The sound of one male ego flapping is enough to banish a whole pride of lions
In my tiny tent, wrapped in darkness and my sleeping bag, I revisit the images of the day: lion cubs cuffing one another and their mothers, demanding to play; a herd of red lechwe fleeing as two elegant cheetah stride past; a ground hornbill peering down curiously at our little group from a bole in a jackalberry tree.
Chill air rises from the river. The night is deep and dense and silent, the stars miniscule shards of light, the moon a hazy peel of orange. The quality of quiet is bush-quiet, unmatched by any other — balm to the spirit, to sleep, to uncluttered dreams. An owl hoots softly, a nightjar calls. I close my eyes.
A low, monotonous buzz severs the silence. I sigh and turn over, reluctantly awake. The Buddha of the bush, in his tent 20m away, is expounding yet again; no doubt his acolyte and partner, beautiful Melinda, 23 years his junior, is as attentive as she always is.
Our small group is a mixed bag of nationalities, unfazed by the rough and tough of true bush — so-called wild camping: no showers, a bush toilet, meals prepared from scratch, lots of lifting and carrying. It takes a few days to observe that one man is making almost no contribution; instead, his partner works doubly hard in an apparent bid to make up for this.
Melinda is easy to talk to. Over the next day or two it emerges that her partner is a kind of guru, though this word is never used. Invited to speak at conventions in the United States and parts of Europe, he is highly respected in his movement. Beautiful, gentle, intelligent Melinda met him while attending one of these conventions, and it is easy to see why she appealed to him. It is less certain why she worships this strutting man, is dazzled by him and honoured to serve him.
The guru insists on choosing first, each time, the best site for his tent at our little camps; he dives for the choicest chop on the braai, treats the snorer among us as if he had leprosy, jumps the line at immigration. He is watchful of whatever small privileges he can garner above the rest of us. Argumentative, short-tempered and greedy, he makes no bones about his rights.
According to Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering, and the craving for material goods and pleasure can never be satisfied. Spiritual bliss is the ultimate goal of nirvana, enlightenment; karma refers to the good or bad acts a person makes during a lifetime.
Our guru, who presumably seeks to influence others to these ways and holds a prominent position in his movement, seems the very antithesis of these tenets: competitive, envious and generally dismayingly neglectful of his karma, let alone of the opportunities for enlightenment in the bush.
As the Voice from the tent buzzes on, I think about some of the religions of the world: Catholicism, with its straight and narrow, too narrow for many, especially some of its priests; Judaism, which emphasises the importance of leading an ethical life but whose leaders do not always lead by example; Islam, in which Allah’s ways must be strictly followed, and for a few this means killing in his name. The list goes on. As does the Voice.
I climb out of my sleeping bag for a toilet visit, just outside the tent; the bush toilet is too far and the night feels cold and slightly dangerous. When I return to my tent, the Voice is finally subsumed by a snore. The guru’s snore — surely less offensive than anyone else’s? — is infinitely preferable to the Voice.
After five minutes of shivering in my sleeping bag, I am finally warm. I feel myself drifting off.
A deafening roar shatters the night. I sit up, shaking, and switch on my head lamp. Just past midnight. A lion on the prowl behind my tent. I hear snuffling, far too close, and a rustling of dry leaves. Something is out there. My karma assures me it’s only a honey badger and it isn’t after me, but my trembling tells another story.
Surely the lion will want the prize of our little group? After all, what predator wouldn’t choose a guru above a skinny creature like me? A second roar reverberates through the dark and my bloodstream. Then a third — roars from all directions like a crowd baying for blood at a soccer game.
Lion brothers. My heart feels like a football, bouncing between them. They’ll make mincemeat of all of us and the guru won’t do a thing to prevent it!
But they don’t. They leave. And believe it or not, I finally fall asleep. The next morning, the guru eyes my bleary face with apparent concern. “You had a bad night, my dear?”
“It was the lions,” I say. “Surely they kept everybody awake?”
He compresses his lips. “What lions? You heard lions in the night? I think you must have been dreaming.” The others heard nothing either. How could anybody sleep through that?
Melinda appears behind her man. “I was terrified — they were right behind our tent, my love. But I knew your karma would protect us.”
She smiles beatifically. I succumb to bleariness.
Rosemund Handler’s four novels are published by Penguin.