Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Kruger Encounter

We walk silently; in single file; the occasional crackle as one of us brushes the dry grass the only sound. The two rangers, in front, their rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders, scan the isolated clumps of thorn trees for any sign of game. It is the middle of the dry season and the entire landscape is palette of tawny shades.

“Lion,” mutters the lead and we all freeze; unease palpable on our faces. We've never encountered a lion like this before.

It is day two of the Bushman Trail, a ranger guided walk in a remote, wilderness area of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The Bushman Trail is one of two such wilderness walks based at the Southern end of the the park. Hikers meet at Berg en Dal camp and are transported to a remote bush camp that is the base for extensive day walks into the surrounding bushveld. Walking provides a rather different experience to the antiseptic safety of viewing game from a car that most visitors to the park experience; being immersed in the landscape exposes the sounds, smells and textures of the scrubby thorn country that we are walking through. The walks follow unmarked trails laid down by generations of animals, crossing everywhere from the dusty savannah valleys to the boulder strewn hills known locally as koppies.

Nikkol, our lead ranger is an imposing figure with the piercing gaze of someone who has spent a lifetime staring at wide open landscapes. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush and its animals that he shares in laconic style around the camp fire and at rest breaks. He has spent the last two evenings explaining that the lion roars that we hear at night are the sound of a mating pair and that he is hoping to show us. He knows that they are nearby as he has already shown us a recent buffalo kill; the giant frame stripped to little more than gleaming white bone.

We are not disappointed; as we freeze behind the rangers; two tawny shapes emerge from the sere landscape; a large male and female. We all crane forward to see; remaining motionless and hardly daring to breathe in case the pair notices us. It is pointless; lions are a supreme predator and we stick out like a neon sign outside a fast food joint. The lioness jumps up to investigate.
The two rangers suddenly have rifles in hand and there is a single click as they both chamber a round. The rifles carry a 458 soft slug capable of stopping a charging elephant, but they are of minimal comfort to us as the lioness fixes us with yellow eyes that leave no doubt as to her intent. Nikkol tersely tells us to climb up to a large rock ledge, but not to take our eyes off her. Turning away would indicate that we are fleeing; a signal that predators may interpret as the start of a chase. Climbing a rocky, bush covered slope backwards turns out to be quite easy when your motivation is a realisation that you are no longer at the top of the food chain.

A minute later we are all perched on top of a high boulder; anxiously scanning the nearby bush for signs of the lioness.  The male has not moved from where we first saw him, and is eyeing us incuriously. We all breathe a quiet sigh of relief as his mate reappears next to him, satisfied that she has driven the intruders away.

We sit quietly, watching these lords of the savannah and our patience is rewarded with a rare sight. The male begins to growl softly; the female flicks her tail and watches. The male, seeing the invitation, mounts her and they roar in unison. Their roars quickly rise to an earth-shattering crescendo before they break apart. The female rolls onto her back and sticks all four legs in the air, flicking the dry dust with her tail; for all the world like an oversize, contented house cat. In low whispers Nikkol explains that the pair will mate like this every 15 minutes for two to three days and if successful that this will be the start of a new pride of lions.

Mating lions are a rare sight, so later we return in the safety of the game viewing vehicle to take photos and watch until the sun goes down. Everyone gets ample opportunity to take photos and there are cries of “Eat your heart out National Geographic.”

Late in the afternoon, a second scrawny, battle scarred male appears. Nikkol explains that lions are very social animals; the two males are hunting mates who would have fought over mating rights with the female who probably wandered into the area.

“So, where was he while we were walking?” asks one of us.

'Oh, somewhere nearby,” replies Nikkol.

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