Paw pints of a lion

The Lion Is King

If you were to ask me “which animal do you most want to see on safari” I will say lion every time. Or indeed any cat. I know – so predictable. But I think you already knew that.

I also know the lion is pretty likely to be found on an African safari. Generally in numbers, and often resulting in repeat viewings. The pride may remain in an area for a wee while each time, especially if food is available. So I can fill my boots. But I never tire of them. Even watching them as they sleep, their tummies rising and falling, swishing a tail to swat a fly. Occasionally lifting an eyelid as if to say “you still here?”. I could literally sit there all day.

They are my biggest love.

To show some lions

Four years ago we took our first trip to Tanzania.

We would return again less than two years later – such is the power this beautiful country has over us.

This time we included Ruaha in our itinerary.

Ruaha National Park is the largest park in Tanzania. Around 480 km from Dar Es Salaam, it takes around two and half hours to fly in. Staying at Kigelia, an understated, yet superbly appointed camp, out of the Nomad Tanzania portfolio. We have come to like this company – a lot. Not just their approach to safari in general, but also in their values and the things they put back into the community through their own support projects.

A late lunch, a quick chance to unpack and then it was time for our frst drive.

Not long out of camp

..and we came upon three male and three female lions feeding on an old giraffe carcass. We smelt it long before we found it. Hold your noses folks! It was thought to be maybe as much as a three or four days old kill, this was starting to resemble “giraffe jerky”! Only half an hour into our first game drive (strictly camera safari only) and this was beyond my wildest expectations.

Male lion eating

Three males hungrily tucked into supper while three female waited in the wings. Because that’s the order of events in their world. None of this “women and children first” etiquette. No sir, it’s the men and cubs who get to eat first and only when the menfolk have had their fill and take themselves off, are the the womenfolk be allowed to eat. I wish I could translate the noise which emanated from one male, when one lioness decided she was hungry and would try and sneak in for food! If he wasn’t intending to actually harm her, he had us fooled. My heart was racing! I willed her to leave him to his supper, so scared she would get hurt. And in that moment you were starkly reminded why the lion is the king of the jungle.

It’s behind you

Mind you, the elephant who happened upon the scene proved she was a more than a match for this macho lion. A face off, a mock charge, more noise and posturing. I truly thought we were about to witness a death. How much action could one take in one sitting. If I saw nothing again for the remainder of my trip I would surely go home with my heart beating right out of my chest whenever I recalled that whole memory.

Finally all was calm. The “Eli” (as the elephants became affectionately known) finally left, satisfied that the lion had run away from the fight. The whole episode took maybe ten minutes and then the lions lay down, positioning themselves around the area to guard their supper. And so the hungry lioness was finally allowed up to the table so we left her to feed. As we drove away we passed through vultures, a couple of jackal and a hyena simply hanging around for their turn. Because that’s life in the bush. One beast will go on to feed at least four species – and quite spectacularly as we returned the next day to find nothing but a leg bone remaining. Not a scrap as the final morsels were gathered up by a family of jackal.

Picture of lion eating

This would be the start

The start of four fabulous days of watching some truly special feline moments.

The following morning we happened upon two lioness quietly lay in the grass just off the road. One looks one way. One lays behind looking the other way. Each take a turn to snooze while the other watches. A gentle call and Hussein says “she is calling for the rest of the pride who have gone away”.

Their call is just the most incredibly powerful sound. It carries for several miles. I will never forget the very first time I heard it back in Kenya in 2005. The low, throaty “haaaaugh, haaaaugh, haaaaugh” which almost comes from the depths of the belly. It is hard to describe, but once heard, it stays with you forever. In camp we would wake to the sound, more than once, in the coming days. We move on and leave them to their day, as they await the rest of the pride.

The drive continues

..stopping in a sheltered spot for a bush breakfast (my favourite meal of the day I think). Then the radio goes. It’s our fellow guide. The other group have seen a lion chase on a young zebra. By the time both vehicles got sight, it was to find a family of five females and a juvenile cub, on the open, dry, drought stricken Great Ruaha River bed. Hot and panting, under the already full heat of the sun. Trying to work out how to move their supper undercover, to eat later in the cool of the day.

That evening we would return to watch a while. This time it was a very different family feed. No males, meant these ladies and their youngsters would eat well, undisturbed. Taking turns for a leisurely stroll to the limited water pool nearby. Panting as they return and collapse on their backs with full round bellies.

Time to go back to camp

We were a long way from camp now so would be returning home in the dusk. The park operates strict laws around access to the park after dark, so speeding along, we headed back to base. Spotlight at the ready, in case something interesting crossed our path.

And then it happens. A lioness running across the track, right in front of the vehicle. We come to a stop, two vehicles in tandem. Cameras long since packed away, all we could do was watch, our breaths held in unison. Because what followed next was just the most beautiful moment.

Remember back to our two lions from this morning?

Out of the bushes they came. Running to greet her. And Mum and cubs, quite literally, embrace. They are up on their hind legs, they hug, they tumble and roll over. It’s just a big ball of lioness love! And add to that the sounds. Gorgeous soft purrs of pleasure.

Hussein turns and whispers “Mum’s home” and grins.

He knows this is a precious “right place right time” moment which will leave at least one guest in pieces. Even as I type, that memory floors me every time. Gulp!

The days just kept on giving

Over the days we would sight the three males from the first group again “just hanging out”.

We would also happen across a male and female who had taken themselves off from the pride for some time alone ;). The act itself takes just seconds, but happens many many times over the course of a few days. And they have not a care who is watching! Come on guys, let’s give them some privacy.

On our night drive, accompanied by a park ranger, a chance to see life in the bush under the cover of darkness. This is when the nocturnal animals are seen. The three hyena cubs, coming for a close look at those humans, while Mum’s away. Tut, tut, you are going to get such a clip round the ear if she discovers you. Inquisitive and not even a little shy.

Slowly heading back to camp we see another vehicle on watch. Suspecting something interesting going on, we pull alongside. And there they are.

It’s our two lovebirds. Lay among a small group, they watch us. Quietly watching them, completely unperturbed. They have more pressing matters on their mind. The lioness gets up and starts to walk. Towards our lion. And then, with a cheeky flick of her tail, just far enough away from his nose, she turns away and heads down to the soft sand of the river bed. Did I imagine her purr “come on big boy, it’s your lucky night”? Because, as if on cue, our lion rises, cool as a cucumber. And follows.

And so, we can only hope, life goes on….

Read more about Africa travel through my Travel series