I’m not the most popular person with the Londolozi vehicle workshop.
I’ve broken my fair share of steering rods and severed a good few brake-fluid pipes and fuel lines by not noticing stumps in the long grass, and the fantastic team we have here have often had to work late into the night to get the vehicle serviceable by the next morning’s game drive. The guys have pulled me out with a tractor too many times to remember, although I try to make sure a six-pack of Coca-Colas always makes its way to the workshop as a thank you.
When a sighting is in a tricky position, I often try to get in first and worry about getting out with the vehicle later, and this has been my undoing on a number of occasions.
Every now and then however, fortune has smiled on me, and what has initially seemed like a massive blunder is actually a blessing in disguise.
In March of this year I was driving two wonderful guests from Germany who were here on a two week stay. Two weeks, as you can imagine, is plenty of time in which to immerse yourself in the bush. The great thing about a stay of this length is the complete lack of pressure on each drive. You can just go with the flow and let things happen, not having to search exclusively for leopards or lions or high-profile game. In two weeks at Londolozi, you’ll see more than your fair share.
One afternoon towards the end of their stay, we decided to explore the north western corner of Londolozi, an area we hadn’t spent a lot of time in. Crossing the Sand River, we were surprised to see relatively fresh lion tracks coming in from the west. On a hot day one wouldn’t have expected lions to be moving about much, and I couldn’t recall hearing of anyone having found tracks there during the morning game drive. I radioed Tom Imrie to confirm, and he and Jerry Hambana had only found tracks of a pride crossing west. The tracks we found were heading east. Probably not more than a couple of hours old.
We presumed it was the Tsalala pride, who are renowned for moving during the heat of the day, and decided to follow.
The tracks were moving in and out of the river, and although following the tracks in the sandy sections was relatively straightforward, the going was slow, as the river has many dense palm thickets which can conceal a grumpy hippo or buffalo bull and we were moving carefully.
After over an hour of following, the tracks had crossed to the southern bank, still heading eastwards, and Mike Sithole and Elmon Mhlongo, convinced we were right on the heels of the lions by now, instructed me to head back to the vehicle – which was parked on the northern bank still – and bring it round to meet them on the southern side.
Arriving back at the Land Rover I explained to the guests exactly what was happening with the tracks and the plan from thereon in as we sped off to the closest river crossing. Approaching the crossing point there is a section of road along the high northern bank from which you look down upon an extensive sandbank (only exposed when the river is low), and as we moved past we noticed a buffalo bull who looked relatively agitated, out in the middle of the sand. Not wanting to waste time, we continued to the crossing point. Now, when the river has only just started subsiding after the summer rains, Finfoot crossing is quite easy to get stuck in. You have to keep the revs up and not stop for anything. Figuring the buffalo we had seen may have been harassed by the lions we were tracking, we all stared fixedly upstream towards the sandbank as we roared across the river. There was a lion!
A single lioness lay prone on the sand in the distance, but we were unable to establish exactly what was happening as we couldn’t stop to use our binoculars.
Thankfully we made it to the southern bank without getting stuck, and trundled upstream on the sandy southern bank towards where we had seen the lion.
As we got closer we could see exactly what was happening. The Tsalala pride was trying to take on three rather large buffalo bulls, and were coming off second best. Although one buffalo may have been manageable for the lions, three big males, still in good condition from the lush summer grazing, were too much for the pride to handle. This scenario played out over a few minutes, but we couldn’t quite see everything on arrival owing to an island in mid river blocking our view, and in my over-eagerness I decided to try and ford the river to the far sandbank. I had crossed at this spot a few times before without much difficulty so was confident, but unfortunately I didn’t know that then-current Pink Pouch holder Simon Smit had gotten stuck exactly here a few days before. I engaged low range, revved up and charged in, and promptly sank up to my axles, moving not even an inch further. We were properly bogged down, and had to watch all the action from our seats in midstream.
This is where fortune smiled on us.
We have mentioned before on the blog how getting low down when taking photographs, at least to eye-level with the subject, can enhance the picture that much more, and here suddenly we found ourselves at eye-level by default.
The pride, having realised they were not to be successful in their buffalo hunt, regrouped in front of us, moved a little way down stream, and then to our absolute delight, waded across the river together. Lions crossing water is always a special sight, but to see them in this way, from down low, in the fading evening light, was somewhat surreal.
Although we were firmly stuck, we were the only vehicle who had this angle on the pride’s crossing. They regrouped on the bank and moved off into the gathering dusk, leaving us to radio for a tractor to pull us out. We didn’t see the lions again that evening, but it was well, well worth it!
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger