Whatever You Do Don’t Run!

If you’ve ever walked in a wilderness area, one of the first things your guide will tell you is “should we surprise an animal, whatever you do do not run”. The funny thing is that what normally follows are tales from guides of newly wed couples who despite just declaring their undying love and nodding solemnly at the instruction not to run, will desperately start shoving past each other the moment a rhino or elephant glances in their direction. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all know the innate desire to turn and sprint like hell when something big and threatening comes our way.

Linkwaha Wildlife - Sunset - Private Guides
The rules in the bush change significantly when you step out of the vehicle and onto the ground. Suddenly animals that tolerated your presence pretty close up from the vehicle, tend to feel threatened and can become aggressive when they see you walking. As a result guides will use wind, cover, distance and stealth to avoid being seen by those animals when tracking and viewing them.

I’ve been in this exact situation with a disgruntled lioness. A tracker called Shibivane and I were on foot at Ngala Private Game Reserve, adjacent to the Kruger National Park, following the lioness’ tracks. The tracks were fresh and there was just a single set of them. As we tracked we had no idea that she had cubs but when we rounded a corner and were met with 140kg of tawny fury, what we did learn fast was that she was pretty angry. Crouched low to the ground, her eyes locked on us and her tail lashing from side to side, the lioness emanated a low growl. She made it very clear that we were not welcome.

After waiting a few long moments we tried to take a step backwards and create some space between us, which only angered her further and she charged a few meters closer, her low growl turning into a savage barking sound, her eyes flashing open wildly and her feet kicking up sand around us. Immediately we stopped, which caused her to stop, the predator in her knowing that if we were brave enough not to run then we must be a fair threat ourselves. As we carefully traced a few more steps in reverse she charged at us again, causing us to shout and raise our arms, an attempt to make ourselves look as large and intimidating as possible. Eventually after a few more of these backing off endeavours, we were able to create enough space between us that we could turn and with quivering legs walk away, nervously glancing over our shoulders as the lioness relaxed her crouched posture. After giving us one last threatening look, she returned to her cubs.

Me and Shibivane, the incredibly skilled tracker I was teamed up with during my time at Ngala, tracking lions in the Timbivati riverbed, which is dry during the winter months. Having grown up in the area and tracked his entire life, including many of those years poaching to feed his family, Shibivane had an incredible knack of just knowing where animals were going to be. If there was anyone who could hold his nerve when being charged, it was Shibivane.

The desire to run, whether from a lion, a difficult human relationship or an uncomfortable circumstance, is a deeply human one and whether we admit it or not, is something we’d like to do a lot of the time. Recently the challenges of starting a new business, dealing with the tax man and confrontation with a close friend are some of the things that have made me want to up and run.

I read a really interesting poem by one of my favourite poets David Whyte, called Run Away, that deals with this. He speaks of how our flight response is crucial to our survival. It’s hard-wired into us and because our ancestors listened to this very same instinct, we have the privilege of being around today. But we also know that it is not always a good idea to run. If I had turned and sprinted from that lion I would have triggered it’s predatory response. It would without a doubt have chased after me and let’s face it, I’m not quick enough to outrun a lion. Despite a very loud voice inside my head screaming at me “ruuuuuun!”, a larger and wiser instinct told me that in this particular situation it was better to stay put.

Although this is a borrowed photograph of a charging lioness, this is what the moment looked like. There is an unmistakeable savagery to the sound and look of a lioness attempting to protect her cubs from a perceived threat.

And this brings us to Whyte’s rather brilliant point. Despite it being very natural for us to want to run from a new business venture, family trouble or possibly even our emotions; it is the choice to stay that matures our character and brings growth from the challenging conversation we may find ourselves in. Our presence is only fully understood because of our resistance to be there in the first place and in the choice to stay put. It shows us our capacity to cultivate a strength that can empower us to face the things that scare us most.

“Through being equal to fierce circumstances we make ourselves larger than the part of us that wants to flee…in turning to the source of the fear we have the possibility of finding a different way forward, a larger good, through circumstances, rather than away from them in some supposedly safe area where threats no longer occur…”

Two lionesses photographed from a vehicle. One should never be lulled into a false sense of security around wild animals like these, their demeanour can shift from placid to intense in a matter of moments. Having said this, animals are also not out to get us and if they do not perceive a threat they are unlikely to show any aggression. The more aware we get around wildlife, the safer both we and they become in each other’s presence.

And so for the newlyweds out there, who despite being in the honeymoon phase felt the urge to push their partner under the charging rhino or lion and make a break for it-the message is to be kind to yourselves. As Whyte says, “rarely is it good to run, but we are wiser, more present, more mature, more understanding when, we realize we can never flee from the need to run away.”

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