It was an overcast morning and it had been raining on and off through the night. We left camp around ten to six and the sun was just starting to show on the horizon. I always love driving out of camp first thing in the morning as you never know what the day will bring. Granted it is the wet season so generally the days are a bit quiet as the bush is so thick you can’t see more than a few metres off the road. There is water everywhere so animals are free to move as they please, not being held to the permanent waterholes. I decided we would head towards Masuma this morning in the hope of maybe finding that the lions had been around as we had not seen lion yet on this safari. It was my guests' last full day so I was keen to try and find what too many is Holy Grail of a safari!
It always makes me laugh when you can go out on a safari and see numerous different species of plains game, elephant, hippo, loads of birds, and many other small things. Then when some guests are asked how their day was, they will reply something like “it was ok, we didn’t see much”.However, if you see Lion and not much else the reply will be “we had a brilliant day….we saw Lion!”
Luckily for me, the couple I had on this particular safari was happy to see anything and everything, and if we saw lion that would just be a bonus. This is how you should be on a safari. As a guide to be honest I find lions generally quite boring. Unless you are lucky enough to find them actually doing something other than sleeping which they are very very good at! I tell my guests that lions sleep for twenty three hours a day and spend the other hour looking for a good place to sleep! Obviously, this is an exaggeration but not far from the truth.
As we are coming into the rocks between camp and Masuma we come round a corner and I see them immediately….big pug marks in the road, heading away from us down the road, then two, then three sets of tracks all on the road. As I said it had been raining through the night, these tracks are after the rain and fresh. We drive on slowly following the tracks down the road, then to my right, I see a Hyena. It is more interested in something to its right than us. I roll to a stop and look and listen. The hyena looks at us but keeps looking to its right. Then from about twenty metres to its right, another hyena walks out. I tell my guests something is up here. We drive forward following the pug marks down the road and after about a hundred metres the tracks peel off to the right and follow an elephant path into the mopane. I roll to a stop and just sit for a bit. All is quiet for a minute, then we hear a lion roar a couple of hundred metres into the mopane. I turn round to my guests with a huge smile on my face and whisper to them
The lady of the couple asks me “is it not dangerous?” I reply that everything in Africa is dangerous. It’s just how you deal with that danger. I jump out and whisper again to them to be very quiet. I grab my rifle, backpack, and ash bottle, I check the wind. It’s blowing across us so we should be good. I motion for them to come closer to me and I explain the plan. I tell them that we will move slowly and keep stopping to listen and look through the thick mopane. I tell them to stay close to me and that if they hear or see anything they are to flick their fingers to get my attention and we will check it out. I tell them that in my experience lions will more often than not will see, hear or smell you first. Then normally one of two things will happen, they will either run off or let you know they have seen you.
Now a lion’s way of letting you know it has seen you is normally a guttural growl/grunt that even someone who has never heard it before will immediately know that noise is from something very powerful and is not to be messed with. It is a noise that will awaken a primal instinct in any person, it will take you back to a time when we lived in caves, fire was our best friend and we were on the menu. It is a feeling I love as it puts us all back at square one. I love it because it does not matter who you are back in the crazy world that people call the real world, out here for me this is the real world.
I tell them that in the event of an aggressive charge we stand our ground and do not move, then just listen to what is said and do it, as each situation is different. I also tell them that if we do get charged they should make sure they can see the lion coming as there is no point in us going through all that and they are looking at the back of my head.
A lion roars again, we head off down the elephant path. The ground is soft from the rain and the track is easy to follow. It is always at this point when I am following lion tracks that know are very fresh that my mouth goes very dry. There is also something else that happens; your senses go into overdrive, your hearing in particular. When the bush is thick, very often the first you will know about an animal around you is you will hear it. It may be an elephant quietly rumbling as it feeds; the sound of a branch snapping or the knocking together of horns.
I want to quickly go on a tangent here and tell you about something that has been happening to me lately when I walk. I had read and been told a few times by some hunters and guides that we all have a sixth sense. Most of us don’t nurture this sense and dismiss it when it shows up. This is an unexplainable feeling that comes over you. It very often happens when danger is near. It has happened to me a few times over the last couple of months when I am walking and I have started to always listen to it. It came over me for the first time when I was walking a while back, suddenly for no reason, I had this feeling. I had not heard anything, had not seen anything, and had no reason to be feeling it, but I was feeling it. I edged forward and about five metres in front of me fast asleep under a bush was a buffalo bull. We edged back and made a wide circle around him. This was the first time I had really strongly felt it and I made a promise to myself then to always listen to it. We move forward down the path and I can see that there are at least five or six lions by the number of tracks. There is at least one sub-adult also. Then I see where the mud is all churned up and they have been running and there are Hyena tracks mixed in with the lion track. It looks like the lions have been chasing the hyena.
I start to have that sixth sense feeling, we move forward slowly. I am straining my ears and eyes now as the feeling is not going away. We edge forward slowly then I hear something. I stop and hold up my hand signaling for my guests to stop. I turn my head from side to side trying to pick up any sound. I turn to them and mouth the words “did you hear something” they mouth back “no”. I stand for a few more seconds listening. I don’t hear it again. We move slowly forward, my mouth is completely dry now and the feeling is still there. I hear it again and this time I know what I have heard. I drop down onto my haunches and the guests do the same. I turn my head from side to side trying to get a direction for the sound. I hear it again, it is off to our left. I turn to my guests and ask if they can hear it. It is quiet again, we sit and listen. My heart is thumping now, I hear it again and look at my guests and ask if they heard it. They signal they have heard it but they don’t know what they are hearing. I make a chewing motion and suddenly it dawns on them. What we are hearing is bones and flesh being crunched. Then just to solidify it all a lion growls, not at us but at its dinner mate. I tell my guests they are very close. In front of us is a little rock outcrop and it sounds to me like the lions are on the other side of the rocks. We edge forward, heart thumping and mouth dry. We get to the first rock about ten metres away and I very slowly peer over. There they are about fifteen metres away feeding on a kill. I drop down slowly and whisper to my guests they are there. I motion for them to come forward and whisper to them to stand up very slowly till they can see over the rock and see the lions feeding. We all peer over the rock and watch as three lionesses and one sub-adult feed on a kudu bull they have killed. We have a pretty good view of them through a little avenue in the bush and sit like this for about fifteen minutes watching them feed. To be that close to lions on foot without them knowing you are there is a very special experience. To have them feeding on a kill and making all the sounds that come with feeding on a kill just makes it even more incredible.
Then from behind and to the right another lioness that had been hidden in the grass stands up and walks to the right of the kill and disappears behind the rocks. I motion to my guests to slowly crouch down again behind the rock. I whisper we will pull back. I do not want them to see us and they either get scared and run or we get charged. I don’t want either to happen as this has been amazing as it is. We slowly creep backward and head back the way we have come in. When we are far enough away I turn and look at my guests and ask them “how was that?” They have grins as big as mine. We head back and stand around the car drinking some water as I think all of our mouths were very dry. My guests then ask me was I not scared. I tell them that if they are in that situation and are not feeling some kind of fear then you are not human. However..…how amazing was that feeling to be that close to wild lions on foot feeding on a kill without them ever knowing we were there. One that they and I will never forget I can promise you.