Lion

And now … what you’ve all been waiting for. (At least, I sure have!) I’m talking about what most people think of when you say you’ve been on safari; I’m talking about meeting the King of the Beasts.

As excited as I was about seeing lions on our Kalahari safari, I had fully prepared myself for the eventuality that I might not see a single one. I mean, it’s not like going to the zoo. What you see in the wild is (ahem) wildly dependent on a wide variety of factors, not the least of which is a whole lot of luck.

But! It turns out we were lucky and on only our second morning out, we saw our first lion. Here he is.

Lion # 1

It was my turn in the very back of the car, which meant, although I had a great view of the fellow, I had to take my photos through a window that did not open. Even so, I was beyond thrilled.

It took us a while to spot the guy. We had stopped by the side of the road to look at a herd of gemsbok. Several minutes went by, and then one of our German safari companions spoke up. “There is a lion in the grass directly in front of us about 20 metres,” was all she said, but I’ll never forget the tone of her voice: calm and quiet and tense, all at the same time.

That’s when I realized what sharp eyes she had. The rest of us had been too focused on the gemsbok to notice what was right under our noses. We stayed where we were, keeping our voices low because the car windows were open. Every so often Mr. King of the Beasts would lift up his head ― to let the gemsbok behind him know he’s still there, our guide told us.

That was lion # 1. Little did I know he would be only the first of many.

On the morning of our third day, I was eating my breakfast and enjoying the view from the shelter of our unfenced campsite. Off to my right, in the distance, I noticed some sandy-coloured rocks. To myself, I thought, “The biggest rock kinda looks like a lion.” I imagined a pair of eyes, but dismissed the idea as too much wishful thinking, and didn’t say anything to the others. This rock was maybe 100 metres from where I was standing.

A few minutes later, my friend and I were in our tent, packing up our stuff as we were moving camp that day, when I heard our guide yell, “Lipid!” (At least, that’s what I heard.) But my friend understood.

“Leopard!” she said, and we both raced out of the tent. I pretty much tripped over my own two feet, and then wasted more time running for my cameras, which were over by the shelter in the exact opposite direction from where everybody else was running. By the time I looked over to where our guide was, all I saw was him pointing. I didn’t see any of the cats, but he had seen four lions and a leopard.

And that’s when the penny dropped. I ran back to where I had seen the “rock” earlier. It was gone! I told everyone, and some of the group were a bit disgusted with me for not sharing what I’d seen (honestly, it was so far away it was really hard to know what I was looking at), but they were soon over it. I endured quite a bit of teasing for the rest of the day about how I didn’t know the difference between a rock and a lion. Later, it dawned on me that the lion had been watching me just as carefully as I had been squinting at her. She had stood sooooo still that she really did look like a rock. Except for, you know, those eyes.

After all that excitement, we went looking for their tracks in the road. They were … big.

Lion Tracks 1

On our fourth day, we saw what I’m calling lion # 3. She was lying beside the road, sleeping. Eventually she sat up and struck a lovely pose for me.

Lion # 3

On our fifth day, our guide noticed lion tracks by the side of the road. We drove on slowly, all of us looking carefully in the meadows beside the road.

Lion Tracks 2

And then, there they were, three of them in the distance (lions # 4, 5, and 6).

Lions # 4, 5, and 6

Here are a few more shots taken with my zoom lens.

On our last day of the safari, we hit bonanza in terms of lion-sightings: eight in total. The first two were too far away for photographs. I was the first to spot this one (lion # 9), which is a considerable accomplishment considering the company I was in. (I took this photo with my zoom lens. The lion was maybe 200 to 250 metres away from us, and to the naked eye, she was no bigger than a large cat.) Our guide said this lion and the previous two were getting ready for a hunt — he could tell by the way they had positioned themselves on the edge of the dune.

Lion # 9

And then we came across a family: lions # 10 to 14. Here’s dad …

Lion # 10

… and here’s several shots of mom and the three cubs (one cub is off camera).

The most thrilling night of our safari was one of the nights we were camped in an unfenced campsite (which we did twice, both times on the Botswana side of the park) and we listened to the lions roar. Every hour or so we’d hear them, and they were getting closer and closer as the evening went on. I didn’t quite get the goosebumps you read about people experiencing when they first hear a lion roar in the wild, but it was probably the most thrilling experience of my camping life.

That night, around 3:30 a.m., my friend had to get up. This meant waking up our guide and waiting for him to say it was OK for her to leave our tent. He didn’t wake up when she called out his name a few times (although she woke up the Germans — which we heard all about the next morning), so I suggested she shine her flashlight on the SUV where our guide was sleeping.

“Is there a problem?” came his South African–accented voice, eventually. My friend told him what she needed, and he opened the door of the SUV and jumped down to the ground in his bare feet. (This, after he’d warned us every single night after the sun went down that we could not wander through camp wearing sandals or flip flops because of the scorpions.) He slowly shone his flashlight across the meadow beside our campsite.

After a long minute, he finally said, “It’s OK.” My friend scrambled out of the tent, did her business, and returned to our tent, after which the entire camp could finally go back to sleep.

The next morning when I got up, our guide told me that he had woken up every hour to take a look around because he was hearing lots of animals in the grassy plain we were camped next to. I never thought to ask if the animal sounds woke him up, or whether he simply had a good internal alarm clock. At any rate, I was glad to learn our guide was taking our safety seriously.

I hesitate to say that my Kalahari safari wouldn’t have been as extraordinary an experience without seeing 14 lions ― because the safari really was, as a whole, so much more than the extraordinary sum of so many extraordinary parts ― but I will say this: you should all put seeing lions in the African wild right at the top of your bucket list.

The top, people.

Lion 13

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