It was mid morning on a Sunday when the TurboCharge fleet of sixteen
boats arrived at the Tashinga National Park at the mouth of the Ume
River. We were greeted by the sight of a magnificent bull elephant in
the camp calmly feeding himself. Our first mooring spot was too
exposed to potential weather so we moved around the corner into a bay
where the sight of previously buried garbage floating on the bank was
very off putting. The water had come up to such a high level that
previous garbage pits were now under water. Within minutes a gang of
Turbochargers were collecting the rubbish and storing it in dustbin
bags. There was no sign of any other people. We relaxed and marvel
led at the tranquillity of the place and of how wonderful the
campsite must have been in its day. There were ablution blocks that
were still working and were clean and there were various campsites
within the area. After a few hours of entertaining ourselves three of
us decided to set out on foot and try and find some national parks
staff. From the camp to the offices is about a kilometre and a half.
Walking the road without protection makes the road seem a lot
longer. Very fresh tracks are everywhere. You enter the Parks offices
via the workshops where various recent model 4x4 's are in various
states of disrepair. One cruiser was parked against a rock and we
assume this means it was a runner. At the office we found the
Wildlife Manager who offered to send the camp supervisor down to the
camp and book us in. We specifically asked him if there were any
'problem' animals that we should be concerned about and were assured
that there was nothing to worry about. We returned to camp via the
same road, not as worried about animals as before.
The camp supervisor duly arrived in his Sunday clothes and took our
order for firewood. The boilers were lit and everyone was into the
showers quickly. We had permission to have one big bonfire in a
central place and we collected a big tree to help. During the rest of
the afternoon some guys went off fishing, some played scrabble and
some even had a few beers. Firewood arrived and the four cooking
teams started preparations for the evening meal. The sunset was as
spectacular as one could wish for. It is beyond my command of the
English language to describe the colours of red and pink that were
exploding out of the clouds. A Parks member arrived with a weapon
stating that he was here to protect us and could he also have a drink
pointing to the beer in my hand. Beer denied!
It was Andre Van Rooyen and Rich Elman Brown's turn to cook and it was
a superb meal .. We all ate well and there was enough left over for
breakfast. We adjourned to the big bonfire. The other cooking teams
had cooked on the highest part of the camp site and had had a good
loud party. Slowly but surely everyone either gravitated towards the
fire or to bed. It was in the back of everyone's mind that we were in
a wild habitat and that the fast rising lake was restricting the open
ground that normally surrounded the camp. Cooking areas were packed
up well and the thought of hyenas was never far away.
The various campsites consisted generally of one or two asbestos 'A
Frame' huts and a concrete slab. Four people could sleep in or on
each. Eight guys chose to occupy the site closest to the water. This
had two 'A Frames' and a slab, all within touching distance of each
other. One even had a back wall. At about midnight there were four of
us left at the fire. All the sites had people sleeping in them and
all were within a forty meter radius. Mike and I decided to call it a
night and grabbed our bed packs and toured the area. Our first choicewas the camp by the water but we felt it was too crowded. The moon was as bright as daylight and we wandered from spot to spot before
returning to the fire to join Bruce and Justin.
Just before four o'clock in the morning an elephant broke down a tree.
In the still of the night it sounded very close and the majority of
the camp was instantly awake. Down at the crowded camp close to the
water, Dave and Rich turned on some music and chatted. Andre was in
the next hut less than one meter away. Ben was at his boat having a
cigarette on his own. Lance got out of bed to relieve his bladder
shining his hunting torch at his target but not into the close bush .
Unbeknown to any of them, a lioness and her three adult cubs had
crawled down the thick bush line and were just meters away.
The bright moon had just dropped below the horizon and the night was
at its darkest. Andre was asleep with his head against the back wall
of the 'A Frame'. He felt a weight on his body and in his slumber
"\thought he was at home and that his dog had climbed on his bed. He
rolled over to tell his dog off when he saw the lion open her mouth
and close it on his head. He started shouting. Andre is a big man of
about 100kgs. The lioness slapped him through his air mattress and
then proceeded to slap his body against the roof of the hut two or
three times with his head in her mouth. Andre was convinced she was
going to break his neck. Unable to break his neck in the confined
space she then dragged him off still holding his head in her mouth.
Lance Nesbitt was the first hero. Still getting into his sleeping bag
less than four meters away he heard Andre scream and immediately knew
what was happening and what to do. His torch was still in hand and he
shone it straight at the retreating lioness who was already two
meters away from the 'A frame' next to an anthill. By advancing and
shining his torch on the lioness and screaming at the top of his
voice, he stopped the lioness. When Lance was joined spontaneously by
Dean Kendall and Bobo Gibbons, also with torches and loud voices, she
dropped Andre and grudgingly walked away a meter before stopping and
turning back. Very nearby were her three almost full grown cubs. Had
she dragged Andre one or two meters closer to the others, the
situation might have been far more serious. The brave screaming and
cussing from Lance, Bobo and Dean was joined by more voices and more
screaming. The four lions reluctantly retreated another ten meters and
then squatted down in the light bush. I had grabbed my air horn from
the boat. The combination of this unfamiliar very loud noise and many
torches and advancing, shouting humans encouraged the four lions to
wander off. They were in no hurry and on their way towards the thick
bush they walked within ten meters of John and Alex Lucas who were
sleeping in the most isolated of the 'A Frames'. Their father, Lex,
was shouting for his boys but they did not want to shout back in case
it attracted any attention from the lions. When we thought the lions
had gone Dean stated that we were very lucky that it was only an hour
and a half to daybreak and that it would be very unlikely that the
lions would return. It has taken me longer to write the account of the
incident than the actual time this part of the attack and rescue took.
When I got to Andre he had crawled back the two meters to the 'A
Frame' and was vomiting. His face was a mess but the bleeding was not
extensive. At this point there was every reason to panic but the most
amazing scene unfolded. First aid kits came out of most boats. Andre
was made comfortable. Hugh Roberts calmly asserted control and
administered a drip. Alex Lucas sat with Andre and monitored his
shock. Hugh assessed the damage and cleaned up the wounds as best he
could. Andre remained conscious throughout but did not talk much.
Those who could not help congregated to the big fire and a head count
was taken. Rich found Andre's medical aid card and on one particular
spot at Tashinga, Jeff managed to use his South African phone to get
signal from Zambia and phone for rescue. It is an extremely anxious
time trying to explain to someone in Harare at four thirty in the
morning where Tashinga is and the state of the emergency. It was Hugh
Roberts' calming influence that prevented emotions running high. It
was agreed to casavac Andre at first light to Bumi Hills which was
only twenty minutes away by boat. Radio communications were limited
but we thought that Bumi were aware of our forthcoming arrival. Later
I was told that one of the boats had managed to get hold of the
Tashinga Parks (two kilometres away) who said they would send an e-
mail to Bumi! We prepared my boat for the trip but just before we
were going to move Andre, I asked for another boat as it was not safe
to go in only one. Arthur had his ready in seconds and it was decided
his decking was more suitable to carry Andre. Five hundred meters off
shore, Arthur's boat stopped. He quickly corrected a loose fuel
connection and it gave us the opportunity to imagine how badly things
could go wrong if the rescue boat had been on its own and had broken down.
At Bumi I was blowing my air horn as we entered the harbour and a
manager (Ian Smith) saw through his binoculars a drip being held up
in the boat and knew there was an emergency. Bumi was not expecting
us. Mike and Jeff decided to run up to the hotel and were met by a
vehicle near the top. Lying in the boat, Andre was shivering from
shock but the early morning sun was beginning to rise. With his head
covered in bandages, he calmly and bravely stated ' I cannot see and I
cannot feel my feet and that disturbs me'. A true masterpiece of
understatement for us.
The staff at Bumi were magnificent. We loaded Andre onto a cruiser and
took him straight to the airstrip. There we tried to make Andre as
comfortable as possible. Anticipating a two hour wait, there was not
much we could do. Hugh Roberts changed the dressing and eventually
the drip. Andre was in a great deal of pain and Mike, Jeff, Arthur,
Rich and I took it in turns to care for him - all under the calm
leadership of Hugh Roberts. We had a chance to check Andre's back.
Where the lioness had slapped him through his air mattress was an
intense bruise in the almost perfect shape of a lion's paw. The
mattress had merely prevented her claws from ripping into Andre's flesh.
Waiting for the plane was very difficult. We later learned that it had
spent nearly half an hour on the runway in Harare waiting for
On hearing the plane, the Bumi staff quickly drove up and down the
runway to clear the many animals. The very impressive MARS air rescue
ambulance taxied close to us and the professionals took over. Andre
was carried on the mattress to the plane where he got out and walked.
At the last minute he suddenly refused to get into the plane but there
were enough of us to get him those last few meters. It took the
doctor and nurse about half an hour to stabilise him and prepare him
The plane took off and Andre was in safe hands. There was nothing more
we could do. Hugh Roberts could sigh and rest against the vehicle. I
wanted to sit in a corner and cry.
We are told that Andre was suggesting to the pilot how he should be
flying the plane - the morphine had obviously kicked in! Family and
friends were waiting for him in Bulawayo. From being attacked by a
lion at the remoteness of the Ume river to being hospitalised in
Bulawayo in less than eight hours is praiseworthy and we need to thank
all medical staff and pilots involved.
We went up to the hotel to make some phone calls and then returned to
the fleet. Some National Parks staff had wandered down mid morning
that they had heard the noise and was there anything they
could do? Had I been there my reply would not have been polite.
Andre is currently in hospital in Johannesburg. Sadly he has lost his
left eye but his life is no longer in danger. His wife Clare is with
him whilst their three sons remain in Bulawayo to get on with their
schooling. Friends have been amazing in their support for the family.
Our most grateful thanks and respect to the heroes who chased off the
lions and those who rescued Andre afterwards.
To Andre, we wish you a complete and speedy recovery. We salute your
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