes after first spotting the lion, I looked at Oman and nodded. He knew it was time to go. We roared our engine and slowly pulled onto the road, leaving the miasma of photo lenses and binoculars behind. I’d seen my lion. My safari was apparently complete. Oman had done his job. He was happy.