Warning: This post contains images of the aftermath of a lion kill
It had been an iffy game drive. You know the sort – lots of drive and not a lot of game.
It was our last evening at Cheetah Plains in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin. For three days we had had some of the most incredible encounters with wildlife and Andrew, our guide, was hoping for more of the same that night. The animals, however, had other plans.
We had seen a solitary bull impala, an ostrich in the distance and some elephants having a dust-bath as the Sun sank below the horizon.
As Andrew drove around trying to find animals we just found the odd one scattered here and there: the tail end of a group of elephants leaving Sydney’s Dam; a zebra with a young foal; a couple of waterbucks.
Eventually Andrew appeared to admit defeat and headed off down a track to a suitable spot for our sundowners.
Defeat, however, is not a word in Andrew’s vocabulary. Even as we drove along, chasing the rapidly retreating orange sky, he was scanning the radio frequencies for any indication of a sighting. Suddenly he halted and asked us if we minded missing out on our sundowners. There were some lions heading into an area where we had traversing rights. He couldn’t guarantee that they would keep on coming but we could head over to the boundary and wait for them. Lions or a G&T? – there was no contest.
Ten minutes later we stopped at the side of the main road south from the Gowrie gate.
Within minutes the last lingerings of the light had succumbed to the deep black of an African night. We waited in the dark, straining to hear any sound that might indicate the presence of the predators.
How Andrew picked his parking spot, I’ll never know but, some 15 minutes later, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. The first indication that something was about to happen was the soft purring of a Toyota engine – not the cat sound that we were waiting for but its precursor. Then, we spotted the orange glow of a spotlight flicking around the vegetation. Finally, Andrew whispered, “There they are!” My Western eyes couldn’t cope with the dark as well as his, so I saw nothing until he swung his spotlight onto the lead cat.
There were five lionesses in all, the Nkuhuma pride. They each walked silently in front of our vehicle and crossed the road heading towards Sydney’s Dam. Andrew’s instincts earlier on that afternoon had been right, it was just his timing that had been off.
As the Land Cruiser from Elephant Plains turned away, we took over the escort duties. To me, they just looked like they were out for a walk but Andrew knew otherwise.
He told us that he thought they were hunting and that they would probably go after the herd of impala that were grazing just below the dam. Driving around the pride, he took us to a position overlooking the impala and turned off his engine and lights.
Turning off the lights was essential if we were not going to influence the outcome of the hunt – we didn’t want to give either species an advantage. Sitting in the vehicle on a dark, moonless night, we could hear the impalas chomping on the grass but we couldn’t see them. Neither could we see the lions. For all we knew, they could have walked past us and on into the depths of the night.
Everyone in the vehicle was silent as we waited for events to unfold.
Suddenly there was a sound like distant thunder as more than a hundred tiny hooves pounded into the dusty soil. Then … nothing. Total silence. Nothing moved.
Andrew had just started to say that he thought the lions had blown their chance when we saw a female impala sprint in our direction. She was followed closely by a lioness. When the hunter stumbled on the uneven ground, it looked like this particular impala was going to live to graze another day. Just then two more lionesses sprinted in from our right. There was the briefest of squeaks from the impala and then the hunt was over.
Within seconds the five lionesses had shredded the unfortunate antelope.
In more than 30 years of safaris I had never seen one animal kill another (apart from on TV) and I hadn’t been sure how I would react when I saw my first kill. In the event I found it exhilarating. I know that an animal had just lost its life but, in doing so, it had extended the lives of five other animals. It is how nature works. Until it died, the impala had had a good life. Much better, I suspect, than the animals whose meat I eat on a daily basis.
What happened next was totally unexpected.
As the lions were enjoying their meal, the air filled with a strange sound that was a cross between a scream and a cackle. It was unlike anything that I have ever heard before. At least seven hyenas had arrived and they wanted their piece of the action.
They circled the lions, coming ever closer. Their calls assaulted our senses. They penetrated deep within our bodies and they left a memory that few of us there that night will ever forget.
The hyenas’ cries seemed to increase the speed with which the lions ate. Only when one of them crossed some invisible line did one of the cats break off from its meal long enough to chase the pack back before resuming feeding again.
After a while we left the lionesses to finish their meal in peace as, our hearts still pounding, we headed back to camp for ours.
It was a fitting last night for a trip that had exceeded our expectations.
That game drive illustrates how important a good guide is to making a holiday memorable. Andrew Khosa’s persistence in trying to find a good sighting and his knowledge of the animals, and their behaviour, enabled us to have this memorable experience. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best guides that we have ever had. Thank you Andrew.