Benin Offers Travelers a Chance to see Lions up close. Maybe too close.
By Jonathan David Thompson
“The lions are out right now,” our guide told us, short of breath. “If you want to see them, now is the time.”
“We haven’t even checked-in yet,” I said, standing in the open-air lobby of the Pendjari Hotel.
“This might be your only chance,” he pleaded. “Other groups come for three or four days and never see a lion. It’s not far from the hotel. We could be there in ten minutes.”
I looked inquiringly at my safari comrades. They didn’t need to say a word for me to understand.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
My four friends and I climbed atop the safari van that had carried us into the national park earlier that morning. Our guide, Bio, pulled the van out of the hotel parking lot and sped over the gravel twists and turns of the dusty road.
Two other safari cars were parked on the side of the road when we arrived. Baritone growling eerily crept from somewhere in the grass about twenty feet from the car, but we couldn’t see exactly where the lions had hidden in the tall, golden, savanna grass.
Bio opened the driver’s side door of the van and stood on the floor of the cockpit with his body elevated above the window while we rested on the roof. We waited several minutes, listening to the deep, undulating growls before we finally caught sight of the beasts. A male and a female emerged simultaneously from beneath a tree about thirty feet from our car.
“Late December is the beginning of the mating season,” our guide informed us. “This male is very dangerous right now. He’s going to protect his mate at all costs. Hold on to the side of the car,” he warned, looking gravely back towards us.“If he comes at us, we’ll need to go quickly.” The male lion snarled at one of the other cars, and we all instinctively grabbed hold of the railing that ran over the perimeter of the van’s roof.
Male Lion Pacing
The female lion returned to the shade beneath the tree, but the male lion began pacing nervously between his mate and the three safari cars. The male lion glared at the middle car in the caravan ruthlessly as he slowly inched toward the road, keeping his body crouched and parallel to the ground.
With one hulking leap, the lion lunged toward the safari car. The tourists inside screamed, and the driver made a move to pull the car away from danger.
The giant cat swiped a massive paw through the air and let out a bone-rattling roar that rolled through the tall grass like thunder and shook the ground. My hair stood on end, and my skin instantly went cold.
Bio jumped back into the driver’s seat and threw the car into reverse. We sped backward until Bio found a turnaround that he deemed distanced enough from the lion. We turned back and headed toward the lodge.
On the Edge of Adventure: The Pendjari Hotel
Back at the Pendjari Hotel, we had an instant bragging point over many of the other tourists who had been there for days: we had seen a lion. Though Parc Pendjari boasts about the largest lion population in Sub-Saharan West Africa, lion sightings remain rare. More common sights in the park include elephants, hippos, water buffalo, and antelope.
The Pendjari Hotel is the only hotel in Parc Pendjari. Located approximately an hour and a half drive from the park’s Tanougou entrance, the hotel rests in a slightly elevated field on the bank of the Pendjari River, which acts as Benin’s northern border with Burkina Faso. Late December through late March are the park’s busiest times of the year, and reservations are made through Hotel Tata Samba (+229-23-82-11-24) in Natitingou, the city just south of the park. Hotels near Pendjari Park
We checked into our room, which was humble and clean. Air-conditioning was available in some rooms but wasn’t needed in late December. A ceiling fan hung over two twin beds, which were clad with newish-looking mosquito nets, and the bathroom was equipped with a cold-water shower and sink.
“The best time to see animals is in the morning or the evening,” Bio told us. “So we’ll rest here until 4 pm.”
Bio went back to the van to take a nap, while the five of us put on our swimsuits and meandered over to the hotel pool.
One look at the Gatorade-green water, however, immediately changed our minds. Instead, we went back to the open-air lobby and relaxed until Bio was ready to take us back into the bush.
That night, we saw ten or twelve elephants, countless antelope, and a group of warthogs that narrowly missed the wheels of our moving vehicle. We watched a breathtaking sunset over the Pendjari River and returned back to the hotel after dark.
Exhausted, we washed the savanna dust from our bodies in the cold shower and walked over to the restaurant.
Located beneath a giant grass gazebo, the restaurant was fully wired with lights, music, and a safari bar that centered the large circular layout. Plates started at 4.000 CFA (about $8 American), and were primarily comprised of fish specials from the Pendjari River.
The fish was fried and served with a carrot and pea medley that I washed down with a cold Beninoise (the national beer of Benin).
We set out into the bush at 6 AM the next morning. I regretted not wearing a sweatshirt at such an early hour. Temperatures had dipped to remarkable lows, and we were subjected to astoundingly cold winds from the river.
The first few hours were calm. We saw all the same fauna that we’d seen the night before. Elephants were clustered around every watering hole, and a large herd of water buffalo passed just beyond my camera’s reach.
Around 11 AM, we turned down the road where we’d seen lions the night before. Bio slammed on the brakes as we curved around a blind corner.
The wheels of the van slid forward in the loose gravel, and my safari comrades and I were haphazardly strewn about the roof of the safari van.
Both of the lions we’d seen the night before were lying in the middle of the road. The male jumped to his feet as our van skidded to a halt on the dirt road.
He began trotting toward us as Bio threw the van in reverse at an alarming speed that nearly sent all of us flying from the roof of the car.
We easily outran the giant cat. Bio was turning the car around, some half-mile down the road, when a Rav4 stopped and greeted us in the road. The driver was a French man in his late fifties. His wife and teenage girls accompanied him in the car. They had not hired a guide for the safari and were thus impudently rogue in the park.
“There’s a male lion with his mate on the road,” Bio warned the driver of the other car. “You really shouldn’t go down there.”
A devilish look sprang through the man’s face. “A lion,” he mocked. “We’re not afraid of any lions. We’ll have a look.”
As the Rav4 slowly drove in the direction from which we’d fled, Bio asked if we wanted to follow them to see what would happen.
“Definitely,” we all said in unison.
Bio ordered us all into the vehicle. “I can’t have that lion getting one of you on the roof,” he said.
We caught up to the Rav4 quickly but kept our distance behind it. The Frenchman’s car came to a complete stop as it approached the area where we’d seen the lions. Within seconds, the male lion immerged from the tall grass.
It angrily accosted the car from behind, pouncing down on the spare tire that was attached to the rear door. The teenage girls in the backseat began screaming wildly.
The car pulled forward, dragging the lion for a moment, before the beastly cat’s claws shredded through the spare tire. The Rav4 disappeared around the corner, and the lion looked back at us with an invigorated glare. Bio threw the van in reverse, and we vacated the area.
We returned back to the hotel and exchanged our lion tale with the other tourists in the lobby. They were all eager to hear our side of the attack until the French family’s Rav4 safely pulled into the parking lot and trumped anything that we could say. Everyone left their tables to admire the souvenir that the lion had made of the spare tire of their rental car.
Jonathan David Thompson travels when he can travel and writes when he can write. He lived and worked in West Africa for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and has trotted other parts of the globe extensively. He currently lives in New England
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