When Elliott, our guide from Oryx, asked us what animal or animals we wanted to see most while on safari, at first we shrugged at each other. Our love of animals is wide ranging – we were ridiculously excited to see gazelle, zebra, or giraffes; we aren’t the type to be fussed about seeing “the Big Five” just to check them off our list (check out the link and you’ll likely never use the term Big Five again). Seriously though, Elliott pushed on, there must be some animal… Well, we finally conceded, we really would like to see lions, or any of the big cats really; we’ve never seen any of them before in the wild without binoculars. Remember for us, this conversation happened in the comfort and safety of our first night lodge, close to the Kilimanjaro Airport, far from the wilds of the Savannah.
In our dream of dreams, best of all possible worlds, we couldn’t have been more fortunate with our lion viewing. It was our very own “African Cats” (as a side note, if you like wildlife, you must see this movie – did we mention it’s narrated by Samuel L. Jackson?).
We came across these two darlings with their mother our second morning in the Ngorongoro Crater just before the sun peaked over the Crater. Adorable, and mischievous:
After frolicking meters from our car, the lioness and her two cubs led us to the cubs’ father, this formidable specimen. While neither of us are truly morning people, for wildlife, or photography more generally, it is so worth it — the light was perfect. With the sun rising over the rim of the Crater, its orange glow over the Crater floor, dad stood up and showed us his full height and power:
On the other side of the Crater, in the heat of the afternoon, we stumbled across this mating pair. Once lions begin the mating cycle, the male and female will mate for several straight days – often as many as 40 times a day. Forgoing food, even forgoing sleep for extended periods of time, the lions can get very grouchy during the mating cycle. You don’t say. Every 100 feet or so the male tried to lay down and catch-up on his sleep. The lioness would have none of it and tried to continue waling. As the male won’t let the female out of his sight for fear of another male taking his place, he was forced to plod along, getting ever more grumpy. This pic does provide a great comparison between the size of the male and female.
Although the Crater is a sight to see, our best cat viewing was in Ndutu, the short grass plains of the Serengeti (just south of the Serengeti NP) — truly a hidden gem. Ndutu has much less tourist traffic than the Crater or the Serengeti NP. Just the way we like it.
Every day of our trip was special for one reason or another, but our “Cheetah, Leopard, Lion” Day was truly magnificent (more to come soon on the cheetah and leopard portions of that day).
Ndutu is different than the Crater. It’s not contained. There aren’t lodges perched a mile away, with their comfort and safety beckoning at sunset. No smooth roads. It’s sprawling, it’s wild, the animals don’t wait patiently at the side of the track waiting for you to roll up, focus, adjust the aperture; they hide, they run. It is wild in the truest sense of the word. That said, it’s only fair to tell you that we did stay in a tent that might have more amenities than our house.
Our driver, Joshua (the best driver to ever step behind the wheel of a Land Cruiser), told us that he had heard from other drivers the night before that there was a pride of lions somewhere on the Plain of Three Trees. After slowly prowling the plain for just over an hour, despite the fact that we were over a hundred yards away, driving along a bumpy dirt road, the dust heavy without rain for months clouding the air, Joshua picked out the tell-tale sign in the distance: a flick of the tail. In the shadow of a beautiful acacia, we found over a dozen lionesses and cubs. We spent the next few hours with them, at times as little as 10 to 15 feet away from them.
As you can see, some of the cubs had teeth coming in. This lioness was feeding her cubs and was, not surprisingly, sore and very unhappy. The cubs would begin to feed and she would swat them away. Minutes later, the cubs would resume feeding again. This would last another minute or so before she would push them off. In one case, at the end of one of these abbreviated feeding sessions, she let loose a terrifying, sweat-inducing growl/roar. Can you hear our knees knocking? She was about 10 feet from our vehicle and looking directly at us at the time. Remember we were the ones who wanted to see the cats. Look at those teeth. What could be more terrifying than an angry, sore, annoyed mom with 4-inch teeth? Windows wide open, we braved it and snapped away.
The littlest cub initiated most of the wrestling. We concluded that he is the next Lion King, if he survives to adulthood, that is. He would antagonize all of the other sleepy cubs. It didn’t matter if they were bigger than him. It didn’t matter if they put him in his place and all the play had settled down. He wasn’t done.
As the rain started, Naomi urged Mark to get out of the car and direct the lionesses to line up together. Maybe not. Maybe they just did that on their own for warmth. Seeing the cats line up, Elliott and Joshua worked together to get us into perfect position to take advantage of the alignment.
P.S. We don’t want you to think that we were without lions in the Serengeti NP. It’s just that our closest encounters with them occurred while we were lying in bed at night. With the migration moving through, on two of our three nights lions killed prey near our camp. The battle over the carcass would ensue with the hyenas shortly thereafter. The lions were so close that their roars actually made our chests vibrate — like the base of a stereo does. We thought you’d forgive us for not leaning out of our tents into the darkness for a picture :).