Back in 2007 Springboks star Bryan Habana, widely regarded as the fastest rugby player on the planet at the time, famously raced against a cheetah to raise awareness of their plight in the wild. Habana was given a 30 metre head-start in a 100 metre race and was pipped at the post by the cheetah. 109 years earlier Mr D. C. Robertson of Gala Estate, Namazi, in modern day Malawi experienced his own more serious race with another member of the big cat family.
Having cycled out from Blantyre on Monday August 22 1898 Mr Robertson began the final leg of his journey to the Gala Estate just after sunset. With only a new moon to light his way Robertson left the main road at the Namazi crossing and dismounted to push his bicycle along the new road to his plantation which, being soft and lumpy and very steep for much of its length, was unsuitable for cycling except on a few stretches near his house. As he pushed his bicycle uphill he heard the unmistakeable sounds of a heavy body making its way through the bush to his left.
“I thought it was some big game, possibly an eland or buffalo”, he later told the British Africa Central Gazette, “but as I felt a certain amount of uneasiness I went to the other side of the road, and pushed away as quickly as I could.”
A short distance up the slope Robertson decided to look round to see if he could identify the unknown animal. What he saw almost gave him a “fit”. On the other side of the road stood “a full grown lion.” As Robertson registered what was behind him the lion “started in pursuit”.
No doubt flustered by the presence of a charging lion Robertson attempted to mount his bicycle but the excitement and the steepness of the slope saw him fail to gain his seat twice. On the third attempt he succeeded in getting away, pedalling for all his worth and wobbling across the road while the lion, growling all the time, shortened the distance between them by half.
Managing to hold his seat on the uneven road Robertson was fortunate that the crest of the hill was only a short distance from where the encounter had begun. With the lion almost upon him he crested the rise and “flew down the opposite slope” only to remember “that there was an open culvert across the road some 200 yards ahead”.
With the lion breathing down his neck to dismount would have been suicide and Robertson charged full tilt into the culvert, the shock of the impact flinging him high out of the saddle but fortunately not knocking him off the bicycle. Luckily the side of the drain he exited on was lower than the point he had entered it and he was able to ride through the culvert.
His front fork twisted and the wheel grating against it Robertson rode on and when he reached the smooth part of the road near his plantation was able to put on “a good rate of speed.” To his relief the chilling growls of the lion behind him could no longer be heard.
Having made it home unscathed Robertson went back along the road the following morning. The lion had come as far as the culvert where it had stopped and given up the chase. By his calculation the pursuit had “lasted along the whole road from the main line through the forest to my house, a distance of about two miles.” Chastened by the experience he vowed “No more moonlight rides for me.”
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