Finding a lion as you drive around a corner in the bush is absolutely amazing. The shock. The surprise. There is however one thing that is even better still.
Finding a track. A lion track. Following it. Following the possibilities that is signifies and following through until you eventually find the animal who left you that one single sign that it has been there.
Yesterday Grant Marcus, who is also one of the Photo-Africa photographers, went out early morning in an attempt to find the Kgala and Bulayo lions in Madikwe. You might have read in an earlier Blog that these are the lions I have been trying to find the whole week but up until now no luck. Tracks all over, but no sign of thee majestic animals. We left the lodge just after six in the morning and headed East towards the last confirmed sighting of one of the Kgala males It was still dark and very cold but the horizon was just starting to show the promise of another beautiful winters day in Africa. As we reached Rondawel Dam the wind was also starting to blow which, even though it adds to the atmosphere of a chilly winters morning, makes tracking a little more difficult.
We spotted a lion track.
It was heading towards the dam, but it was pretty hard to determine how fresh it was as by now the wind was increasing in strength and blowing little bits of loose sand grains into the tracks thereby hiding the history of that particular lion. We walked around in a circular pattern to try and get an idea of direction but neither of us was convinced this was the tracks we were looking for. It felt right, but everything you read or hear about tracking runs through your head. It is amazing how your mind is quiet and very busy at the same time. You focus completely on the tracks and all the other signals around you such as birds and wind direction but at the same time your mind is racing through all the possibilities of what could have happened here. Where could they have gone? Are we on the right tracks? How old are they? Are they watching me through the bushes?
We decided to head to the plains to see if we could find any other signs. Not five hundred meters from there we found very fresh track that were also heading to the dam. There were tracks for all the lions. Two large males, two females and five youngsters. Nice that there are so many lions as they obviously leave a lot of signs to read but there are many lions. And walking into or around a thicket where nine lions might be waiting is also makes your mind think of ‘the possibilities’.
We went back to the dam and picked up on the original tracks we found (lesson #1 – go with your gut feeling). For about forty-five minutes we followed the tracks as the winded North up the mountain side. Drive for a while. Get out and walk on the tracks to see where they go. Back to the vehicle and drive again. As we slowly edged our way up the mountain side the sun was rising in the East, waking all the birds and creating fantastic light for photography.
It was getting rocky and following the tracks was getting more and more difficult to follow but as we almost got to the top of the ridge…
We saw them.
Four of the cubs next to and on top of an old broken Marula tree.
Sharing something like this with guests, friends and families is amazing but every once in a while to have it to yourself and just have the opportunity to sit, watch and become a part of their story is an indescribable experience.
The light was great and it was as if the cubs were just waiting for us to find them before launching themselves into their morning bout of playing.
Fantastic sighting and even though it was amazing watching these 11 month old cubs slapping each other around the question remained. Where is the rest of the pride? We were missing five lions, including the two big males. Normally when cubs get left somewhere and the adults disappear it means only one thing.
We drove a small way from the cubs and tried to find as track of the adults and the missing cubs but the rocky terrain made this very difficult. Nothing. We walked around, always keeping an eye on the cubs, but to no available. We could not find any tracks. No sign at all.
We moved back to where the cubs were but they were slowly moving West, further into the rocky hills. No way of following with a vehicle so we slowly followed on foot to see if they might lead us to the rest of the pride. No luck. The four cubs only moved about three hundred meters into the hills and went to lay down under a large thicket. It seemed that were not supposed to find the big guys that morning.
However, that afternoon was a different story as Adele and I headed out with a few friends to try our luck.
We drove to the same dam to check if they pride did not return to the water. After confirming that there was definitely no sign of the lions we moved back towards the hill to see if we could pick up where we left off that morning. Still no luck and we were not even able to relocate on the four youngsters.
Oh well, back to the lodge we go. As we took the last turn, probably about three kilometers from where we had the cubs in the morning, heading back to the lodge there they were. No tracking. No searching. They came to us.
The Kgala males walking out of the bushes on our left hand side. These males are magnificent. The ‘perfect’ light was about ten minutes from disappearing and these guys showed up at exactly the right time. They both walked right next to the vehicle and onto the road in front of us.
The two males lead us about four hundred meters along the road where they joined the rest of the pride, minus the four cubs we had that morning, and threw themselves down on the floor like only a lion can. The two females were ‘flat cat’ and the one cub was laying down continually scratching his ear.
The cub had a pretty serious wound on his left ear and it was obviously bothering him quite a bit. Now the first thing everybody on the vehicle starts saying is loaded with emotion and points to how sad and miserable this young lion mist be due to the injury. Not quite the case. They don’t work like that. In nature you cannot, like in the human world, stop and feel sorry for yourself or attempt to gain pity from your friends and family. Life goes on and you cannot wallow in your misery like some people like to do.
Gavin Tonkinson uploaded the following image to Photo-Africa this week which shows the same kind of scenario.
This lion, one of the Thola-Mateya coalition, was injured in a fight with the Batia brothers (who you might have read about previously). The wound is obviously quite serious and his mate also had a very seriously injured leg but they just carry on. Keep on doing what they are supposed to do. A lesson in their somewhere?
Anyway, back to the Kgalas.
The perfect light unfortunately did not last long enough and the shot I have in mind, the Kgala males together looking straight at me with sun from behind, was not going to happen today. The sighting was spectacular though. The one female was busy waking up and grooming while the rest of the pride was still out cold and still no sign of the four cubs.
I tried to play around with my flash and different ways to capture the two males other than in that golden afternoon light and all in all I was quite happy with the results. It's all to easy to just pop your flash no and fire on full strength bbut I wanted to try and keep the feeling that light was fading and night was approaching. (Any thoughts?)
As this was happening two zebra were slowly grazing down the road towards the lions and immediately the ‘power of possibilities’ comes into play again. What if? Will they?
The lions only realized the zebra where close to them after about ten minutes and the two females were up and ready to hunt immediately. The two males were lying down with their heads up as the two females starting moving around the zebra.
Ultimately nothing happened and after a very brief charge the females returned but immediately there were speculations as to why the males never hunt. This is a whole different story and a myth that I will write about at a later stage.
So, I finally got to see the two beautiful Kgala males but I am still waiting for the opportunity to photograph them in the early morning or late afternoon light. Hopefully the next week will bring a few more opportunities.
This afternoon Adele and I will be returning to the Madikwe Gardens to try and capture some of this oasis in the middle of the bushveld on film (or rather digital). I will be uploading a Blog on the Gardens tomorrow and also be adding these images and those I have been able to capture this last week or so, including the images in this Blog, to the Photo-Africa Stock Library during next week. I will post a Blog as soon as I have had the chance to upload. In the meantime you can visit the Stock Library as there are a few new photographers and a lot of new images that have been uploaded during the last week.
As always I look forward to hearing from you!