Tyler Sharp is a documentary photographer, writer, and filmmaker based out of Dallas, Texas. Traveling extensively on assignment, he has filmed and photographed a myriad of cultures and landscapes, and slept under the stars in some of the most remote regions of the world. Visit the Kilombero Valley of Tanzania with Tyler and stare into the eyes of the King of Beasts.
Deep in the heart of Tanzanias’ Kilombero Valley, there is a vast marshland mostly covered by 8 to 12 foot “elephant grass” (aptly named for its ability to hide elephants). I was stationed at a camp there for 3 months, filming and photographing a group of adventure seekers and buffalo hunters. On the outskirts of the camp, near the Kilombero River, I shared a tent with my good friend, and professional hunter Georgie Ferreira.
Every morning before sunrise, we set out in search for signs of buffalo and plains game. We mostly hunted by river, using a double decker boat with a Massai watchman perched atop. When we returned in the evenings, a campfire and cold beers awaited us, as dinner was prepared from the days’ hunt. But on one particular evening, there was something much more dangerous awaiting our return to camp.
Around 4 AM that morning, I was awoken by the unmistakable, haunting sound of a male lion’s call, less than 30 yards behind the tent. I sat up, and my heart quickened in pace as I noticed that the canvas door had been left wide open for the breeze to come in. As I lay listening and thinking, frozen with indecision, the lion let out a louder call, even closer this time. I breathed a whisper to Georgie, whose 470 double rifle lay loaded under his bed, but his only reply was a light snore. As the breeze died, and the silence grew, I knew the lion was very close.
Closing the doors would require me to run outside the tent, untie both canvas flaps, unroll them, jump back inside, and zip the 8-foot fastener closed. But before my muscles could even twitch to move, the lion called again, this time outside the window, directly next to my head. Aside from the blood pumping in my ears, the only sounds I could hear were his guttural breaths and lowly grunts only inches away. All I could do was wait, and peer into the deathly still scene illuminated by an African full moon.
Not ten seconds later, the beast strode silently out of the shadows and into the full moonlight. As he paused in front of the tent, his tail flicking like a house cat, I was in disbelief at his gargantuan size. A lion of seemingly mythical proportions, he was the largest I have, or will be likely to ever see. Strangely, he had a distinct mohawk mane, made more interesting by the fact that I had shaved a mohawk in my hair that very morning. Despite our likeness in hairstyle, and the only gun bearer being fast asleep, I was still in considerable danger.
My only realistic option was to grab the bed frame, in hopes of flipping the mattress on top of myself if he attacked. But as I leaned down to grab it, the bed creaked, and the lion turned around sharply. He stared me directly in the eyes through the open door of the tent, not 8 yards away. I froze, overtaken by the power of his piercing stare, and awaited my fate. It was the most frightening and beautiful scene I have ever witnessed, and still gives me chills to this day.
After what seemed a lifetime (but was probably 15 seconds) the lion turned around and walked towards the river, pausing briefly to scratch his face on the reed fence. He jumped in the water, swam across to the other bank, and vanished. As I finally drifted back to sleep, his distant calls could be heard until just before sunrise, lingering on the edges of my dreams, reminding me of the magical, but frightening scene of a crouched lion in full moonlight staring me down.
One month later, on the next full moon, that same lion returned to my tent, but this time the door closed. As if to protest, he sprawled out on the front porch, his body sagging the tent walls inward as he breathed and panted. As I stood within inches of the bulging canvas, I felt he had become some sort of spirit animal for me. I like to think that he imparted some form of wisdom or bravery to me in that encounter, and his return was testing that. And to this day, I still draw from that encounter in moments of doubt or fear, giving the term “brave like a lion” a relevant meaning for me.
He is the King of beasts, truly.