So Close, Yet Safari: Lions Eat Ryans

Madikwe, South Africa

I don’t think it’s that odd to admit I’ve vividly imagined my death in a wide variety of ways. Perhaps none are so vividly realized as the CAR DRIVES OFF BRIDGE INTO LAKE scenario, thanks to my sweet MAMAW, but I’ve visualized a lot of different ways I might meet my end, and a great number of them unsurprisingly involve wild animals.

Some death-case scenarios don’t frighten me all that much because of their shear implausibility. For example, for me to die in the vacuum of outer space the way I’ve imagined, I’d have to first get to outer space, so it isn’t one of the death situations I am actively preparing for or trying to prevent. Then there are others that give me tremendous anxiety on a more frequent basis — like what if my airplane went down on a transatlantic flight and crashed right into the middle of the ocean and I survived the crash only to die in the dark cold water because I can’t maintain the pitiful DOG-PADDLING TECHNIQUE that I call swimming long enough to be rescued before HYPOTHERMIA sets in?

But this falls into the “Out of My Control” category, and so I can’t dwell on it too much. It’s crossed my mind that I should probably learn to fly a plane, so I could possibly help in a catastrophe, but this seems delusional, like the people who think they need semiautomatic weapons in case they need to help take down a mass shooter with a semiautomatic weapon. Twisted gun lobbyist logic aside, isn’t it more likely that our amateur bravado would just make matters worse?

I choose to focus instead on something I can control and prevent, and a scenario that seems more plausible than any other death fantasy my brain has concocted: I am determined not to die the silliest of deaths, the one where I die while attempting to take a stupid photo.

You know that feeling of vertigo where your stomach lurches and you feel like a rug has been pulled out from underneath you? Your adrenaline spikes and a wave of terror passes over you, like your brain is trying to communicate to you that you almost just died, and you need to be more careful?

Yeah. That happens to me more times than I care to admit, in the course of a week, a month, a year, and it almost always happens because my eye is pressed against a viewfinder or my attention is myopically focused on getting the best shot possible. A basic example: I just need to get the shot a tiny bit wider, I just need to back up a weeeeeeee hair. It’s a totally commonplace, understandable need… but in doing so, suddenly I’ve stepped backwards and in front of a moving bus. Uh oh.

Or backwards and almost off a cliff. Or into a ditch. Or off a ledge. Or off the pier. Or into the water. Or into a campfire. Or off the boat. Or into a speeding train. Or out the door of the helicopter. Or into the horns of an oncoming yak. Or off a ladder..

The list goes on and on. But perhaps one of the most insidious dangers you will ever encounter is the presumptive state of relaxation and safety you feel while on safari.

At all times your body is going to tell you that jumping off a cliff is a bad idea. Even getting too close to the edge is going to provoke a lot of involuntary reactions within your body. And on safari, these same fight or flight adrenaline spikes certainly do occur, but they mostly occur when you are first introduced to the deadly wild animals.

Let’s take this lion for example. Upon seeing its enormous razor-sharp teeth up close for the first time, your body will undoubtedly flutter with panic. I have been closer than I ever thought possible to some of the deadliest animals on earth. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be mere inches away from a LEOPARD, a CHEETAH, a LION… and at first your body goes crazy and tells you to “Get the hell out of there! Run!” Your body’s looking out for you, and under most circumstances, it would be best to listen.

With this guy,  I just want to share that of all the times I've photographed lions, this sticks in my brain as the one instance when I felt we got too close. We paid a local man to track this lion for us and get us "as close as possible," but then it seemed like the man wanted to be sure and give us our money's worth, and so he all but put us in this lion's mouth. Choose your words carefully.
With this guy, I just want to share that of all the times I've photographed lions, this sticks in my brain as the one instance when I felt we got too close. We paid a local man to track this lion for us and get us "as close as possible," but then it seemed like the man wanted to be sure and give us our money's worth, and so he all but put us in this lion's mouth. Choose your words carefully.

But a strange phenomenon occurs on safari. After a while, your body calms down and stops doing this, it stops sending out these panic signals. Your body relaxes and allows you to almost become comfortable around these animals, and before you know it, you start to forget you are even in danger.

There’s a good reason this happens, a good explanation behind why your body stops telling you that you’re in danger, and it’s really quite simple: it’s because, for the most part, you’re not.

SO LONG AS YOU STAY ON THE JEEP.

If there’s one lesson you should take away from all my writings and photography, this is the one. Stay on the Jeep. (Or in some safari cases, the boat). The second you step off, to get a closer look or (more likely) a better shot, everything changes. I don’t know why it doesn’t make international headlines more often, but ask any guide or local tribesman to tell you their stories. Ask them if they’ve ever witnessed someone lose either life or limb while out on the savanna, and get ready to be dumbfounded not just by how many stories they have, but how recent their stories are!

The tales of idiotic people — both locals and tourists alike— who got too comfortable and/or too venturesome around the animals (and paid a heavy price for it) will start to pour forth, and before long you will want to all but tether yourself to that f*cking Jeep with a rope. I kid you not.

You see, the animals you encounter — and I’m talking mostly about the predators here— will mostly ignore you. Why is this? We humans are probably way fattier and tastier than a rangy gazelle, and certainly much more helpless. I’d probably run less than a few feet before clumsily tripping over a sage brush or something. So why do they ignore us?

It has to do with THE JEEP, obviously, and it’s not even that they see the Jeep as a superior predator. Yes, a Jeep is large and loud, but it’s not as if the prolific Jeeps of the savanna have ever evidenced any tendency to attack the other animals, have they? That’s just not what this large metal animal does. In fact, even the herd animals seem to view the Jeeps as more of an irritating nuisance than a threat, just a prerequisite part of life out on the African plains. I figured at the very least, the lions would get aggravated at the Jeeps for scaring away their prey, but none of the prey animals seemed to be frightened, either! For whatever reason, none of them seemed to care.

“Like all prey animals of the savanna, we warthogs are big fans of wildlife photography. Nothing says, ‘the leopard’s over here’ quite like a huge swarm of loud photographers in Jeeps.”
“Like all prey animals of the savanna, we warthogs are big fans of wildlife photography. Nothing says, ‘the leopard’s over here’ quite like a huge swarm of loud photographers in Jeeps.”

I thought about this a lot, about how delicious we all must be, all us humans cruising around in the safety of our Jeep. We must be the equivalent of a delicious restaurant on wheels, constantly zooming around, wafting out delicious mouthwatering smells, but eternally closed for business. How frustrating for them!

But then I pondered it a bit more and... no, a closed restaurant is not the best analogy. Because to the lions, a Jeep full of metal-encased people is something they wouldn’t know what to do with.

Have you ever been on a long road trip? A friend and I once drove from Dallas, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska and there are large expanses where you might go for many, many hours without a viable dining option. There were days in the Yukon Territory where I’d feel as if my stomach was eating itself, and I mostly just learned to ignore it. I thought about all the people in the world that have that HUNGER PANG gnawing at them all the time, all day every day, and decided I could certainly handle several foodless hours in a Kia Sport.

Until I saw a McDonald’s. Or even just a sign advertising a McDonald’s.

I don’t even really like McDonald’s, but the second I saw one, the Pavlovian response was instantaneous. I didn’t even have to be close enough to smell the fry grease. I just had to see the sign, or the building, and my mouth would start watering.

And yet, we’d been passing fields of cows for hours, and no such response was initiated. I mean… cows are technically beef, right? More beef than I could ever eat! So much beef, and yet my brain doesn’t think of it that way. My mouth doesn’t start watering when I see a herd of cattle. I don’t think of a random cow, grazing in a field, as a yummy piece of food. I wouldn’t even know what to do with it or how to begin turning it into a burger. Not to mention, what a hassle. If I was all alone and left to my own devices, in some sort of survivalist, dystopian, do-or-die scenario, I’m pretty sure I’d abandon meat altogether and come to terms with a New Ryan. A Ryan that only eats berries and garbage.

And I think that’s how the lions saw all of us in that Jeep. They saw us as something that might technically be food, but also a huge hassle, and an entity they really didn’t know what to do with. How do I turn the cow into McDonald’s? And how does a lion get the human out of the metal Jeep wrapper? It seems like a lot of work.

A lot of work indeed, UNLESS we do it for them. Our guide told me that the overwhelming majority of animal maulings out here on the savanna are due to people becoming too comfortable around these wild animals and forgetting that they are being ignored/tolerated only because they are somewhat invisible and protected INSIDE THE JEEP. But once we step off…

This was all I could think about for days. I imagined myself, like a video game character, changing to some bright blinking neon color the second my feet hit the earth. Alerting every predator for miles around that I was now fair game.

I just knew in the pit of my stomach that some of the mauled people our guide had told us about were very likely fellow photographers. They were likely intrepid photographers, men and women after my own heart, who were in pursuit of a better shot, and accidentally stepped into the proverbial street, right in front of a bus. Just in this instance, the street was an African plain and the bus a hungry lion.

They hopped off the Jeep and turned themselves from a field of cows into a ready-to-eat McDonald’s hamburger. They went from something complicated and nearly impossible for the lions to eat, to something extremely easy and suddenly very, very, possible. And what absolutely terrified me, is that I could 1,000,000% see myself accidentally doing this.

I asked our guide if any of the victims he told us about were photographers, by any chance?

He laughed long and hard, and when his laughter subsided, he turned to me and simply said, “Yes.”

His maniacal laughter made me even more nervous than I already was, but I had already suspected that would probably be his answer. As a photographer, you get caught up in your viewfinder and in the composition and the technical details and you grow oblivious to the world around you. For me, it’s almost always what’s behind me that trips me up. Literally.

I can picture it so vividly in my mind that not only can I see myself accidentally backing up and tripping over a lion, but I am now convinced that it is assuredly how I am going to die.

All I ask is that if my gruesome death gets turned into a movie, I don't want it to be a serious drama I want it to be trashy -- more like Sharknado. The lion gets one taste of delicious Jeep meat and develops an insatiable hunger for more human flesh. With his ingenuity and cleverness always increasing, the gigantic, ravenous lion chases Jeeps at top speeds across the savanna, always outsmarting and devouring the humans inside. The movie could be called "Fast Food," and there are countless promotional tie-in possibilities.

Sorry McDonalds, but I'm leaning towards a "Lion King meets Burger King" scenario. But then again, I'll be dead, so I guess it doesn't matter.

Oh! And obviously lots of JEEP tie-ins, that's a given...

Possible Movie Tag Line: LIONS EAT RYANS!