What keeps people coming back to the bush is this: Every drive has the potential to be mind-blowing and you never know what to expect.
The reality is that not every drive can be that. After all, it is the bush; it’s an unpredictable and dynamic environment. It means that sometimes you just aren’t going to get to take that perfect leopard-draped-over-a-leafless-branch-in-perfect-golden-light shot.
But you also might!
And sometimes, you’ll see so much more. And that’s why we go out every day. The bush is an environment in which a myriad of small wonders occur all around us, if you are open to experiencing them. In which case, every drive can be mind-blowing! And I truly believe that the bush rewards the appreciation of its splendour. Mother nature is vain, she wants to be ooh’d and ah’d at, to be admired. Flatter her and she will often gift you with so much more than you bargained for.
Our afternoon drive started off as every drive does; laden with potential. But we had very little in the way of expectations; giraffes were a must and some (attempted) shots of the minuscule dewdrop spiders that parasitise the Golden Orb spider webs, which currently blanket south-west Londolozi.
Having ticked those boxes and after having spent some time with a very curious young elephant bull, we heard Ranger Jess Shillaw’s voice crackle over the radio, “We’ve got tracks of a single young male lion heading east” in an area nearby to us. A very exciting update as that track would almost certainly belong to one of the Ntsevu Breakaways; a group of young lions and lionesses that are now separated from their natal pride. We decided to give Jess a hand.
En route, another update from Jess, “We can hear him contact calling!” Now we knew it was on and we picked up the pace accordingly. After a quick planning discussion, we took on the task of looping ahead to check the nearest waterhole while Jess bee-lined it through the bush along the path of the tracks. The two of us converged on the waterhole simultaneously vying to be the first to spot him – nothing wrong with a bit of friendly competition! But it would be remiss of me to claim it; Jess and tracker Advice Ngwenya pulled off an incredible spot and it was worth the “loss” just to see the ecstatic grins on their faces and those of their guest!
And then it really got exciting…
The young lion belted out another booming contact call as he tried to find his littermates. That in and of itself was a spectacular moment. But then we heard the reply. As we came around the corner, seven lions and lionesses marched up the road to find their lost comrade. Quickly, we switched off our vehicles to witness that moment of long-lost family being reunited (excuse the hyperbole there – they had probably only been separated for a few hours!). The expected aggressive head-rubbing, tackling, and affectionate allogrooming ensued and kept us enthralled for another 20 minutes or so.
And then we heard the buffalo…
I have no doubt that these lions knew well in advance of us that the herd was approaching and were just biding their time, waiting as that dust-reddened African sun dipped below the horizon, for the advantage to lie in their favour. Now, lions hunting buffalo, at least in my opinion, is one of those holy-grail sightings. It’s a brutal affair to be sure but from a behaviour and tactics point of view, I have been dying to see it happen!
And so, my heart was in my throat as we saw the herd leaders emerge over the rise! Three big buffalo bulls ambling slowly in front, this in itself was quite interesting as the pathfinders usually tend to be females. At this point I just couldn’t believe what we were seeing; these bulls could not see the lions lying in wait all around them! At one point, one young male had to slowly creep backwards as a bull fed 3 feet away. At this point the inexperience of these Ntsevu Breakaways was woefully apparent; one young male further out from the herd was comically trying to flatten himself into the middle of the road after having not used the 30 minutes he had prior to the herd emerging to take the five strides needed to get into the long grass where he would be perfectly concealed (or maybe he was just hiding where they’d least expect him to be!). But while the pride bided their time the herd emerged en masse, almost encircling the would-be stalkers.
And then the buffalo noticed the lions…
The herd bolted as one, back the direction they had come, calves caught in the fray bouncing off the flanks of their mothers, trying desperately to keep up, trying desperately not to be trampled! But they wasted no time in gathering themselves into a unified front and charging right back at the unprepared predators. 800kg (1800pound) bulls storming through, lowering and thrashing their grizzled horns, scattering the fleeing cats in all directions, many of whom came flying past our vehicle in an absolutely breathless moment.
And if all this wasn’t enough, as the situation slowly cooled, what walks into the middle of this scene? Not one, not two but five magnificent prehistoric looking mammals, rhino! Three of the big 5 in one setting, all interacting; the new arrivals catching lion scent and trying to search out the source of it. Amidst a number of buffalo bulls holding guard as the rest of the herd backed off. The lions prowling restlessly but keeping their distance from these antsy, dangerous beasts.
By this stage the sun was well below the horizon, the rhino eventually gave up their tracking, the herd were settled somewhere out of sight and the lions, having lost the element of surprise were moving off into the long grass.
And we, having barely breathed for the last 2 hours decided to make for camp where our own dinner (and maybe a whisky to calm the nerves) lay in wait. And that is the story of one of the most perfect afternoons I have had the luxury of experiencing out here in the bush. I’d love to hear a little snippet about your favourite moment in the wild below!