We set out one rainy afternoon with very little in the way of expectations. The bush had provided us with some incredible viewing over a previous couple of game drives. It wasn’t exactly easy going, not by any stretch; we had to put in some long tracking hours in the mornings but the afternoons that followed had resulted in some spectacular sightings. It seemed that this day was to follow a similar trend.
The morning was spent following tracks of what looked to be the Mhangeni Pride, who led us on a merry chase for the entirety of that drive and not a hair of them had been seen.
And so, come the afternoon, a decision needed to be made. Did we dare go round two with these animals or rather play it a little safer and try to re-find a leopard that had been seen that morning by the team?
Luckily for us, my guests at the time decided they were willing to throw themselves back into the fray. Understandably, the possibility of another 3-hour tracking session with nothing to show for it at the end can be quite daunting, especially when time out there is limited with them leaving the next morning. And so, tracker Rob Hlatshwyo a.k.a. The Professor and I set our sights southward, to where we had the last tracks of the Mhangeni Pride that morning.
Soon thereafter a voice crackles over the radio, ranger Pat Grealy had tracks somewhere up ahead of us, they’re from sometime during the midday rains, i.e. very fresh! Our excitement grew as we headed into the area. We did our best to not let it get the better of us, knowing we still had a way to go.
We followed those tracks for about one kilometer (0.6 miles) before they cut off the road. We looped ahead to see if we could find any tracks on another road on the other side of the block, but they didn’t seem to have exited that area. “They’re in there,” Prof whispers excitedly, pointing into the thickets. But we couldn’t just go barging in with a vehicle, we need to follow the tracks more carefully and that meant going down on foot. After assuring the guests we’d only be a few minutes and familiarizing them with the radio, we headed in. The tracks were difficult to follow in the thick grass but a lifetime of tracking in the form of the Professor kept us on course. Suddenly his arm shot out and stopped me mid-stride; I froze as I scanned ahead and just 30m away, framed perfectly by the dense foliage, was one of the females.
Standing upright eyes wide open, she was aware of us but as of yet had issued no growling warnings. We slowly backed up to a safe distance, still focused on the lions ahead but grinning like loons, ecstatic that it had all come together. We hurried back to the vehicle and dived in, babbling that the pride we had been looking for was just in there! And then it just kept getting better.
We sat with the eight lionesses, one of which was a cub of roughly seven months old for the next 30 minutes or so, the drizzle doing little to dampen our delight as we watched the pride beginning to show signs of imminent activity – a contagious yawn rippling through the ranks, a stretch here, a roll-over there. Finally, one of the older lionesses lets out a soft groan as she stands up, her back arches first one way, and then the other, stretching out cold muscles.
She has a limp at first, but it smooths out as she walks, probably just a sleeping limb. The rest of the pride soon follows suit, and we decide to do the same. We manage to stay with them as they move through the dense brush and on noticing where we emerge from the thicket-line Prof and I turn to each other wide-eyed, both realizing the same thing,
The hyena den!
We drive up along an access point as we see the lionesses making their way directly toward the den. As we arrive, so too has a lioness and the young cub. We watch as the youngster scampers eagerly forward toward the den where two hyena cubs scramble to make it back down the hole that they have been playing in front of.
Next, one of the hyena mothers, obviously hearing the commotion, pokes her head around the termite mound that serves as their den and is off like a shot! She turns back to the den, obviously torn between trying to get back to her cubs but the lions are now surrounding the other side of the den. She whoops in terror at the horrifying sight, warning the other cubs to get back into the den as she flees the scene, trying to distract the lionesses. They take the bait and shoot after the cunning hyena female as she bolts into yet more thickets, shrieking like a banshee, lions in tow.
She loops around and emerges into a clearing, an area where she can keep an eye on all the lions at once, her whooping serving to draw in the rest of the clan. One of the most fascinating observations we made was how quickly the rest of the clan gathered in response to the original hyena’s alarm calls. Within minutes, something like 20 hyenas had gathered and were waiting as the lionesses emerged into the clearing.
The stand-off that followed, the cacophony as the two sides whooped and roared their challenge at one another was incredible to witness. Occasionally the lionesses would charge, and the hyenas would give ground, but never allowing themselves to get caught in any real danger, but slowly drawing the apex predators away from their den.
Video credit: John Loxton featuring his family while on safari at Londolozi.
And on that scene, the sun set, and the day ended, and we decided to make our way home, our daily hunger for the bush’s magic sated by having borne witness to such an ancient feud between two incredible species.