Friday, July 08, 2011
On my first day home from half way across Africa (well it felt like it, though it was only Polokwane) after lecturing for the Wild Life Film Academy, I missed waking to the sound of a five-year old lion roaring in the bush next to my tent. You see, he’d roared outside the camp and in it, every hour, day and night all five days I was there.
This was unusual behaviour according to the game rangers. It had never happened before on any of my previous visits either. But the rangers told me that this particular lion had been thrown out of his pride recently by the dominant male. So the poor soul had been wandering across the reserve lamenting the fact that he was without a pride since I’d arrived. After the initial thrill of fear I felt when I woke up to the sound of a lion very near my canvas tent on the first night, I grew accustomed to his resonating groans. In fact, I eventually found them reassuring and, on two occasions, quite a spiritual experience.
For example, on the third morning of my all-day lectures, I showed my students White Lion, the film I’d co-written about a lion which is cast out from his pride. The sound of the lions roaring on film must have travelled out across the bush, as sound tends to do in these otherwise silent places. Suddenly Jagadesh, one of my students from India, told me to stop the DVD and to listen carefully. Just outside our lecture tent the lonely lion was roaring his heart out. We crept out onto the deck and peered into the bush. There was no visible sign of him. Reluctantly we continued to watch the footage. Within seconds of the lions on screen beginning to roar, our visitor outside joined in again. It was one of the most exceptional moments of my life, watching footage I’d written about a lion on screen with the sound of a real lion roaring in the bush outside at the same time. The students and I decided that he must have thought he was close to a new pride and wanted to join it. We were overwhelmed by the rarity of the moment.
On my last evening in camp, in spite of a sore neck, I decided to join the students on a game drive. After all, it’s not often I get the opportunity to go for a drive into the bushveld. The students told the ranger she had to find the lions for me after our incredible experience of watching them on the screen and hearing the lion’s roars outside in the ultimate version of surround sound.
We drove along for about half an hour until we came up to three male rhino on a plain. The ranger decided to drive really close to them. It was at this point I regretted taking the front seat (which I’d done to protect my neck a bit). The front seats of the Land Rover, you see, had no doors. As the ranger drove alongside the three walking lawnmowers shaped like tanks I kept seeing footage of the rhino attacks I'd shown my students in a documentary the day before. I noticed the ranger thought nothing of driving me broadside to the large grey mammals. I looked at my flimsy corduroy jacket which I’d draped across my knees. I wondered how much protection that would be from a charging rhino’s horn.
The fear I felt then was real, but that was nothing compared to our next encounter.
After driving around for another hour, we saw him. We’d been driving off-road through plains of windscreen-high yellow thatch grass when we heard him. Our lost boy. The ranger drove towards the sound. Suddenly we realised he was behind us in a thicket. So Deanna, our ranger, turned the vehicle around and there he was - right in front of us - the most beautiful five-year old male lion I've ever seen and my first sighting of a lion in the wild. He continued to walk towards us, not more than two meters away, grumbling and growling to himself. He looked me straight in the eyes as he passed. Once again, I was broadside to him. I’m embarrassed to admit that my initial reaction was sheer terror again. He passed within a metre of my unprotected legs. I'm glad I didn't have a camera as I would’ve dropped it in fright. If I'd stretched out my hand I would have touched him. Even Ashwika, one of my keenest students, stopped her incessant camera-clicking behind me. She froze, even though she was relatively safe in higher seats behind the solid steel sides of the Landy. Fortunately she continued to click again once he’d walked past. These are the photos. I might add that she did not have to use a zoom lens.
Once I'd recovered from the shock of being so close to an unhappy wild lion, I could appreciate his beauty. He lay down just a little away from us on the plain in the shadow of the mountain. Deanna turned the vehicle around and we parked a few metres away from him, watching him roar, yawn, grumble, roll over on his belly and feel a bit sorry for himself for over an hour. As his roars echoed majestically off the Waterberg mountains at sun set, I couldn't believe how privileged I was to be alive in that particular moment.
He stared right into my eyes a few times and I tried to send telepathic messages of love to this lonely lion. Silly, I know. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the alpha male in the pride he's been rejected from will soon be old and he'll be welcomed back home again. All good things come to those who wait.
I lecture for the Wildlife Film Academy at Entabeni Game Reserve. Students from around the world come for a one month course to make their own short wildlife film in that time.