To my seven-year old eyes, Bologna, the city where I grew up, seemed a vast metropolis. A city of half a million people, with a famous and vibrant university, it was safe enough that, from the age of seven or eight, I would walk to school unaccompanied. I lived in the center of town and everything that lay outside the medieval walls was unknown to me, and it’s what conjured vastness.
The city is surrounded by hills that, in Summer, afford nice hikes and picnics. A basilica overlooks the expanse of red roofs, with a snaking portico most students vow to climb if they pass their exams. I know I did. There are two major parks inside the city itself, the largest of which is Giardini Margherita, named after the Queen who is best remembered by the pizza of the same name, although I couldn’t tell you what she looked like or when, exactly, did she live. Everything about the brief reign of the Italian monarchy has been erased.
I thought of Giardini Margherita as a wild wonder – in reality, with a man-made lake, a tennis club and a cafe, it is just a very pretty park. On one corner, where the swings used to be, there was an enclosure that housed the two saddest and stinkiest lions I have ever seen. Naturally, as a child, I was fascinated by these poor creatures, that I remember rather emaciated. Probably born somewhere in the wild, maybe they ended up in a circus and lived out their days under the curious gaze of children, looking at trees they couldn’t get to. Whoever, in the city council, thought that having lions was an exotic idea was a moron. But here I am, remembering them after all this time.
I hadn’t thought about the lions of Giardini Margherita in decades. They came to mind as I sat in a jeep, somewhere in a game reserve in the Eastern Cape, with a few fellow travelers, sofagirl, and Matt the ranger, looking for lionesses.
Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat had been on my wish list for a long time and, this Summer, I made it come true (I haven’t yet given up on volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand although Matt the ranger told me I would just be picking up elephant dung). The day before we set out to look for female lions, we were rewarded by a group of elephants who spent an hour in our company, a few inches from my face, and by the sight of two male lions resting after their evening meal. As majestic as they looked, they were just two sleeping lions, which is why we had insisted we go looking for the females of the pride who, according to Matt the ranger, were not gelling with the males and kept to themselves.
After what my back deemed a fair amount of off-roading, we spotted three lionesses. And the two males. Sue captured on camera one of the girls rebuking the attention of one of the guys: she would have none of it and, surprisingly, the lion was a gentleman and, roar notwithstanding, let the matter go. We followed him as he retreated, when, suddenly, the three females appeared from behind some bushes, right on our jeep’s path.
Matt the ranger began to back up. Then he informed us he had to stop to try to let them pass and to please “do not make any sudden movements, do not get up and keep your hands inside the jeep”. Lions don’t really look at humans as possible food and, in a reserve, they have plenty of prey to feed on and for entertainment killing; still, they are wild animals and, while used to seeing jeeps driving around, they might not take to tourists’ stupidity kindly.
We stopped. Two of the lionesses came in front of the jeep and veered left, disappearing into the bush. The third placidly carried on, flanking us, right where I was sitting. I could feel the English girl in front me stiffening with fear. I kept on taking pictures but, when the time came to lower the camera so I could get a full frontal of her face, I hesitated and couldn’t lower my hands. The lioness carried on walking calmly, looking at us, looking at me with proud green eyes that seemed to say “I know that you know I have all the power here”. Which she sure did. I was mesmerized.
Afterwards, all of us feigning nonchalance, the English girl and I both shared that it was as if the lioness had looked right into us, making us freeze. There was none of the gentleness of the elephants in her gaze, the meekness of the giraffes or the indifference of the zebras. It was as if she were saying: here, you do not matter. And I didn’t.
Nature’s biggest gift to man is its ability to take us out of ourselves, of our self-inflicted loops of worry and frenzy and to remind us we do not matter all that much in the end. Is it why we are so hellbent on fucking it up? To assert our petty power?
That night, in front of a roaring fire and a gin and tonic, a mighty wind kicking up dust and confining us to darkness for a while, the sad lions of Giardini Margherita came to mind. In my mind, they are a metaphor for how far I have travelled, how much my life has changed from the days when a city park felt terra incognita, how even my imagination then couldn’t have grasped how big and varied life could be. In my ego-centric childhood, I couldn’t see how little we really mean in the end, even as we look for purpose, day in and day out. Or maybe it’s precisely our insignificance that drives the search. I would like to think so.
- Title stolen from the Zimbabwean proverb: “God is good, but never dance with a lion”.
We did our safari at Kariega Game Reserve, which we couldn’t recommend enough for an affordable experience and the variety of animals we saw. We struck gold with Matt, the head ranger, who took us out five times and turned out to be very knowledgeable, experienced and passionate about wild animals.