10 October, Oom Paul's Birthday. We departed from Metsi Metsi camp on the Friday, not thinking much about dates and birthdays. It was the second day of walking on the Metsi Metsi Wilderness Trail. We started walking in a southern direction along the Nwaswitsontso. It was still very dry in the area at that time of the year as we saw a lot of animals close to the river which had a few pools available for drinking.
As we arrived at the Matilweni spruit we had some early morning snacks and then continued in a northern direction back to the vehicle. We saw some vultures descending nearby; we walked towards them but were sceptical if we would find anything there. Phillip, my assistant stopped me as he saw a lioness about 120 metres away, she was lying down and watching us. It was strange that she didn't run away and we went to have a closer look. We approached her to about 70 metres. She was scanning the area around her then would look at us, growl and flick her tail. Suddenly I noticed there were some cubs with her; thus the reason why she did not run and was a bit aggressive towards us.
I informed the group that they must take their photographs as I did not want to disturb them for too long. We started walking parallel away from her, still at the same distance and came to a foot path where the view of her was better and stopped for some photographs again. At no time did the lioness show more aggressiveness than what lions normally show. Still just growling and flicking the tail. We didn't stay long and I saw a rocky outcrop to my right and told the group that we should walk there from a safety point of view and then continue on the walk back to the vehicle.
As we started moving away from the lioness and cubs, I heard the distinctive sound lions make when they charge. I didn't see the lioness at that stage but did notice the cubs running away from us. I waited for the lioness to appear and when she did she was about 15 metres away from us. I fired a warning shot which did not affect her charge at all; she kept on coming as I loaded my second round. When she was about three metres away she leaped towards me and I jumped to my left.
She shaved my leg with her body and ran into a bush behind me, as she hit the ground she turned around and went for me again. I turned around at the same time and shot her less than a metre from me. I saw the bullet hit but couldn't see where I hit her, all I know is that she went down, but only for a split second. She jumped up and grabbed me and with her weight brought me to ground. I think that is when I lost my rifle.
I felt her biting my arms and my side even though I did not feel any pain. The thought that went through my mind is that with the next bite I'm going to die. I lay still as if I was dead and she stopped biting me, by which time I shouted to Phillip to shoot her. I did not hear a shot but she obviously realised that I was not dead and then she grabbed me again, biting and scratching and trying to pull me away. I again lay still and suddenly felt the weight of her lift off me and then she ran off. I stood up and walked towards my group and called for help. They rushed towards me and I went to sit in some shade where the doctor (Laresa de la Rey) who was part of the goup, could assess the wounds and put some dressing on from our first aid kit.
I tried to get communication on our radio for assistance but could not reach anybody. We started walking back to the vehicle which was approximately five kilometres away, all the while trying to get somebody on the radio. The only channel that was working was channel two. Channel five only gave a static sound and I could not transmit anything. Finally Phillip got hold of the field rangers at Nwanetsi and he asked them to meet us at the confluence as we knew we would have a flat tyre when we returned to the vehicle as we noticed a slow puncture when leaving the vehicle in the morning.
The field rangers were on their way and said that they also informed Skukuza of the incident. As we got to the confluence Ken Maggs came in on channel two and enquired about the incident and the degree of seriousness. I told him that I was mauled by a lion and that I was badly injured. He then asked me if I would need the helicopter to come out at which I said I would probably need to go to the hospital. His reply was that he would send out the helicopter immediately.
We walked back to the vehicle, by that time only about 300 metres away. We waited for the helicopter which arrived 25 minutes later with the pilot (Charles Thompson), the doctor (Pieter Odendaal) and Mbongeni Thukela. Pieter removed the bandages and replaced them as well as putting me on a drip. We then flew to Skukuza and from there to Nelspruit Medi-Clinic.
At the hospital they immediately took me to the theatre where they cleaned my wounds, cutting away dead material and left the wounds open with only some bandages on my arms. A day and a half later they took me to theatre again to clean, scrub and remove dead and infected tissue and afterwards closed the wounds. That was the only time I experienced extreme pain. I spent five days in hospital on very strong antibiotics and was discharged on the 15th of October.
Being attacked by a lion never crossed my mind in the seven years that I've been on trail. In their normal behaviour lions will move away from people on foot, 99 percent of the time. I could not believe the power and strength of a lioness even though we've seen them bringing down large game species. She was pulling and shaking me (all 90 kg of me) around like a rag doll. Never underestimate the nature and behaviour of any wild animals that is written in books. They are unpredictable in every sense of the word. I have learned a lot from this experience and look differently at lions these days.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude towards the group that was on the Trail for their assistance. My assistant, Phillip Gumede and to everybody involved in the transport and care that I received. I would also like to say for those who are leading wilderness trails, day walks and other guided activities to learn from this incident and never go by the norm of lion behaviour.
Most of us have encountered lions on foot before and the norm is that they growl, flick tails and even charge, charges mostly being mock charges. Do not stay too long at a lion sighting. You never know if the next charge is going to be serious. I could have shot the lion dead at 15 metres, but gave her the benefit of the doubt until she was past me. I don't think we should put ourselves in such situations and more so put a lion or any other animal in such situations. It will end up being fatal for one of the parties.