David Livingstone once wrote, "The first person who ascribed noble qualities to the lion seems to have been followed by the rest of mankind as sheep follow that one which has the bell, or as a string of geese does the leader." The puffed-up majestic lions, he said, looked like "old women in nightcaps."

But perhaps the explorer's deflations masked a deeper fear, for at the beginning of his career he was badly mauled by one of the beasts. He never tired of telling the story, and each time he embroidered it and made it more heroic, until one could almost see the hand of God protecting Daniel in the lions' den.

No pain or terror

The village of Mabotsa, near Robert Moffat's Kuruman station, was troubled by lions when Livingstone arrived there in 1844. They killed so many cattle, the lions were thought to be bewitched. Livingstone encouraged the villagers to join him in hunting the lion. As they came upon a pride of lions resting on a rock, Livingstone gave the largest male both barrels of his shotgun.

"He is shot! He is shot!" the villagers cried. But while Livingstone reloaded, he saw the lion's tail erected in anger. The beast sprang on him.

"Growling horribly close, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat," he wrote.

"The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first grip of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there is no sense of pain nor feeling of terror."

An elderly convert from Kuruman named Mebalwe grabbed a rifle from another native and shot, but his weapon misfired. The lion jumped off of Livingstone and attacked Mebalwe's thigh. As the beast sank its teeth into the shoulder of another native, the life drained from its eyes, and it suddenly dropped dead to the jungle floor. The attack left Livingstone's arm shattered. But after he regained his composure, he reset the humerus himself.

"I had on a tartan jacket on the occasion," he concludes, and he credited good Scottish woolens with saving the day, because they wiped up the animal's "virus" and fought off infection.

Though the attack lasted only a few moments, it had lasting consequences. While he was recuperating in Kuruman, Livingstone proposed to Mary Moffat.