Dan Aykroyd's wife, actress Donna Dixon, and her friend Elana Ryan had been watching the stars one evening after a game drive with Bruce. They were lying on blankets a few yards from their Land Rover when Elana heard something coming toward them through the grass: pum-pum, pum-pum, pum-pum. Elana looked up and saw an animal silhouetted against the night sky. She thought it was a wildebeest. What Donna remembers is the animal's distinctive odor. "I'll never forget that smell," she says. "It was so pungent. Then suddenly there was total chaos, and Bruce was yelling, 'Get back in the Rover! Get back in the Rover!' "
Bruce had heard a noise, too, and he'd hopped onto the hood of the vehicle to shine his spotlight into the darkness. A few feet away from the two women, crouched low in the grass, was a male lion. The light froze him. "I got up on all fours," Donna recalls, "and three arm's lengths ahead of me, looking at me eye-to-eye, was this lion. He, too, was rising up. It was like looking into the mirror."
Donna and Elana took two long strides and leaped into the Land Rover, which Bruce jammed into gear and promptly drove straight into a ditch. But the lion, after pausing to look down on them, turned and disappeared into the night. "Bruce definitely saved our lives," Donna says.
On our second evening at Phinda we had an encounter with that same lion. A giraffe had died of natural causes on the property a few days before we arrived. The carcass hadn't yet been scavenged, but it was smelling pretty ripe, and the rangers checked now and again to see if hyenas or lions had found it. When we drove up to the dead giraffe that evening, the lion that had given such a fright to Donna and Elana was asleep in the road, a hundred yards away. It was the dominant male on the property, a seven-year-old that weighed some 400 pounds and had a beautiful tawny mane. The sound of our approach woke him up, and he eyed us sleepily, without rising. Our ranger on that ride, 24-year-old Andrew Ewing, turned off the engine so we could watch without disturbing him. As long as we stayed in the vehicle and remained quiet, Andrew assured us, the lion wouldn't recognize us as human. We were no more threatening (or appetizing) than a large, smelly hunk of metal.
A gentle rain was falling, and the lion shook its mane. We were so close we could see the droplets fly off in an arc. When the lion sneezed, we saw the spray. Still waking up, the lion yawned once, twice, each time displaying a fearsome set of canines. To my astonishment, Peter and his wife, Diana, yawned back in sympathy. Traveling with those two was like traveling with a couple of chimps.
The lion seemed oblivious to our presence. He rose, stretched and then ambled toward the carcass of the giraffe. I was struck by how big the lion was—his head stood at least four feet off the ground—but how narrow he appeared from behind. Muscle and bone. His paws were huge, "like pudding plates," as Bruce later described them. When the lion neared the giraffe, he sniffed, but instead of feeding he began to mark his territory by spraying several surrounding bushes with urine. He circled the carcass, then returned in our direction and marked a bush within eight yards of the Land Rover. Then he plopped back down in the road.
The lion might have stayed there until dark. He looked very settled. But when we began snapping pictures, something, perhaps the motor drives of the cameras, irritated him. He rose and, as if taking note of us for the first time, came toward the vehicle. I avoided making eye contact, remembering that some animals—gorillas and dogs are two—consider eye contact a direct challenge. The lion was standing in front of the Land Rover, looking in. Andrew's rifle was still in its case—no good to anyone. Then Diana did a peculiar thing. She snorted.
She later claimed she was paralyzed with fear and was merely trying to get oxygen to her lungs. Some people whimper when they're afraid. Others cry. Diana snorts. The problem is adenoidal. But the resulting noise is a nearly perfect imitation of a warthog, which happens to be one of the lion's favorite meals. We froze, not breathing, as the lion circled within five feet of Diana. Her face had lost all color.
No matter how many times you are assured that a lion will not attack you in a Land Rover, it's a difficult notion to accept. It's still a lion. You're helplessly exposed. If, just this once, the lion decided to smack that large, loud, smelly hunk of metal, particularly now that it had snorted, who could blame him? Andrew made one move toward his rifle case but gave up the effort as hopeless. It was the lion's call. He sniffed in the direction of Diana, then ambled back down the road. At the nearest tree he stood upright and began to scratch the trunk, nine feet off the ground, to clean or sharpen his claws. Finally he trotted out of sight. We had just begun to breathe again when the lion began to roar—12 to 15 deep, savage blasts that raised the hair on the back of my neck.
It was great stuff. Curiously, that lion never returned to feed on the giraffe. Nor did any of the other lions in the reserve, or even the hyenas. The best guess any of the rangers could make was that the giraffe had been diseased, and the animals could tell. That didn't stop the white-backed vultures, though. On our last morning at Phinda, a hundred or more of them descended on the carcass. Scrabbling and fighting grotesquely among themselves, they picked it clean.