Thursday, July 28th, 2011
Ok…so maybe the title is a little misleading. No…these are not the man-eaters of legend from Kenya…but still…seeing a lion, in person, with nothing separating you and it but a lack of preference for humans for lunch…is a pretty humbling experience.
There’s about 8 lions visible in this shot of the pride, we wound up seeing 2 or 3 more once the pride moved around a little bit. These guys put on a remarkable display of raw aggression and sophisticated tact and strategy. Even with a tremendous amount of respect and fear of these creatures before we encountered them I found that after I had watched them hunt some prey, I had completely underestimated how elegantly terrifying these cats can be.
We first came upon the pride of lions slowly awakening from the nighttime antics early in the morning. Here’s one of the females casually stalking some gemsbok a few hundred yards out of the frame. It’s funny because we had been looking for the pride for about 20 minutes before we actually spotted them. Looking at this photos, the silhouettes stand out immediately, but with the naked eye, these guys were practically impossible to see. We must have stared right at them, but they stand/stalk so still that we didn’t realize what we were looking at until Jessica finally spotted one moving.
After an hour or so, the pride lazily strolled down to the waterhole to lay out and get a nice tan going while waiting for their next meal to present itself. We watched them here for another 30 minutes or so and were just about to call it a day when one of the most profoundly humbling real life dramas unfolded right in front of us.
Enter stage right: 300+ zebras. Something no Zoo or Wild Animal Park can ever capture, a herd of lion bait in the hundreds moving in sync like a school of fish. This was something so larger than life that, for but a brief moment, I completely forgot about the pride of lions to my left. Initially our thoughts were all turned to compassion for these innocent zebras walking right into the face (actually 8 of them) of danger. But with every step closer, not to the water, but instead straight to the lions, we started to realized that these zebra knew exactly what was going on and as stealthy as these lions were, nobody was being fooled….yet anyhow.
Step by agonizing step, the herd moved in on the pride. Like a sick and twisted game of russian roulette and jack-in-the box combined, the zebra would shuffle one zebra closer until finally the lions sprung their trap.
In an instant, every zebra in the herd got the memo and bolted as if one unified animal.
The lions gave a half-hearted attempt at getting a nice table side snack for their wonderful little poolside lounge, but one got the notion that the zebra were just toying with the lions to flush them out of their hiding spots and get a good idea of where their mortal enemies were for the day.
At this moment we all thought we had seen the best of the action, a near miss. And were about to begin our long journey for the day, but the oddest thing happened. While the majority of the pride was watching as the zebra ran around like a bunch of jack-asses, 2 of the lions split off in the opposite direction to flank the herd. This brought them on a direct intercept path with us, and the rest of the pack of mesmerized safari-goers.
Jim snapped me out of my trance, told me to get my ass back in the window I was hanging out of and to move the car. I plotted my intercept course and quickly rolled the hilux to the opposite end of the parking area and snagged a front row seat for what turned out to be an extreme close up of these massive/expert hunters. We wound up being within 20 feet of these cats with nothing between us but sweat, fear and a healthy dose of respect.
The hunters on the move:
This image still haunts me. The face looks so evil its crazy. It’s funny, I say that “the face looks evil” and wonder where I gained my understanding of what “evil” looks like. The first thing I can think of is Disney movies, and then it dawns on me, the artists for disney movies (i.e. the lion king) came to these same places and watched these same animals, and captured the same look in their depictions. Seriously though…Disney taught me at a very young age, this is not a face you want to pet. Bad kitty.
Watching these 2 cats saunter by us, unphased by the proximity to humans and cars and cameras, felt like it transpired in about 2 seconds. In reality their slow march of fear took about 5-10 minutes. By the time they had passed I realized that they were again going to intersect the road leading into the vantage point we were currently packed into with some 40 other people crammed into their own cars. About 10 seconds before the other cars/busses/trucks realized this, I was pulling into reverse and rolling for our next vantage point. I got there just in time to see the lions and plot the best spot to get a shot of them without scaring them off. In about 40 seconds I had moved the car, killed the engine and was lining up my shot. Right when I got the lions in my frame, they disappeared from sight in the 3 foot high grass. Instantly the excitement we were all sharing turned to fear, where the hell did they go…are they stalking us now?! It was at this point, we saw a small group of zebra, about 5, (the slackers) trying to catch up to the rest of the herd. They were trotting along head on to the waiting and completely hidden lions.
This was going to be epic. Unlike their buddies in the herd of 400 down by the water, these idiots had no clue what they were walking into.
A hushed silence fell over the group. Our cameras all trained on the last place we had seen cats, Jessica got her video camera out and simultaneously as she pressed the shutter, the lions pounced and just missed snagging these zebra by mere feet.
I’ve never seen a zebra scared so stupid, but these guys probably dropped a ten pound nugget behind them as they bolted for their lives.
These cats were the strongest, quickest, stealthiest monsters I have ever had the pleasure of observing. Even the best 1080p High Def, 3D, LED, backlit, wall-mounted, 7 channel dolby surround Discovery Channel HD special documenting this won’t give you NEAR the rush it was to watch a hunt ALMOST result in a kill.
Best thing I have ever seen in my life.