Before heading off on Safari I was constantly asked,
“what animals are you looking forward to seeing the most?”
My answer was always the same,
“everything, anything…all of them!”
Not a single animal would disappoint me. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any of them.
Being brought up in Wigan my upbringing wasn’t filled with regular animal sightings. Nothing exotic comes from northern England. In fact, I remember getting excited when my dad called me into the kitchen to see a particularly fat pigeon waddling around our garden. That was the extent of my wildlife experience.
However, after two eye opening days on safari in Kruger National Park, I was now becoming a tad picky. I’d seen the mesmerizing march of Elephants, watched Rhino’s rambling through the bush and experienced a Giraffe’s goofy grandeur. But I hadn’t felt the primeval rush of witnessing Lions up close. The brief glance I’d experienced so far had merely wet my appetite for the most revered of animals, and our final day on Safari certainly didn’t disappoint.
We entered the game reserve via the entrance at Melelane and followed the tarmac road all the way to Skukuza, Kruger’s largest rest camp. Along the way the roads were quiet. We were hearing reports of numerous exciting sightings over by crocodile bridge, the entrance we had used the previous day. Typical…
Eventually we came across two large Rhino’s skulking along the edge of the road. We crawled past them, observing every inch of their imposing frames. In parts, the Rhino’s skin folded like a poorly made paper-mache model, creasing and releasing with every labored step. A light dust covered their coarse skin radiating a warm, auburn glow. Although they never looked at us, the pricking up of their ears suggested they were indeed alert to our presence. My eyes focused on their iconic horns – solid, smooth and threateningly dangerous.
Our route to Skukuza cut through an incredible landscape which more than made up for the animal sightings we seemed to be missing on the alternative route. Despite our lack of the more obvious safari sightings we were lucky enough to come across a few of the rarer species lurking in Kruger.
Ambling cautiously through the bushes was a Duiker – an animal I’d never even heard of. It sat somewhere on a sclae between a small Donkey and a huge grey Rabbit. They are known to be notoriously shy and didn’t hang around long after we appeared. A little further along we passed a Nyala. Another new species to me. Nestled within the bushes the Nyala looked content. Its thick fuzzy fur made it look like an old teddy bear which had endured one too many washes. But despite its disheveled appearance there was an undeniable comfort as he ignored our preying eyes.
Our route brought us to a shallow river running along the roadside. For the most part our view of the river was impeded by luscious green trees, but every so often the green curtains were opened up. Pulling over at one such spot we were astonished by what we saw. On smooth rocks above the slow flowing river, two adolescent male Lions lay basking in the warm midday sun. For the first time we had a clear view of these beautiful animals. We ogled through the binoculars and watched as they rested, unperturbed by our distant presence. Looking closely I noted a fierceness imprinted on their young faces. These males faced a future of proving their masculinity and carving out their place within their tribe. But for now the midday sun restricted their activities to swatting flies and enjoying the sound of the water trickling by below them.
Later in the day we heard reports of Lions feasting on a kill close to Mondozi Dam. We weren’t far away, in the grand scheme of things, and so decided to alter our route to seek out the Lions. We headed off road through the most desolate of places. The ‘road’ was flat but covered in a thick, rust coloured dust which kicked up behind us. Not knowing the exact spot of the Lion sighting, we were fortunate that another car stopped us to point us in the right direction.
“Two lions” he said.
“They’re still feasting on a Giraffe”
In light of this new development, we high-tailed it onward, through an increasingly fertile landscape. Tall trees sprung up on either side of the road and the long grass made for an ideal kill zone for Lions. As we approached I was tense, wondering what we were about to witness and how the Lions would react to our presence. Through thick bushes we were treated to our first glimpse of the massacre. An imposing male Lion sat close to his kill which lay lifeless in the tall grass.
We edged on a little further, to where the grass had dissipated and the whole gruesome scene was unveiled. The male Lion backed away from his kill and sat under a small tree, soon to be joined by his female companion. They both lay down, panting and exhausted. Their backs arched inwards, weighed down by the weight of their feast.
It was a surreal feeling to see the Giraffe lying in a tangled heap; its carcass torn open revealing more than was desired. Only a few metres away the Lions watched carefully over their prize, clearly unwilling to share. Vultures who crept smoothly towards the Giraffe’s, remains received a haunting roar from the Lions as a clear warning that they were unwilling to share.
There was undeniable discomfort from the lions, a feeling I could relate to after indulging in a big meal; although I’ve never eaten a full Giraffe! From a short distance I studied the lions few movements through my binoculars. Each prehistoric roar revealed a set of teeth still dripping with blood. For the most part the female was calm but she soon took issue to the presence of both ourselves and the vultures.
Her piercing eyes sent shudders down my spine as I watched intently through the binoculars. I had a sudden appreciation of our wild isolation. What a spectacular scene we’d stumbled across. It was gruesome, yet real. This was all part of life for animals in the wild. Each day a struggle to survive, to feed and protect their young.
We were merely observers in this museum of life where, despite our presence, life goes on. There is no courtesy for the bystander; no visitors pass. You see what you are lucky enough to see knowing that whatever it is, isn’t staged. It’s life passing by of its own accord, sometimes pleasant and magical, but often unapologetic and raw. To finally see Lions up close was a privilege and to see them feasting was to see them at their natural best. An incredible experience and a story to tell.