Quite often we have guests on trail that ask us if we are going to show them lions or a leopard. We try not to get annoyed by such questions. And we explain that these animals are not bound to certain places and just sit and wait for us to find them. Also, we try and explain that the Wilderness Trails are not necessarily about the ‘big 5’, but more about the experience of being on foot in a large and unspoiled wilderness area.
Most groups understand this and are very pleasant to have on trail. As they now have their eyes open and realize how amazing their surroundings are and all the wonders of the bush both big and small.
Every now and then though we have groups that ask us not to find anything scary. For some reason then often the opposite happens.
On one of my Olifants Wilderness Trails, we had a group that consisted of four couples. They told me they would be very scared if we encountered lions. You can probably see where I am going with this story: We found lions and well, they also found us.
On the first morning of the trail, my assistant Sambok and I decided to walk the Bangu stream area. On our way there we found a massive herd of buffaloes. We decided to walk close by and hoped we would find them as they moved towards the water hole.
Unfortunately, they did not follow this logic and we didn’t see any sign of them. We had a pleasant walk nonetheless and on the drive back, Sambok spotted hooded vultures perched low in a bush some distance away from the road in the area we last saw the buffalo herd.
It made sense now why the buffaloes went in a different direction; lions must have disturbed them and killed one of the buffalo. Hooded vultures often show us where a kill and predators are. These scavengers are more maneuverable than their bigger cousins. You can find them often close to a kill and close to predators – even following them.
Sambok and I decided to go and have a look. When we told the guests their expressions made me laugh. It was a mix of excitement and fear, but they put on their brave faces and tried to hide the fear.
We walked in carefully, checking the wind direction and using the available cover. We slowly moved forward with the guests close behind us. As I got to the edge of a clearing I noticed movement at the base of a small rhyolite ridge. A huge male lion was walking down to the stream. I pointed it out to the rest then another male lion moved.
Unfortunately, this male saw us and ran to the top of the ridge with the other male following. Then suddenly there was another male. So now we could see three male lions. They stopped on the ridge and stared at us. But as I focused on them they looked to the bottom at a clump of bushes. That must be where the kill was and possibly more lions I told the guests. Most of them had mouths open and big eyes. They couldn’t believe the size of these male lions. I suppose one can only truly appreciate the size of a male lion when you are not in the safety of a vehicle!
I decided to move along the edge of the open area to get a better view of where the kill could be. As we moved to the right and slightly away I could hear some guests exhale in relief.
Then from the side, I could see the buffalo carcass and another two male lions on the kill. Five huge male lions in total; one of the males at the kill looked up at us and suddenly jumped up spitting and snarling. He was obviously still hungry. The other male though ran to his brothers at the top of the ridge.
The hungry male suddenly realized he was the only one left at the kill! His nerve broke and he also trotted to his brothers for comfort. He laid down with them and all of them watched both us and their kill.
I told the guests lets go have a look at the buffalo! With some hesitation, they followed us to the kill. It was a big buffalo bull – just passed his prime but still with the herd. We stood by the kill and I looked at the lions; their expressions looked so sad as to say “please don’t take our breakfast away.” They paced up and down to get a better view of us but made no attempt to come closer, hoping we wouldn’t take their meat.
Not to worry the lions too much I decided to move away from the buffalo. We walked away about 100m and looked back and waited. One lion slowly moved down the ridge keeping his eyes on us and when he got to the kill he sniffed around looked at us and growled. I told the guests to stand perfectly still and the lion started feeding again.
Slowly the rest of the lions moved towards the kill and continued feeding. I decided to leave them and return to the vehicle. Looking back at the lions every now and then as we walked away they seemed to be very grateful their kill was not taken and they fed well.
That night at camp around the fire there was lots of excited talk about the morning’s experience. They exaggerated some of the recollections as usual and it was very entertaining to listen to.
At one stage all the ladies in the group decided they wanted to go have a look go to the viewpoint in one corner of the camp. There is a small wooden deck where you can look over the fence. When they were down there the torches were moving all over the bush like searchlights.
A little naughty streak came over me and I took a piece of wood and lobbed it into the bushes close to them. The torch beams pinpointed on the bush they screamed for a minute. The guys and I were rolling on the floor when they walked up to the fireplace saying we gave them the fright of their lives. They told us they were all going to the showers together, still a bit on edge from our little practical joke.
While they were at the showers a lioness started to roar very close to the camp right at the corner the ladies had been standing. The guys and I went down there and we could see the lioness on the other side of the drainage gulley. When she stopped roaring and it was quiet again I heard a faint voice saying ‘Ons is hierso…!’ Which means ‘We are here’!
The lioness roared again and after she stopped, I heard the faint ‘Ons is hierso…!’ coming from the direction of the ablutions again. I looked at one of the guys and asked him to please go see if the ladies are ok.
After a few minutes, he came back laughing and told us that when the ladies heard the lioness roaring they thought it was right by them. The four of them all went into the one toilet hut and locked themselves inside. It must have been a bit cramped in that small toilet! When they could they called ‘Ons is hierso!’ so that we could come and fetch them.
I went down there and it took a lot of convincing to coax them out of their safe toilet and take them to the corner where they could see the lioness. Some of the ladies needed to hold my hand for some reassurance. After a few minutes watching the lioness and realizing they were not in mortal danger one of them quietly said “Well, I think I can hold out and have a shower tomorrow when its light”
Be careful what you don’t wish for is quite applicable for this group of guests I think;-)
Until we meet around the fire again!