Prides of South Africa

By Aaron Smale

Following the kings of beasts on their hunt for breakfast is both thrilling and disconcerting, writes Aaron Smale.

Getting close to the king of beasts on its home turf is an eerie experience. Photo / Aaron Smale
Getting close to the king of beasts on its home turf is an eerie experience. Photo / Aaron Smale

When he walked into view, I suddenly understood why lions have been a symbol of power to cultures throughout history.

His luxuriant mane had a glossy sheen at the top where it was swept back. The rest of its dense blackness was slightly dishevelled and stood out against the tawny grass.

I couldn't hear the sound of his massive paws as he padded along nonchalantly, despite carrying a heft of about 200kg.

But it was his eyes that got me. They didn't have the bored, lethargic look of a captive animal. His were alert, clear and attentive, engaged like all his senses as he wandered through his territory indifferent to our presence. Almost.

As he walked past our open-topped vehicle I could have reached out and patted him on the head. I found it incredibly eerie being that close to a wild animal in its own environment. Everyone in the vehicle went quiet, almost stopping breathing, scared to attract his attention. He paused briefly and looked straight at the woman sitting behind me, who froze. Then he turned and wandered off.

The rest of the pride was ambling along in tow. A young male got jittery at the sound of my camera so I paused shooting and he shot past in a hurry. The lead female seemed anxious, but not at our presence. She trotted away from the rest of the pride looking to loop around a wildebeest and chase it into the waiting jaws of her family.

She sniffed the air and then sloped off. I was aware that I was tense with anticipation in a way that I'd never experienced in a zoo. It all comes down to food. Wild animals are constantly required to hunt and catch it themselves and that makes their behaviour more fascinating.

We followed at a distance. The sun dipped and the air shifted from dry heat to a clear chill. The pride disappeared into the dark. All was quiet. Whatever was out there had survived. For now.

The next morning we left in the dark for another game drive. There wasn't any activity, possibly because of the cold. Then we heard it, not a roar so much as a deep guttural moaning huff, a deep bass, almost booming sound that seemed to surround us. It was hard to discern which direction it was coming from or how far away it was, but we took a guess and headed off.

After seeing countless wildlife documentaries filmed in the open savannahs of Kenya, the density of South Africa's bushveld came as a surprise. The bush makes it more difficult to see the wildlife in the distance but when animals do appear it's usually right in front of you.

As we drove along someone at the rear of the vehicle thought they'd seen something behind us. When we backtracked and followed the sighting a lion came into view. As we followed it, we ran across the rest of a pride basking in the morning sun near a river. Some of them hid in the long grass watching us. The driver stopped near where several of them lay and they were so content in the warmth they ignored us.

My wife, sitting a little higher in the back of the vehicle, removed her scarf. The movement caught the attention of a young lion lying in the grass. He crouched down with eyes widened, fixated. My wife decided it would be a good idea to keep still. She giggled nervously while I took photos of the lion ready to pounce. Can you do that scarf thing again?

The lion eventually lost interest or maybe decided the big noisy vehicle was too big to bother with. The lead female sniffed at the air languidly then settled back into a lazy torpor. One of the others got up and slunk off. Another followed shortly after and before long the pride had disappeared into bush that was inaccessible to the vehicle. We headed off to find other game.

Of which there was an abundance. The impala were ubiquitous and they'd skitter off almost immediately you caught sight of them. They had good reason to be jumpy. Because of a black pattern on their rear-end that resembles an M they are nicknamed the McDonald's of the bush, so popular are they with the carnivores.

Warthogs were similarly common and just as nervous. They'd bolt with their tails in the air like tasselled aerials that gave their young something to follow above the long grass.

Giraffes were fairly common too. Lions apparently bring them down by a technique of spooking them into running so they trip up on their gangly limbs.

There were countless species of deer-like animals, such as the kudu, which would make a decent meal for a pride.

And then there were the dopey wildebeest. Equipped with excellent hearing and eyesight and a good turn of speed, they were not as well-endowed with intellect. One of the guides told us that a wildebeest was so dumb that it would run away from a lion but then loop around in a circle to check if it really was a lion it had been running from. Only to be proven, fatally, correct.

As I watched these animals, they all had a wariness born of survival instinct. I couldn't help but wonder who was next on the menu, that this day might be their last.

That night we heard from other guests in the camp who'd been on a game drive that the pride had killed a wildebeest. They talked animatedly, describing the details, while I pretended not to be stricken with jealousy. Especially when an Australian showed me some dreadful photos on his mobile phone.

The next morning we left in the semi-darkness and the German guide, Natalie, told us we'd go and have a look to see if the lions were still there. I wasn't optimistic.

We bumped along through the bush in the cold morning air. As we rounded a corner there were sharp intakes of breath as the lions appeared in front of us. Only these were not the alert hunters we'd seen on previous days.

These lions were like well-fed moggies lolling about after gorging themselves on jellymeat. One of them lay on his side asleep with his leg cocked in the air to make room for his bulging paunch.

The unfortunate wildebeest they had dined upon had probably been wandering about minding its own business when the pride bailed him up and dragged him down, snorting, kicking and gasping for his last breath in the dust as the life was choked out of him.

Now he was just a ribcage with a cape of skin pulled back and a set of horns and hooves sticking up at obscene angles. One of the young males was gnawing away at shreds of meat hanging off the ribcage, the bone making cracking noises between his teeth. His sister climbed on his back and grabbed him playfully at the back of the neck while he chewed away. It was like watching household cats play with a dead bird. After about an hour before the young male dragged the carcass under a tree to keep it out of view of vultures.

We headed off, sharing the lions' contentment. If we hadn't seen the moment of the kill we had certainly seen the evidence of it. A couple of days later when we drove past the spot there was only a small bit of ribcage left.

On the morning we were leaving we walked down for breakfast. As we strolled along a track in the bush there was the deep moaning sound of a male lion. It was close enough to be both disconcerting and thrilling.

Aaron Smale travelled to South Africa as winner of the Cathay Pacific Travel Photographer of the Year competition. The game drives and accommodation were courtesy of Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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