The morning dew is disappearing slowly but surely into the dusty grains of dried earth and leaves a fine powder to hover bleakly over the surface of the park. Sebastian opens his one eye into a slit and rolls it lazily back into its socket as the sun mischievously throws its rays over the barren remains of the African scrub.
He groans in irritation and crawls lazily to shelter in the shadow of his mother’s soft fur. “Today the sun is going to burn the living daylights out of us,” thinks Sebastian as his mother licks his baby fur with long strokes of her rough tongue. He welcomes her cuddling and stretches out in between her front paws. He blinks his eyes against the sharp light that slips playfully through the dried branches of the huge Knob Thorn tree. He knows that the tree can withstand the extreme heat conditions and throws lovely shade for his pride. The pride is resting. Sebastian’s mother gets up slowly.
It is hunting time. He rolls onto his side and notices that the other lionesses also rise from the dust. His mother bumps her head against his and tenderly brushes against his face and neck. He playfully stands up against her and presses his head against hers in a greeting. He notices that two of the big lions disappear into the nearby bushes to keep watch over the remaining pride. He watches his mother walk away and throws himself into the sand as she disappears from his view.
“Life in the park is so boring,” he thinks and barks his irritation into the dust. He lowers his head onto his paws but almost immediately looks up again as an adventurous thought brings a twinkle to his eyes. He quickly looks around to see where the big guns of the pride are, before he slinks away into the magical guarri bush. He struggles forward on his belly and pulls his ears back as he reaches the end of the bush cover. The dust settles in his nostrils and he quickly covers his nose as the urgency to sneeze overwhelms him. He sneezes three short bouts and pulls up his nose in disgust as he wipes his face with his paw and sees the result of the wet sneeze. “Sinus,” he groans like a big lion, feeling brave and squints his eyes against the sharp sunlight that found its way into the shrubbery. He lies unmoving for a while and spies out the surroundings before he crawls out, feet first. The winter air is dry and hot.
The world is big and wide. Sebastian trots lightly past loose standing sickle bushes, many ant hills and rocks with sharp edges. He stands still for a while to look around. The sensitive pads under his paws feel tender. He pricks his ears in different directions to hear the familiar barking sounds of his mother. He feels uncomfortable and lost and suddenly wonders if this was such a good idea after all. The air smells heavy and stifling. He decides to rest for a while and crawls into a slit in the rock. His throat feels dry. He lies flat on his belly on the cool, rock surface and rests his head on his paws. He feels satisfied as he realises that he’ll spot his mother when she returns over the plain to join the pride. He stares to the horizon in anticipation. His eyes become heavy and he breathes deeply before he falls into a deep sleep.
It is late afternoon when Sebastian opens his eyes. He feels hungry. He looks around in confusion and realises that he is still on the rock ledge where he fell asleep. He stretches and starts to climb down to find his pride. He thought he could surprise his mother on her hunt but that seems to be a pie in the sky. “As it is I’m older than three months and more than ready to join the lionesses on their hunts,” he snorts in disgust, his tail swishing angrily. He really wasn’t in the mood to be treated like a baby and washed by the other lionesses. He stops to ascertain his route and looks closely at his hind quarters. “I’m stronger and bigger than all the other cubs of my age,” he mumbles rebelliously, proudly and lifts his head cheekily a little higher so that the sun gleams on his fine, baby hair. “After two years a lion is big enough to stand on his own paws,” he smiles in satisfaction. “Just to be kicked out of the pride,” he adds disgruntled. He kicks a loose rock with his back paw so that it shoots in between two trees and disappears. He presses his dry tongue against the back of his throat to get the last bit of moisture hiding there. “It’s no wonder that male lions don’t live long, they are bullied from a young age!” he roars in disgust and walks slowly back to the pride, following his own tracks.
The sun is hot and the winter heat bounces mercilessly off the surface of the barren earth. Sebastian loses his tracks and decides to go to the watering hole. He’s been there before with his mother and brothers, long before they joined this pride. His tongue feels heavy and hangs out of his mouth.
“The air smells funny,” he thinks uncertainly and carries on to where the watering hole should be. He stops when a herd of impala suddenly jumps high over the clumps of grass and thorn bushes and he hides just in time behind an anthill when a stag brushes past him, snorting into the air. He swears he frightened the stag more than the other way around. He blinks against the dust that the herd stirred up. His heart is beating fast, partly because he got a fright, partly because an unexplicable fear that made nest in the pit of his stomach. He instinctively knows that the park is not as safe as he thought. “It looked so easy when mom was around,” he yawns to get rid of the dry sand in his mouth until drops of muddied spit trails next to his mouth. More animals run past him in flight and they are followed by more mammals.
He recognises the fear in their mannerisms and considers following them because the park is much too big for him to be alone in. “Perhaps mother and the rest of the pride is already on the other side – wherever that might be,” he thinks helplessly. He turns around and follows the smaller animals hesitantly, bouncing at times and jumping or running at other times. His throat burns and he smells the heat waves hanging in the air. He looks around while he bundles together with the rest of the animals. He sees dark smoke columns shooting into the air on the horizon. “Could that be the feared fires that the lions are always talking about?” he wonders and his throat feels as if it’s on fire from exhaustion. While he’s running, he looks around for a place to hide because his legs feel like jelly and he can’t keep up with the fleeing animals. He notices a big ant hill, and dives into the opening, head first. His heart almost stops with fright when he lands on something oddly hard. He sits frozen, too scared of the previous occupant to move.
“Why are you hissing like an angry farm goose?” asks a thick, old voice just beyond his bum. Sebastian groans softly and tries to jump out where he came in, when the same voice shares some wisdom. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns the voice. “A bushfire is on its way here.” Sebastian hears movements inside the ant hill before the voice calmly continues, “You’ll look like a small bundle of dung covered in black fluff should you land in those flames,” mocks the voice and gives a deep, throaty laugh. Sebastian turns his gaze deeper into the hole but all he sees is the roughened interior of the structure. Sebastian longingly stares out of the opening and his gazes goes over the plains, and a feeling of desolation comes over the little cub. “Where is my mother?” he wants to sob but immediately remembers that he is supposed to be a feared predator of the veld and haughtily swishes his tail against the opening of the hill while he searches the area in front of him.
He’s planning his route back to the pride when the first licking flames climb over the tree tops next to them. He is so scared of the warm glow blowing over the veld in unison with the fire that he backs up deeper into the hole until his small infant body presses against the wall of their shelter. He curls into a ball and covers his fearful face with his paws. He hears the movements of his fellow ant hill dweller close by and surrenders himself to the fear lurking in the dark. When Sebastian realises that his companion is shielding him from the opening, he opens his eyes and looks into the eyes staring at him from a stone shell.
Suddenly the shell withdraws his long neck and all that remains is a hopeful smile and a compassionate expression. “You’re safe now brave little lion. The fire won’t get us down here,” comforts the deep voice and Sebastian can feel the heat of the fire that is mocking, licking over the ant hill, it plays and crackles, it burns and destroys as the wind sweeps the ashes higher and higher into the air so that it spreads fine as a fairy’s wings over other areas of the park. The red glow walks loudly, smouldering over the ant hill, consuming everything in its path, straining to reach the dry earth in its way.
The heat is pressing and unbearable. Sebastian can feel the earth beneath him heat up and the flames brush past their shelter. He is panicking and lifts his head. “Be still for a little while longer, until the smaller flames burn out,” reassures the calm, deep voice from within the stone shell. Sebastian shakes his head lightly, but realises that he must abide by the circumstances. He sinks back onto his paws. He doesn’t feel the hunger and thirst any more, but he feels extremely lost and fragile. He presses his head deeper into his paws, wiping the tears from his cheeks. He is grateful that the hole is dark and stoneshell can’t see his weakness. The smoke is thick and presses on his lungs and his throat burns. Stoneshell moves slowly, struggling over the loose stones to get to the outside. His neck is long, roughly textured, his legs small and funny-looking. Sebastian sees him standing in the opening of the ant hill, stretching his neck long as he looks around. “Hmmpphh,” he snorts in disgust. “The fire has completely messed up our existence!” He swivels his neck to the other side. “I’m too old to search for food,” he moans but pulls his head into his shell house when he sees the fire- fighters close by.
The firefighting team extinguishes the smaller flames as they quickly walk over the blackened earth. They talk loudly as they work. They are in the wake of the massive flames to extinguish it from behind. The sky becomes a festival of flying, yellow birds dropping tons of water on the flames. Stoneshell is lying passively in the entrance of the ant hill when the heavy boots of the firefighters speed past him to douse the smaller flames. “Sebastian must get to his pride,” he thinks and unexpectedly, he appears from the safety of his shell. “Hey you!” yells the firefighter in surprise and stops his fire extinguisher just in time. “What are you doing outside your shell if the fire is still raging around you?” moans the firefighter. Timmy knows he is an old tortoise who has been living in the park for many years. His shell is big and heavy. It’s Sebastian he’s worried about. He withdraws his head again and starts to reverse into the opening. “No, no, my goodness!” fights the firefighter.
“You can’t disappear now,” he looks around for his partner because they’re supposed to work in teams. “Bongani!” he yells and waves his arm frantically in the air. “Come here man!” he orders. When he sees Bongani jogging in his direction, he bends down to drag the big tortoise out of the ant hill but falls backwards in fright when he stares into Sebastian’s yellow eyes. He straightens up and starts running.
“Hey, where are you going?” shouts Bongani in disgust. Tumelo hears nothing and goes in search of the rest of his team all the while shouting, “Lioooon!” pointing frantically in the direction of the ant hill. Bongani doesn’t understand his hysteria and decides to investigate. He bends down carefully in front of the opening of the ant hill and sees the fearful lion cub bundled in the furthest corner of the ant hill. He pulls his sleeves further over his glove and reaches carefully for the cub. Sebastian hisses and scratches at the red-yellow creature and looks indignantly at Timmy, peeping around the foot.
“Be wise and let these men return you to your pride,” suggests the old tortoise wisely. Timmy’s deep voice calms Sebastian’s fearful mind and he moves forward so that he’s within reach of Bongani’s hand. Timmy smiles in satisfaction. Bongani feels over the cub’s lifeless paws and face and then retrieves him carefully from the ant hill. He laughs and strokes softly over Sebastian’s head. “Tumelo, bring the rescue team!” he shouts urgently. Sebastian allows him to cuddle him and even purrs when Bongani holds him close to his body. The big, old tortoise struggles over the warm rocks lying in front of the entrance and realises that the blackened veld doesn’t hold survival for him. He decides to remain close by until his tortoise soul leaves this earth. “At least Sebastian is safe,” he thinks happily.
It doesn’t take long before their firefighting truck stops in front of Bongani’s waving arms.
The driver jumps from the truck. “Bring this little guy some water,” Bongani says with concern as he looks if there is a safe spot for the cub and the tortoise in the cabin of the truck. He pulls the safety bag to one side and carefully makes a depression in the middle. He pours some water into it. “Go fetch the tortoise,” he instructs softly, and puts Sebastian down next to the water.
“Water has never smelled so wonderful,” thinks Sebastian thirstily and he gulps the water down. It drips down the sides of his mouth as he licks his lips before he carries on drinking. The driver places the tortoise next to Sebastian. “Take them both to the main camp,” instructs Bongani and waits until the black dust disappears into the distance. He smiles in satisfaction and walks excitedly to join the rest of the team who is expertly winning this battle. Tumelo welcomes him with a slap on the shoulder.
Bongani nods proudly as he watches his team with pleasure. The wind has stilled. The air is warm and dry. The winter turned its back to the earth while the icy sheet of winter is approaching the dry veld in the park.
Author: June Botha
Proof reader / translator: Darelle de Lange