I reached for his hand and squeezed it tightly. He squeezed mine back just as hard – because even brave rangers get scared sometimes and if ever there was a time to feel frightened, it was now…
Kevin (Sun Destination’s filmmaker based at Africa on Foot) and I were in the middle of the Klaserie Game Reserve. By ‘middle’ I mean off-road in the bush, sitting in the Landcruiser and surrounded by thick thorny-armed bushes casting shadows in the full-moon light. It was possible to reach this place only by some expert branch-crunching 4×4 manoeuvres by Kevin. Luckily, neither of us are shy of adventure. This was not some random locality though; it was the site of a fresh lion kill. A large male buffalo or ‘dagga boy’ that had been brought down and dragged into a rather hard-to-get-to drainage line by two male lions. One of the males was mating with a female from a pride called the Giraffe Pride.
I’ve seen lions mating only a few times in my life, but never a mere two metres from an open-sided vehicle, so this was something really special! Mating, for lions, is a brief and pragmatic affair. To conceive, they need to mate a few times per hour for a number of days. When the pair were done, they moved off and lay down under a nearby bush.
Meanwhile… striding from the half-darkness came another male. He made his way to the carcass and began gorging himself savagely, raising his bright amber eyes to meet mine every so often – or so it seemed to me! (Being eyed out by a lion is quite something!) I could now smell the raw meat that was bloodying his tawny face, and with each chunk that he tore from the carcass, his nose wrinkled and his black-tipped mane shook. We could even hear the roughness of his tongue like sandpaper over the buffalo’s flesh. Entering the scene next was another female lion (also from the giraffe pride). She padded through the riverbed towards the carcass and tried to sneak a bite to eat – but lions don’t like sharing. The male chased her away with a fierce growl and I felt quite sorry for her, he certainly wasn’t wasting any time on being a gentleman!
Although the evening air was chilly, my body was pumping with adrenalin.
Suddenly, lions began roaring from every direction!! Some in the distance, and some just a few metres away. Like ghost-shadows from the moonlit bushes, they surrounded us, and the sheer power in their roars made me feel tiny and insignificant. The roars were deep, stomach- rattling thunderings, and the bush had become an amphitheater, echoing their tenor-toned tremors for the full moon. I have heard lions roaring close to the vehicle before, but never like this. Never this close or this deafening. A lion’s roar can shake you to your very bones.
‘Rach, are you ok?’ Kevin whispered.
‘I…I think so… the whole floor of the Cruiser is shaking.’
I think I may have inched a little closer to him.
And then a ferocious fight broke out – a commotion of paws and claws, muscles and snarls, all the while tumbling towards our open, floor-leveled door. Thinking the lions were going to land on top of us, my girlish instinct (embarrassingly) was to scream, but, luckily, Kevin managed to calm me. Hardly breathing, I squeezed his hand, probably the hardest I have ever squeezed anybody’s hand. Ever.
The fight had been between the hungry female who, hoping to go unseen by the greedy male (that had walked a few steps away to investigate the mating pair), had tried her luck again with stealing some meat. But the male had seen her, and the fight ensued.
“I have never been so scared” I breathed.
Even once it was all over, and we were back at Africa on Foot, Kev didn’t let go of my hand. Or was it me that wouldn’t let go of his?!
Either way, it took quite some time for us to grasp the enormity of the evening’s events, and how close we’d come to having fighting lions landing right on top of us! By far the wildest lion experience I have ever had.
(Photo by Kevin MacLaughlin)