Sitting only meters from six lions and watching them tear shreds off a giant buffalo is not your average afternoon, by anyone’s standards. But this is exactly what we did during one afternoon game drive after stumbling on two prides of lions enjoying their recent kill.
There’s something strangely unsettling about watching lions devouring their prey. Perhaps it was the fact that we were sitting in an open top safari Land Rover and had nothing but a few blades of grass and a dusty patch of dry earth between us. Or maybe it was the flash of white enamel that we could see behind the blood stained fur around their powerful jaws. Or it could well have been the low guttural sounds that came from deep within their bellies and reverberated around the bush in the late afternoon silence. Whatever it was, I felt my body alive with the thrill of seeing this rare sight and had the goosebumps to prove it.
The weirdest part of this whole spectacle was that for the better part of the hour or so that we sat there and watched them, they completely and utterly ignored us. It was as if we didn’t exist. It was surreal. We had managed to cause a brief flicker of interest upon arrival, but they quickly forgot about us and went about their lion business. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining! To sit and watch them feeding without drawing attention to ourselves enabled us to fully experience the complex dynamics between the two prides. For one thing, the prides were made up of different male/female combinations. One pride had two lionesses and a juvenile male, and the other pride had one lioness and two juvenile males. This, combined with the different ages of the lions created a hierarchy between the two prides. What does all this mean, I hear you ask? Well, interesting dinner conversation, that’s for sure!
When we arrived, the dominant pride was having first feed, gnawing on the exposed bones and flesh of the buffalo (apologies in advance to any vegetarians). Their huge open jaws exposing a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that cut through the skin and muscle with ease. And we could see that they’d been at it for some time. One of the older juvenile male lions had had more than his fair share and lay in a meat-induced coma nearby, completely passed out. His giant paws lay stretched out in front of him and his eyes were closed in what I can only assume was some kind of buffalo bliss.
Meanwhile, the other pride was starting to get impatient. They had been pacing up and down nearby and were slowly edging closer to the lions eating. It was clear they wanted in. Suddenly, the whole atmosphere shifted and tension rose in the air, sending a shiver down my spine. Two of the juvenile lions, both from opposite prides, started slowly circling the buffalo and growling at one another, their faces low to the ground and eyes locked on each other. Immediately, all 8 of us volunteers stopped taking photos and lowered our cameras, frozen with a mixture of anticipation and fear.
None of us could have prepared for what we saw next. As if jolted by a bolt of electricity, both lions swiped a paw at each other and stepped back on their hind legs, roaring in anger. “Oh my god, shit, what are we going to do?” I heard someone squeak next to me. Without taking her eyes off the scene unfolding in front of us, our fearless guide Letishia whispered loudly enough for us all to hear. “Guys, stay calm. We’ll be fine. Keep all arms in the vehicle and your movements to a minimum.” Rest assured this was one command we wouldn’t have trouble following.
In the fading light and dust, all we could see were flashes of their sand coloured manes (still spiky from youth) and tails whipping against the red earth as they lunged towards each other. The other four lions started growling in agitation, clearly ready to join the fight at a moments notice. It was as if we were witnessing a nasty schoolyard brawl, only there was no teacher on lunchtime duty. Armed with nothing but a camera and a tripod, it would have been a very quick fight indeed. We sat glued to our seats and waited.
Luckily for us, it dissipated quickly and the lions shook their dusty heads as they sauntered off in opposite directions, egos bruised. However, just when we thought it was okay to exhale, one of the lionesses snapped her head up and looked over at us intently, as if noticing us for the first time. Then the unthinkable happened. She slowly padded over to the car and around the bonnet until she stood just centimeters in front of me, her yellow eyes boring into mine. She was so close that I could see the flecks of black and gold in her irises and the smudge of fresh blood on the white fur around her mouth. I instinctively shifted away from her in my seat and averted my eyes so she wouldn’t feel threatened (at least that was my intention). I was sure I was about to launch into an out of body experience, brought on by pure fear and adrenaline, when she suddenly blinked, turned around and then promptly disappeared into the scrub. I slowly turned to the others and let out a low whistle, ‘Whoooa, that was close!’ We’d all felt it and it showed on our relieved faces.
Its funny how in the heat of the moment, your animal instincts kick in. All of a sudden you use your 6th sense to guide you, trusting your intuition above all else. Luckily, it’s usually always right.
It wouldn’t have been a fair match anyway.
I am going to be doing the photography project in Sept/Oct this year so am loving reading all about your amazing experience. It gets me so excited (and slightly nervous) to think that in 2 months, this will be me. I look forward to reading more of your posts to come!
Hi Jody, thanks for reading! I’m jealous – I wish it didn’t have to end 🙂 I know I can speak for our entire group when I say that we really did have an experience of a lifetime. We saw things we never dreamed of, met people who inspired us and had loads of fun along the way. Natasha, Martijin, Amanda, Emil and Digs are fabulous, so you’ll be in good hands. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to ask me. Enjoy your trip!
I hope you are having a great time! I miss Africa and can’t wait to go back. Hope you are enjoying your safari.
Hey Jeff! Great to hear from you. Thanks 🙂 Yes – Tom mentioned you guys had an amazing time. We’ll have to swap notes. I just got back, but will definitely be returning, that’s for sure. Hope alls well. x
P.S. your pictures are amazing!
Wow Bo, the thought of being that close to a lion makes me feel weak. I am truly amazed that you were often very close to wild animals and weren’t attacked (fortunately!).
Your Game Park Blog has brought Africa and her wonderful animals to life, so much so that i have felt transported, seeing and smelling and hearing all that you describe. Well done darling.
Thanks! Yes, it was a pretty unique experience indeed. x
What beautiful pictures and a wonderful story! I’m so jealous of your trip to Africa! I work with lions in a sanctuary, but it would be so amazing to see them out in the wild
Ha! I’m jealous of you – my experience was only fleeting. Glad you like the story though 🙂
Thanks for sharing. Very nice pics. I will be traveling to Cape Town and then Thanda Reserve in June for my honeymoon. I am a little nervous about the tented camps and safety. Can you provide any insight?
Lucky you – you are going to have the experience of a lifetime. I stayed in the old hunting lodge cabins which have now been converted into accommodation for volunteers and conservationists. It’s such a massive reserve (approx 15,000 – 17,000 hectares) that we were quite some distance from the tented camps and the other boutique accommodation. We did drive past a couple of times and I could see the tented camps from a distance. They look like they’re nestled into the hillside and are quite a distance from one another for privacy. The whole reserve is made up on rolling hills and open savanna and you’ll have the most amazing sunsets you’ll ever see in your life.
As for safety, I can only comment based on my experiences of how the reserve is run. I never once felt like I was in danger, and I was pretty up close and personal with the animals at times! The rangers and trackers are very professional and knowledgeable both about flora/fauna but also safety and emergency procedures. I can image, much like our cabin accommodation, that you will be protected within an electric fenced area for your safety (don’t worry, it’s not large and unsightly, it kind of moulds into the surroundings so you ‘think’ there’s nothing between you and the Big 5!). Also, if there was ever the possibility of danger in your tented camp area, then I think you would be escorted back to your tent by one of the staff (this happened once in our area before my time).
Overall, you will not want to leave. Seriously 🙂 I would go back in a heart beat. I think you’re going at a good time too – I was there in June myself. The days were warm (not hot, but mild) but the mornings and nights can be a little chilly. We usually went on early morning or late afternoon game drives and you’ll need a fleece or windstopper for the wind on the Landrovers. During the day though, it’s beautiful. We didn’t have rain once!
Have fun 🙂
PS. Don’t even get me started about Cape Town – you’ll love that too! I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world!