In the early months of 1954, Renier and Hendrina Els were given the privilege of settling on a farm in the Outjo district of Namibia, accompanied by their three children. The farm was assigned to them as part of the resettlement program overseen by the South-West African Administration, and although they looked forward to the move and new experiences with excitement, there was a certain amount of trepidation.
The closest “town” that held the necessary amenities such as a doctor, was Outjo – 150 miles away. The nearest settlement where small items and basic groceries could be obtained was Kamanjab, still quite a distance away at 50 miles.
The move from Rehoboth in southern Namibia had to be undertaken with donkeys and a wagon, a long and arduous journey of over 390 miles (630 kilometres). There was no immediate road access to the farm, with the nearest track being almost 10 miles away. In addition, there were no structures or comforts of home, and as a temporary dwelling, they built a small tin shack to start their new life in.
The new environment was foreign to the Els’s, although they had been raised in South-West Africa, however, Renier and Hendrina took on this challenge with gusto. Sheep were purchased and had to be herded the 150 miles from Outjo to the farm, with numerous losses and dramas along the way – but in a short period, they had settled and were doing well.
The family found contentment in their small corner of the world, doing their best to make the farm flourish. Renier and Hendrina chose to name the farm, numbered 641, “Marenphil”, after their three children, Maryna, Renier and Philippus.
Life was hard in this new bushveld, thick with trees, long grasses, and wild animals. The area held an abundance of game – Oryx, kudu, springbok, zebra, warthog, and even occasionally giraffe. And of course, the ever-present threat of lion. They would often hear the distant roaring of these great cats at night, but thus far had never seen them. Their neighbours, some 15 miles away, had encountered a pride one evening, but with luck escaped unscathed although shaken.
But with these tales in mind, Renier and Hendrina were convinced that they would soon meet these formidable predators – it was simply a matter of time. The attraction of the sheep as easy prey, housed in a simple enclosure at night, were too great of a draw.
A Lioness at Heart
It was in the early morning hours of the 12th of April that they awoke to the roars of the lions that shook the flimsy structure they called home. The dogs began barking furiously, and they could hear the wooden fencing of the kraal that held the sheep cracking and breaking, as well as the frantic bleating of the sheep.
Renier had no choice; this was their livelihood. He retrieved his torch and rifle and ventured outside. The coral that held the sheep was no more than 100 feet from the house, but luckily, their newly obtained “bakkie” was a safe haven. He clambered in, and drove the short distance to the coral.
He could see the eyes of four lions shining in the light of the torch, as they crouched over the carcass of a sheep, growling and batting at each other for prime position to feed. From the safety of the vehicle, he opened fire.
Hendrina, crouching in the house with her children gathered around her, prayed for the safety of her husband. She and the children counted 11 shots, and with each one that rang out a mixture of fear and relief – her husband was still alive, but so were the lions.
Renier returned, confident that he had shot at least two of the four seen. They could do little more than hope that the lions had been deterred and wouldn’t return that night, but little sleep was had as they lay awake, clutching each other and listening.
As dawn broke, they ventured out to inspect the damage, instructing the children to stay back near the relative safety of the house. Renier’s rifle was in his hands, and another one in Hendrina’s.
Just beyond the sheep enclosure, where the sheep were huddled in a corner wide-eyed and terrified, they discovered the carcasses of two lionesses near the partially eaten sheep. Nervously they walked closer, prodding the lifeless forms. The lionesses were large, their frames corded with muscle and their canine teeth the length of Renier’s finger.
As they surveyed the scene, reliving the night and Renier telling how he had tried to balance the torch to give some light in the dark and then shoot at the vague forms, another lioness sprang from the dense bush.
Renier lifted his rifle and fired, but the shot went wide and barely clipped the large lioness, hindered by his shock and fear. She attacked, on him in a mere moment.
For Hendrina, the split seconds that the attack took, seemed like an age. Her husband and the lioness grappled on the ground. It was impossible for Renier to use his own rifle, and the ferocity of the combat between the two was too intense for Hendrina to safely shoot – she might well kill her husband in error.
She dropped the rifle and sprang into the melee, seizing the lioness around the neck and attempting to wrench her off Renier. The strength of the lion was too great, and her frantic efforts had no effect.
In desperation, Hendrina seized a rock from the ground and began hitting the lioness on the head and wherever else she could make contact. This was successful, however the fury of the lion was turned on her as the predator released her hold on Renier.
Dimly, Hendrina could hear the shrieks of the children, who although some distance away at the house, could still see what was happening. The lion swiped at her, and she felt fire erupt on her face as a great paw armed with claws tore her skin open. She fell, the lioness on top of her, teeth buried in her shoulder. Frantically pushing and kicking, Hendrina was fighting for her life.
She finally heard the great crack of a rifle, and the lion went limp on top of her. Renier was then by her side, pulling the body of the great cat away. He had managed to shoot the lioness in the head while it tore at Hendrina.
Shakily, they held on to one another, covered in blood. Hendrina could feel the warm slickness covering her face and left side of her body, the pain almost unbearable. The teeth of the big cat had torn great wounds in her left arm and shoulder, and the rent in her face was severe.
They stumbled back towards the house, looking over their shoulders in fear, rifles clutched in bloody hands. The children were nearly hysterical, and were further terrified by the sight of the wounds and flowing blood.
They did the best they could to treat the bites, disinfecting with warm salted water and trying to bandage what they could. As soon as was possible, Renier climbed in his bakkie and drove to the neighbours to request help, his wounds minor compared to Hendrina’s.
With assistance, they managed to make the journey as far as Kamanjab before calling ahead to Outjo to request that a doctor meet them. And then began the long journey to the small town, painstakingly slowly over the terrible dirt roads, with Renier attempting to jolt Hendrina as little as possible as she lay in the back, her wounds still bleeding.
Despite the doctor meeting them midway, immediately administering pain medication and stemming the major blood flow, Hendrina’s suffering was still considerable. Once at the hospital more relief was received, and she was settled in a ward with the correct care by nurses and the doctor.
Healing took time, although Hendrina was lucky enough to escape the severe infection that normally accompanied such an attack. She received a flood of well-wishers at her bedside from the residents of Outjo as the news began to spread, which was the beginnings of new and long friendships in the area.
As interest in her story broadened, she became the centre of much attention, which whiled away the time in her sickbed. She was interviewed by numerous newspapers and wrote tales of their encounter for others. Wives in the local community gave her advice on living in the area, as well as that the fat from the carcasses of the lionesses could be used to make a splendid soap, which she fully intended to do. She also planned to cure the lion skins and keep them as mementos in her home.
Still further did the story spread, and Hendrina even received a letter of acknowledgement and support from a resident of England, who had seen the story in the news there.
On her return home, finally, and with the bravery and caution garnered from her experience, Hendrina went on to live a long and full life on their farm with her family – which many years later become what we now know as Hobatere Lodge.
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