Sighting female lions is not so unusual out here on the savanna or bushveld that is part of the Kapama Private Game Reserve, forty-eight kilometers from Kruger National Park in South Africa. But coming across a lioness with her cubs, that doesn’t happen so often.
Your intrepid correspondent has landed here in the Africa that you think of when you think of Africa to track what they call the Big Five: the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Originally the term was coined by big game hunters identifying the most difficult game to hunt on foot.
However, these days, most of the shooting is done with a camera. Sorry, Ernest. If one arrives at the game reserve with a certain amount of skepticism, it quickly evaporates in the rush of excitement at seeing these magnificent creatures close up.
The lions have climbed atop one of the termite mounds that are littered along the roadsides in the reserve. They appear to be on the hunt for a warthog, warthogs favoring termite mounds. They are tense with concentration, frozen in place, waiting.
They don’t seem at all upset by the presence of humans shining a bright light on them. From the look of things, they could care less.
“They see us all the time,” says our guide, a bright, dedicated young man named Jacques Du Doit who goes by the name Jakes. “They know we’re not a danger to them, so we’re just part of the scene and they ignore us.”
The lions become tired of waiting around for the warthog to show, and saunter off, crossing right beside our vehicle, the cubs following. One playful straggler, after lingering near us for a time, hurries after them.
Earlier, giraffes presented themselves for a photo opportunity, and a small herd of zebras seemed in no hurry to do anything but have their picture taken. For an unrequited city slicker, no particular lover of nature, all this is an experience both exhilarating and curiously emotional.
Animals you have spent a lifetime seeing only in photographs or as background for everyone from Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa are abruptly close to the end of your nose, so dramatically real the sight of them leaves you in a state of—there is no other word for it—wonder.
Nyalas (a kind of antelope) gambol outside the window of your hotel room. A vervet monkey darts into the dining room, leaps onto one of the buffet tables, snaps up an apple and then disappears outside with his prize. The animals mix nicely with the kind of luxurious amenities that a five-star, thatch-roofed luxury resort specializing in what it calls ecotourism provides. The Kapama reserve spreads over thirteen thousand hectares (approximately thirty-two thousand acres). Civilization has come to this part of Africa in a big way—Kapama is only one of the many reserves abutting the Kruger.
Time was when most of these places catered to men with guns intent on killing big game. That’s all gone now. There are a lot more people with cameras than there are Hemingway wannabes so the resorts have adapted accordingly. Still, there remains the thrill of the hunt—except now you’re shooting endless pictures with your digital camera.
Your guide, in this case, Jakes, awakens you at five thirty in the morning. At six A.M. the lodge provides coffee and then at six thirty it’s out to the open-air Toyota Land Cruisers that seat nine and seem able to navigate just about any terrain the bushveld can throw at them. Jakes works with Michael Makanze, a tracker who sits on a seat mounted on the front left side of the Land Cruiser, a precarious perch that enables him to look for tracks and signs of game.
The animal poop that litters the landscape—the part they never show you in the movies—often provides valuable clues. On one occasion, Jakes and Michael come across elephant poop the size of small boulders. Fresh and stinky, evidence that elephants are nearby. Sure enough, not far away, a herd materializes, swaying slowly out of the bush.
This morning Jakes and Michael pick up fresh leopard tracks along the road. This is a particularly exciting possibility. Of the Big Five, the leopard is the most elusive. Notoriously shy, few get a glimpse of him on these safaris.
Off we go after our elusive prey, hurtling along the series of confusing dirt roadways that crisscross the reserve. The day is overcast and cool. We pause to marvel at a small herd of elephants lumbering along. Game sightings are abundant, but Jakes and Michael are intent on finding our leopard.
Eventually, after much toing and froing and inspection of leopard tracks, we come across our boy, nestled in an off-road thicket, barely visible. Nearby, panicked monkeys send up a cacophony of noise warning of his presence.
A moment later, the leopard slithers away through the underbrush and we glimpse a disappearing silhouette. Not much, but still, it counts: We have seen the leopard.
The Land Cruiser returns to the main lodge at nine thirty A.M. There is breakfast, followed by an extravagant lunch. On safari, no matter how close you come to the animals, you are never far away from a good meal.
At three thirty we are off again into the bushveld. Jakes and Michael have decided to resume their search for the leopard, but along the way we will stop to view anything else we come across.
At dusk, that includes a large male lion with a full mane sprawled on the ground next to his lioness mate. We come to a stop a few feet away. The lions ignore our presence. We are right on top of them, but they could care less.
The two lions nuzzle affectionately. The female licks at the male’s face. He doesn’t seem to mind that at all. Having been properly licked and nuzzled for a time, the male struggles to his feet and makes his way lazily to a nearby copse of trees. They have recently killed a wildebeest, and the lion settles in and begins to munch away at the carcass. The sound of his dining, the crunch of flesh and bone, fills the air.
When he finishes, the lion rises and moves back toward his mate. He comes right up to the Land Cruiser, feet away. He gazes up at us and for a moment—a very unsettling moment—we are staring into the yellowy eyes of the storied king of beasts. It’s the only time in Africa I was truly nervous.
Jakes quickly moves the Land Cruiser out of his way.
As we drive off, Jakes gets word of the leopard. This time he has been spotted in the far reaches of the reserve. By now, night has fallen. Jakes picks up speed and we go crashing along roadways, Michael’s searchlight cutting through the dark, the adrenalin rising. I am on the hunt. Hemingway with a camera.
Then, suddenly, there’s the leopard, at rest in a clearing, caught in a shaft of light. He blinks a couple of times, but otherwise, seems happy enough to pose for photos. The bushveld’s most elusive prey, tonight, is ready for his close-up.
But not for long. The leopard quickly tires of having his picture taken, rises, and starts off down the road, the Land Cruiser following.
Then, something totally unexpected.
Behind the leopard, two young male lions have appeared. These two predator species hate one another—each view the other as competition. This could mean big trouble for the leopard.
As the lions stalk forward, everyone tenses. The leopard, however, seems oblivious to the danger closing in on him. You are tempted to shout a warning. Honk the horn. Something. But that is man intruding, and out here, that’s a big no-no. The drama must play out as it plays out.
Now the lions are right behind the leopard. He seems doomed. Still, he doesn’t seem to realize what’s about to happen. All unfolds in excruciating slow motion until, abruptly, the leopard finally realizes the trouble he is about to be in.
He springs off the road into the underbrush. The lions charge after him—no more slow motion, everything happening at lightning speed.
The three disappear into the darkness, and we fear the worst. No way can the leopard escape his adversaries. But then, a moment later, the lions are back on the road, sauntering along, as if nothing happened. Somehow, the leopard has gotten away. Jakes thinks he leaped safely into the branches of a tree where the lions can’t follow.
We sit there, stunned and drained by what we have just witnessed, relieved that our elusive leopard has survived.
We head for home, Michael’s searchlight moving ceaselessly, the wind in our faces, the night growing cooler.