Soaring with Eagles in Africa

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series by contributor John Riley recounting adventures from an African safari taken earlier this month with former Eagles greats Kevin Reilly and Frank LeMaster.)

Namibian lion John Riley saw on safari, Sept. 8, 2015.

Namibian lion John Riley saw on safari, Sept. 8, 2015.


The sound of the roar in my ears will only be duplicated, I think when the doors of hell slip their wobbly hinges, one day, and give voice and authenticity to the whole panorama of Dante’s poetic nightmares. It was an immense roar that encompassed the world and dissolved me in it.

–from “West With the Night” by Beryl Markam

ONGAVA, NAMIBIA, Sept. 5, 2015:

Zuma, our tracker and guide, pulled the open Land Rover up within 10 yards of the lioness – to our right the rest of the pride including a large male, two additional females and four cubs settled in the bushes. The sun had been down for over a half-hour, and I admit I was feeling a little uncomfortable sitting in the seat closest to the big cat. If anything happened, I was clearly in the worst spot with no time to react. Suddenly the lioness began to stretch and a low roar began to rise from her throat – the roar quickly grew in volume and intensity and everyone thought they felt the Land Rover shake. Zuma sat with his rifle two rows up on the opposite side of the beast – my brain tried to tell my emotions to calm down, Zuma would never put us in danger. Finally I blurted out, “Zuma, I’m ready to go!” Sitting safely to my right recording everything on his iPhone, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Kevin Reilly whispered into his phone, “John Riley just wet his pants!” Welcome to Africa.

Former Eagles linebackers Kevin Reilly and Frank LeMaster on safari.

Former Eagles linebackers Kevin Reilly and Frank LeMaster on safari.

It was 16 months earlier at Dick Vermeil’s annual golf tournament to benefit the Chester County Boy Scouts that Kevin Reilly’s wife Paula and I made a bid on a trip for four to the Ongava Reserve, Namibia. In sizing up the room full of golfers and retired NFL players, I wagered that most would be more interested in the villa in Italy or the golf trips to Hilton Head and Palm Beach. I had traveled to South Africa 20 years ago and while one day I had hoped to return, the last thing on my mind that night was planning a Serengeti safari. Casually, as my friend Kevin the auctioneer began the bidding, I asked his wife Paula if she had ever been to Africa. Her response, “No. but I would love to go.” While raising my hand as the bid reached $1000 I said, “Your husband will never agree to go.” Sure enough when Paula also raised her hand to up the bid, Kevin shouted through the mic, “Put your hand down, we are not going to Africa!” A few minutes later we owned the trip.

As things worked out that night it happened that we were bidding against former All-Pro linebacker Frank LeMaster and his wife Mary Lou, so soon another trip for four was made available (they would be joined by Kentucky friends, Greg and Susan Hartsough). After a day or two Kevin gave into the idea of a trip to Namibia – a place few of us could even find on the map. One problem on my end was that my wife was completely serious when she said, “I am not going to Africa!” That was following a long recitation of all of her least favorite things such as long flights, small bush planes, big snakes, scorpions, spiders and large animals that could kill you – such as the lioness in South Africa that went off script and jumped into an SUV to kill a young New York woman in June. (I later came to better appreciate my wife’s reservations about safaris after our own lioness encounter.) Ultimately, Sharon’s spot would be filled by my cousin, Phillip Quinn, of Providence, R.I.

Shortly after our early evening encounter with the lioness, we arrived back at our tented campsite. As Kevin played back my reaction to the lion’s roar on his phone and everyone laughed, one of the camp staff quietly announced, “BLACK RHINO!” We turned our heads towards the lighted camp water hole only 30 feet away to see the majestic beast shifting his beady eyes between us and the water – everyone went very quiet.

A white rhino spotted in Etosha, Namibia, Sept. 6, 2015.

A white rhino spotted in Etosha, Namibia, Sept. 6, 2015.

When I visited South Africa’s famous Kruger Park in 1995 I was certainly amazed by the experience of an African safari, but Ongava was bringing new meaning to the concept of up close and personal with nature. Our tents sat out in the open at the base of a hill with only a set of instructions on where not to walk – and fortunately an armed ranger to escort us back to the tent after dark along with strict instructions not to leave the tent until he came back to fetch us for the morning game drive. It was hot that night inside the canvas tent so we decided to raise the flap to let some air in – as I climbed under the mosquito netting I noticed that if a lion came by he may be able to see in.

I believe I finally dozed off around 11:30 after discussing with cousin Phillip our action plan if a lion showed up – there was no consensus. Sure enough I later awoke to pick up a low growl outside the tent – wide awake in a split second, I strained to see if I could see anything through the screen while not moving a muscle. Within seconds the big cat turned up the volume to a full-throated roar. There was no doubt he was either just outside the flimsy door connecting the front of the tent or at the base of the two steps leading to the small deck. Just as I thought he had lost interest, about 10 minutes later the roars started again. At that point I reached over and checked my phone – it was 1:30. Unable to get the nervous system to settle down even after I was sure the lion had moved on, I tiptoed out of bed to find a Tylenol PM to see if it could help me get back to sleep. I finally dozed off again only to be shocked awake around 4:00 by a repeat performance from the lion. At that point we decided to break lion tent protocol and see if we could get a glance at our tormentor – no luck, but we didn’t try very hard. Just as things started to settle down the roar started again – there would be no rest for the weary that night.

A giraffe on Ongava Preserve, Sept. 5, 2015.

A giraffe on Ongava Preserve, Sept. 5, 2015.

We would learn in the morning that based on the number of lion footprints around the tents that an entire pride of lions had settled in to harass us – probably the same group we had visited with early the evening before. As everyone discussed the episode and lack of sleep over morning coffee, Frank LeMaster chimed in, “Lions, what lions?” – he had slept through the whole thing!

Frank LeMaster was a defensive standout for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1974 to 1982 helping the Vermeil-led team reach the Super Bowl in 1980. At 6’2”, 235 lbs, Frank still cuts an impressive figure – especially when riding an African elephant. He has endured a series of health issues since his playing days including having both hips replaced and heart surgery to replace his aortic valve just three months before our Africa trip. Accompanied by his wife and support system, Mary Lou, Frank was game for everything Africa had to offer on our crowded itinerary – he even added a side trip by helicopter over Victoria Falls. The LeMaster trademark became his visit to the bar at every destination to instruct the local bartender on the art of making a great Bloody Mary – and when someone would express concern about the strenuous nature of our next activity such as the elephant back safari, Frank would calm their fears and announce, “Don’t worry about me, I’m a highly trained professional athlete” – and then roar with laughter. To be continued………

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9 Comments

  • John,
    This is really cool, thanks for sharing your adventures. I’m looking forward to Part II.
    I’m not sure that I share the Riley/Quinn genes, when it comes to Lions, and Tigers, and Bears.
    I think I would not be brave enough, for sure!
    Thanks again,
    Love, your cousin,
    Susan Q. Dawson

  • JOHN:

    NOT ONLY ARE YOU A HISTORIAN YOU ARE ALSO A SUSPENSEFUL ADVENTRURE WRITTER.
    KNOWING FRANK LAMASTER I AM NOT CERTAIN WHO MADE THE LOUDEST ROAR:
    FRANK OR THE LION?
    SPENDING A WEEK WITH BOTH KEVIN AND FRANK MUST HAVE BEEN WORTH THE PRICE OF THE TRIP !!!

    GREAT PIECE OF HISTORY !!

  • JOHN:
    NOT ONLY ARE YOU A HISTORIAN YOU ARE ALSO A SUSPENSEFUL ADVENTRURE WRITTER.
    KNOWING FRANK LAMASTER I AM NOT CERTAIN WHO MADE THE LOUDEST ROAR:
    FRANK OR THE LION?
    SPENDING A WEEK WITH BOTH KEVIN AND FRANK MUST HAVE BEEN WORTH THE PRICE OF THE TRIP !!!

    GREAT PIECE OF HISTORY !!

  • I really admired Sharon before but now even more. I am not and never going to Africa for all the reasons she mentioned and more.
    Look forward to part two to further confirm my reasons as presented in part one.

  • We are all glad you returned alive ! You need to select something more tame for your next adventure. How about an overnight at Easter Seals Camp Fairlee ?