My Swahili vocabulary is limited to ‘Jambo’, ‘Pole’, ‘Asante Sana’. However, it did not take me very long to figure out that ‘Simba’ is the Swahili word for ‘lion’. I looked at Uma, the owner of The Retreat, trying to figure out from her facial expressions what this conversation was all about. We were sitting at one of the tables at Hippo Point, the flames of a bonfire were dancing cheerfully a few metres away from us. We had just finished our dinner, a divine feast for all senses. As a starter, we were presented with a trio of tomato and avocado salad, a well spiced prawn and delicious samosas. The culinary delighted continued with a beef roast, architecturally presented surrounded with fresh vegetables and aromatic rice on the side. Last but certainly not least, our palates were delighted with a fresh water melon reduction combined with a lemon tart that was simply to die for. All of this had been presented to us at the private pool area of Hippo Point from which we enjoyed the sunset over the Great Ruaha River prior to our feast. Whilst I listened to Uma’s conversation with her head guide Fidelis, guessing other words around the detected key word ‘ Simba’, I heard the hippos in the river talking and enjoying themselves in the water. For a moment, the sounds of the hippos dominated the conversation, distracting me from the ‘Simba’, drawing my attention to the other side of the river. As I turned my head back to Uma, she had finished her conversation and answered my questioning look. ‘There is a lion just behind my house, I don’t think that is funny’. The expression on her face was serious and I tried to figure out where she was being sarcastic or if she meant it. The word funny used in the same sentence as ‘Simba’ did not work for me. It did not take me long to realise that this was for real and I felt a low feeling in my (full) tummy. ‘By the time I get out of the car and reach my house, the lion will have had enough time to come around’, Uma reflected and the meaning of her sentence kicked in and reality hit me. The ‘Simba’ was for real.
Earlier when we had arrived today, we saw herds of impalas and waterbucks on our way from the airstrip to the camp. It was the dry season and one could clearly tell. The fact that the government had recently instigated a bush fire with the intention to ‘help nature’ added even more so to the grotesque and surreal looking surroundings. On the bright side, one could see the animals easily although a lot of them had fled the area in search for protection from the fire. Although my eyes were not trained to spotting animals, I did not see any ‘Simba’.
‘Fabiano will take you to your suite’, Uma said getting up from her chair. ‘Good night’, my bush-experienced host smiled at me.
‘Whenever you are ready, I can take you to your suite’, Fabiano said confidently, ‘I am just going to get a torch’.
I got up and whilst clearing my throat, in the hope to appear calm and relaxed, managed to get out ‘And what about the Simba?’ I heard my own voice, sounding a pitch higher than what it was intended to. Fabiano smiled at me reassuringly and we started our short walk to my suite, in the light of his torch. Just before we had reached the deck of my suite, feeling a lot more comfortable seeing the light shining from my suite in the near distance, I asked Fabiano how to behave during an encounter with a Simba. I felt stupid even asking.
‘First, you put down the torch in order not to shine into his eyes’, Fabiano started his explanations. ‘Must I run or just stand still?’ I blurred out, the adrenaline wearing off only slowly.
‘No, you don’t run’, Fabiano replied calmly. ‘You first wait and you stand still and look at the ‘Simba’. You observe him to see how he is reacting. Once he turns away from you, you retract slowly and calmly until you are far enough - then you run.’ While he spoke, he slowly and gracefully moved backwards, demonstrating his escape strategy. We had now reached the deck of my suite when Fabiano wished me good night. ‘Asante Sana’, I smiled at him. ‘Karibu’, he replied and disappeared into the dark, the light of his torch bobbing in front of him. I crossed the deck and walked along my balcony. Before I entered my tented suite, I stopped and became aware of my surroundings and the sounds of nature. I inhaled the unpolluted air, taking in nature with all my senses, allowing myself to reflect on how I felt and being fully present in the moment. I did not see the lion but I was comfortable knowing that it was there and in the same environment as where I was. This awareness gave me the feeling of belonging and suddenly it became irrelevant whether I would still see the ‘Simba’ during my time here or not. As in life, often you may not see certain things but you still know that they are there and something bigger and stronger is surrounding you, letting you be within a fragile co-existence. Being here at The Retreat wasn’t about looking at animals and searching for the ‘Simba’. Suddenly I realised that I had travelled so far, not to find the lion but to actually find a piece of myself again.