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Africa: Night of the Lions

Al's sketch of a lion in Kenya.

There were some who advised us that, in our 70s, we were too old to t ravel in Africa. We were more Paris than Kenya, they said. More London than Dar Es Salaam. And there was a night on the Masai Mara when we were surrounded by lions that I wondered if they might not be right.

We were on a roving safari run by a Brit named Patrick Pape. His group was perfect for those of us more comfortable riding than walking. And ride we did-in a caravan of Land Rovers over an East Africa filled with wild animals.

   There were a dozen of us, all but one over 60. Before leaving the United States, everyone was inoculated against a half dozen diseases ranging from typhoid to meningitis. Because older travelers sometimes require special services, we were told about Africa's Flying Doctors, who could land a small plane on a patch of earth no larger than a lawn to get to you and, if necessary, to the Nairobi Hospital. Additionally, we were told that prescriptions could be filled in Nairobi and kept cool in a portable refrigeration unit.

   Comfort was important too. Couples slept in large tents with two beds and a wash basin. Just outside were toilets and makeshift showers. This was obviously no luxury safari, but we were close to the animals. We lunched by a hippo pond, watched herds of elephants lumber by, took pictures of a slumbering white rhino, avoided the mean-tempered Cape buffalo and generally got up close to just about every predatory beast we could find.

   As it turned out, maybe a little too close.

   It was after dark and we were sitting around sipping liqueurs when Patrick said, "Look at that."

   We turned to see large yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. "They're lions. We've invaded their turf. "

   "There are 19 of them," I said.

   "How can you be sure?" my wife, the skeptical Cinelli, asked.

   And I replied in a manner that would have made Archimedes proud, "I counted the eyes and divided by two."

   As the lions began moving in, two Kikuyu warriors guarding our campsite took off with a yelp that was half war cry and half wail of terror. "Everyone into your tent," Patrick shouted, "and stay there until I sound the all clear."

   He spent the next three hours roaring through the pride cursing and blasting his horn as the lions roared back defiantly and began sniffing at our tents.

   We shivered like piglets knowing that the pork chops the lions smelled were us.

   During the height of the terror Cinelli began unzipping the tent to go out and take pictures. I threw myself on the floor, grabbed her ankles and said "No way!" After struggling with me on the tent floor, she gave up. Just about then we heard Patrick yell, "All clear!"

   The end? Not quite. As we settled into bed about 3 a.m., Cinelli suddenly screamed. A rogue lion had ripped his way through? A black mamba had slithered into her sleeping bag?

   Nope. A spider about the size of a nickel was crawling up her side of the tent. I whacked it away with my hand.

   "My hero," she said.

   I pounded my chest and let out a Tarzan victory yodel.
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