It had been a slow morning in terms of sightings, which had seen us traverse the south-western reaches of the reserve all the way to the southern boundary of Londolozi. With its rolling hills and wide open grassy plains, this can be a real hit-or-miss area in terms of finding animals, especially the predators. The soil substrate – known as black cotton soil – is different to most of the reserve because of a different parent rock. When dry, the soil can be coarse and hard, holding little trace of an animal that has walked by.
However, we have this parent rock to thank for creating a very different habitat to the mostly wooded reserve. This soil type is preferred by grasses which in turn attracts animals that prefer this open grassland habitat. Grazers in particular like zebra, wildebeest, rhino and buffalo thrive here. Cheetahs also enjoy the open areas where they put their great speed to use to hunt down steenbok which also prefer the open terrain.
One thing that makes this area tricky in terms of finding animals is the difficulty of tracking animals here. Black cotton soil is generally clayey and impermeable, retaining water very well (which has made it suitable for the cultivation of cotton in some places, hence the name). On days with more than 10mm of rain we zone off this entire area from vehicles as it turns into one big mud bath. This time of year is our dry season though, and tracking here is tough.
On the plus side, large animals can be spotted from great distances and as we crested a hill that morning an expansive view opened up before us, perfect for us to start scanning. In the distance we spotted a mass of large, dark bodies spread out over a grassy plain. On closer inspection with binoculars we confirmed them to be a large herd of buffalo. This was great news as a large herd like this had not ventured onto Londolozi in over a week. As we descended down toward the roughly-300 buffaloes, tracker Judas tapped the bonnet of the Land Rover signalling me to stop. “Lion tracks…”, he said, “but not so fresh, famba south”. “Famba” means “go”. South meant the tracks were heading directly towards the buffalo. This sparked a bit of excitement, as lions and buffalo in one area might mean lions hunting buffalo. Once we had had a good view of this impressive herd we decided to circle around the open grassland to the far side of the herd to look for any further sign of the lions.
After a decent search and now nearly 4 hours since leaving camp, it appeared we might give up and head back to camp. Suddenly Judas just about jumped off the tracker seat with excitement. “Nkonso mfo, fresh!” Fresh lion tracks, but which way were they going?
The ground here was at its worst for tracking. As I stared down into the dark soil, I felt like it would pull me under it if I did so any longer.
How Judas knew the tracks were fresh was beyond me. While we got distracted by a beautiful Secretary Bird, following it as it hunted through the low brush for snakes and mice, Judas pondered over the tracks.
We returned 20 minutes later to find him looking bright eyed as he jumped back on the tracker seat. Somehow in those dark, dry granules of soil he had managed to establish a clear direction. So we followed with new vigour, winding our way along a two-track with yellow-white, knee high grass swaying in the wind all around us.
Track for track we followed until Judas threw up a fist in victory and a guest shrieked with excitement behind me. We had found them! Five lionesses, one cub and a single male lion, all lying well concealed in the long grass with their heads up, transfixed on something up ahead.
At first we could not see the buffalo as they were down in a dip, concealed behind some small bushes. But soon we could hear them and to our amazement they were heading slowly towards the lions, unaware of their presence. With great anticipation we watched as, with enough distance to remain concealed, the lions moved into a better position for attack. We also noticed that the wind was not in their favour as their scent was being blown down the hill toward the herd. The buffalo grazed nearer and nearer until they were about 50m from the lions. Then one raised its massive head and snorted. The next moment all the heads were raised staring at the lions. The common thought is that the prey would run away, but not buffalo. They looked like an army with horns at the ready for battle. The front runners started trotting toward the lions with an aggressive posture. With 300 buffalo heading their way we half expected the lions to turn and run but they started to move laterally, still trying to look for an attacking opportunity.
The sighting was very much like another we witnessed a couple of years ago in the same area:
Unfortunately for the lions this was not going to be their morning, but what we got to witness over the next ten minutes was more exhilarating than a Wimbledon tennis final as we followed the attack and retreat of the lions on the herd of buffalo much like one follows a tennis ball from base line to base line.
The male lion was particularly involved, running in after an outlier only to be chased back as the retreating buffalo reunited with the herd. And so it continued until the lions eventually tired and retreated to the safety of a dry riverbed to rest for the day.
Lions spend up to 18 hours a day sleeping and mostly move at night. When we see them they are often flat out, fast asleep. So to see all that potential power and speed put to use on a hunt is something to marvel at. This, added to a long morning search – which at times seemed futile – added to the jubilation felt throughout the vehicle as we headed back for camp. Tracker Judas was praised all the way home, for had it not been for him toiling for tracks in the black cotton soil we would never have witnessed this awesome spectacle.