The only predictable thing about a day on safari is that it will be entirely unpredictable. That’s a huge part of the magic and intrigue – you just never know what sightings the bush will serve up. Sometimes it’s a tender moment between mother and cub, and sometimes it’s the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy with fathers killing each other’s offspring to usurp the kingdom. This is a tale of the latter, including the time I nearly joined the circle of life.
Meet Blackie and Blondie (so named by the guides for the distinctive colors of their manes). These two brothers live in an idyllic valley bifurcated by the slow-flowing Boteti River. An Eden blessed by year round water, the valley is prime habitat for the Kalahari denizens eking out a living. A mere two hundred meters back from the riverbanks, the landscape is reclaimed by impenetrable thorn bush brandishing spikes the size of golf pencils. Despite the valley’s forgiving flush of green, it’s a harsh world where the words of Charles Darwin echo truer than ever…survival of the fittest.
To claim the kingdom, each brother needed to establish their own pride – strength in numbers and all that. Two beautiful females also lived in the valley, one with her own pair of healthy year-old cubs already. Our guide, Tau (a San bushman whose name incidentally means ‘lion’), revealed that they had been fathered by Blondie, giving him the edge in the battle for the kingdom. When we found the females lounging on the upper ridge of the valley, Tau was surprised that there were no newborn cubs in tow. He muttered something in Setswana and craned his neck, trying to see under nearby bushes.
“He’s wondering where the cubs are,” our South African host translated for us. “Last time we saw her, she was heavily pregnant with Blondie’s second litter,” he said nodding at her noticeably slim figure. “It’s not unusual to lose cubs in this harsh bushveld, but all of them? And so quickly? It just seems suspicious,” he added, his voice trailing off.
It wasn’t long before Tau found his answer. Roused from his slumber by the grumble of our engine, Blackie stretched and padded over to us, his silent footfalls leaving a trail of broad spoor (paw prints) in the Kalahari dust. Immediately the yearlings’ mother was on high alert – her eyes locked on his every move, her ears pressed back against her skull, and her muscles tensed with hair trigger readiness. But Blackie wasn’t there for her – at least for now.
“Mhmmm,” murmured Tau, “I see. Blackie killed Blondie’s new cubs. With them gone, the mother will go back into estrous so she can have more cubs. I bet Blackie has been following her for days, waiting for her to be ready to mate again.”
Like I said – a true Shakespearean drama unfolding right in the African bush. As a human, you may be wondering why Blackie thought that killing a mother’s cubs would send her into a frenzy of affection for him – but such is the way of the natural world. She just wants the best genes for her cubs, and once a litter is gone, so are the motherly bonds to them.
As Blackie closed in on her, the other female quietly ushered her cubs away, leading them safely to the valley floor. Just as Blackie reached her, a chilling snarl broke the air. Blackie’s hackles shot up, and his body contracted into a ready crouch as Blondie’s form stalked over the ridge. Mating isn’t a gentle affair in the wild, and as Blackie and Blondie paced tense circles around each other, even we humans with our paltry senses could feel the testosterone permeating the air. Suddenly Blondie lunged at Blackie’s neck, swiping a dinner plate sized paw at his head and ripping out a viciously aggressive growl. In the commotion, he nearly took out the female, who jumped back so suddenly that she nearly fell over herself and down the slope. Blondie’s paw landed on Blackie’s neck with a meaty thump, like rugby players smashing together at full speed. Their hatch-marked faces told that this wasn’t their first brotherly smack down. Unable to match his brother’s brawn, the scrawnier Blackie slunk back toward the thorn bush, giving a final snarl over his shoulder as if to say, “this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing of this.”
Claiming his prize, Blondie strode over to the prone female with a cocky nonchalance befitting someone that knows his place at the top is secure. In a rare gesture of tenderness, he closed his eyes and nuzzled her neck before settling behind her for mating. Though we belong to different realms of the natural world, it felt wrong to gawk so leeringly at their amorous activities. We left them to their business.
“Perhaps we should check on Blackie and see how he is doing,” said Tau, his deep voice carefully measuring each syllable.
He turned the key, springing the vehicle to life with the coughing rumble of a well-loved diesel engine. We moved along the ridge, following Blackie’s finely detailed spoor until they crossed the track and disappeared deep into thorn bush.
“Looks like no more tau today,” he said as he swung the vehicle around in a slow circle. “That means it is time for sundowners.”
This pronouncement met no resistance from the group. Sundowners are a time-honored tradition of the bush – the perfect way to end a long day of exploring the wilderness. As the sun starts to sink, your guide finds secluded spot to watch the sky blush with luminous corals and golds. Once a picturesque site has been decided on, beers are cracked, G & T’s mixed, and white wine poured. Sit back, sip slowly, and soak in the awesome beauty unfolding before you. You see why I love this tradition?
Well, tradition be damned when there are lions about. Our radio crackled to life with a string of rapid-fire Setswana from another guide. One of the five Setswana words I know, tau popped up amid the jumble of unfamiliar sounds.
“Would everyone be okay with delaying our sundowners to go see the lions?” Tau asked us, his even tone giving no hint of the dramatic scene unfolding in the valley below.
“YES!” came our resounding answer.
“Then hold on,” he said, revving the ancient engine as the vehicle lurched forward across the soft sands. At the first break in the brush, he turned onto a narrow track that went more-or-less straight down the steep slope. Amazingly, our vehicle didn’t slide on the shifting sands – not that any of us were thinking about that as we checked lenses, fiddled with camera settings, and stashed sunglasses that may impede our photographing.
As we pulled up to the other vehicle, their guide pointed up at Blackie, who was stalking down the slope, still drunk on testosterone and looking for a chance to vent his frustrations. Relaxing just a few meters from our vehicles was the second female and her cubs, who had retreated here to avoid the mating feud. The moment Blackie appeared, her body tensed once more, muscles visibly tightening beneath her tawny fur. Unaware of the approaching danger, her cubs continued lounging playfully, swatting at flies and pouncing on each other.
“The cubs do not understand. To them, the big males have always been around, but were never trouble,” explained Tau as he scanned the scene, reading it as only a true bushman can. “These are tense times,” he added, nodding thoughtfully.
It was time to get proactive. The mother advanced up the hill, cutting off Blackie before he reached the valley floor. He reluctantly diverted his path, sweeping wide to avoid her. It’s a well-known wilderness adage that you should never get between a mother and her cub, and this lioness was no exception. Furious about the nearing Blackie, she pressed her body against the ground, priming her powerful legs for attack and letting loose a series of acrimonious growls that in no uncertain terms told him to approach at his own risk. He seemed momentarily deterred, but self-preservation soon gave way to his spiking testosterone. He charged forward, aiming for the cubs, who had finally paused to stare at the commotion. Just as Tau said, they were seemingly oblivious to Blackie’s murderous intentions. Big brown eyes and tiny ears were directed intently at their mother, awaiting her instructions. None came. She was too distracted with deflecting Blackie’s advances to direct them to safety. By now he was mere centimeters from her, easy striking distance. Suddenly claws were flying as they struck with fast, precise swipes that landed hard, tearing through fur and revealing thin seeps of blood. Which would win out? The unrelenting hysteria of testosterone, or the unbreakable defense of a mother protecting her cubs. By now the cubs had pressed themselves flat against the ground, trying their best to sink into a small depression in the sandy earth. A wild look in her eyes, the mother made a final lunge, swiping across his left eye and forcing him to acquiesce. We watched as she collected her cubs and retreated down the valley. She may have won this battle, but her tense body and frequent checks over her shoulder belied her wariness that this war was far from over.
His second opportunity lost and his ego shredded, Blackie’s tear was far from over. Every breath was ragged as his pinprick pupils scanned his surroundings, searching for a new target. His eyes locked on our vehicle. Land Rovers aren’t an unfamiliar sight to these big cats. They grow up seeing them bouncing over the lands, hearing their grumbly engines and smelling the scent of sweat and sunscreen from the passengers within. Most animals just ignore the vehicles, they might look up from their grazing, but rarely do they elicit anything beyond a nonchalant once over. Sleeping twenty plus hours a day, lions rarely even wake up from their naps when they wander past. They don’t really see the vehicles for what they are. They’re just one big outline, with the passengers blending into the overall form.
This time was different though. Blackie stalked right up to our vehicle, his body saying ‘the hunt’ and his face saying ‘blood rage’. He stopped a mere two meters from the side of the vehicle – a pittance of a distance for a creature that can leap eleven meters. Eight sets of butt cheeks clenched simultaneously as we pondered on what thirty teeth designed for shredding flesh would feel like wrapped around our skulls. It’s a humbling feeling to stare into the eyes of a creature that could take you down with one half-assed swipe of a paw. Blackie’s eyes traced carefully over each passenger, inhaling the alarm pheromones wafting off of us and gaining confidence with each deep breath.
I was sitting in the middle row, on the far-right side of the vehicle, and had the dubious honor of being the closest to Blackie. After surveying us like a teenage boy checking the fridge, Blackie’s eyes locked dead on me. I’m a small person – 5’4” on a good day – but I’ve never felt more bite-sized than I did in that moment.
“Do not move a muscle,” whispered Tau through barely moving lips. “Do not breathe, do not blink, do nothing that prey might do.”
“Too late for that,” I thought to myself, debating the likelihood that I would fit into the foot-well below me. It didn’t look promising with the beer filled cooler from our forgotten sundowners wedged there. I was the only woman visible in the vehicle – the others had chosen unknowingly strategic positions on the other side. Excellent. I bit my tongue so hard that it started bleeding – a taste that did nothing to calm my nerves. Seconds ticked past with excruciating slowness. I always thought that was some cliché brought on by too many overly dramatic crime shows – but it isn’t. When you’re in mortal fear time feels like it’s toying with you, drawing out your agony into skillfully torturous mega-seconds that last an eternity. As Blackie stared me down, I was no longer wondering if he would attack, but when.
Then just as suddenly as he had turned on us, Blackie lost interest. Maybe the testosterone had drained from his body, or maybe he had simply had enough for one day and just wanted to nurse his wounds in peace. I’ll never know what caused him to change his mind. It would have been so easy for him to exact his revenge on us hapless tourists, armed only with wanderlust and straw sunhats. Is there a lion god? Maybe the lion god whispered in his ear – wait for a fatter tourist, Blackie, they’ll taste better. Whatever it was, he turned and disappeared over the ridge, leaving us to collectively gather our wits. Quiet moments passed as we let the adrenaline relax out of our bodies. Unclench jaw, loosen fists, re-dilate pupils, wiggle toes, check underwear. I went through a mental checklist as I tried to come down from the adrenaline high. In all the chaos, we had nearly missed the sunset deadline for exiting the park. Tau raced down the valley, kicking up a plume of sand behind us as we went.
“Honestly, I do not know whether Blackie wanted to eat you or mate with you. Either way he thought you looked delicious,” Tau quipped later around the campfire, chuckling at his own joke.
“Oh…okay…” I replied for lack of a better answer. How does one respond to a casual mention of bestiality?
I’ll never know what was going on inside of Blackie’s testosterone addled mind and I’m not sure I want to. But that’s the tale of the time I nearly joined the circle of life – part snack food and part unwilling mate.
All photos by Kelsea Lee.