I have just had some guest who were with us for six nights in camp. They had spent time in Botswana before they came to us. This normally means that they arrive and have seen most things in Botswana before coming to us. When I picked them up we made the usual small talk of how had the trip been so far etc. As a guide you always throw in a sneaky question like “what has been the highlight of your t…rip so far?” This is a way normally of finding out what predators they have seen as invariably predators are the highlight of most safaris!. As I have said before….People can say what they want but Lion is always top of the list for the majority of safari goers and if these tawny beasts have not been seen then the safari is not complete. These particular guests replied that the highlight so far had been that they had seen Painted dogs everyday in Botswana very close to their camp, but had not seen LION yet!
I replied to them that they were with us for six days so we had a good chance. Just typical!! On our way into camp what do we find lying in road…Painted dogs. I just laughed to myself as we sat with them. The one predator that they have seen lots of is the one we find straight off the bat. Anyway…onward we go. Over the next few days we worked hard. Up early, spending maximum amount of time in the search, we saw all the usual plains game, good herds of buffalo and elephant. But no Lions!! On their second last day we woke in the morning to see that two lions had walked through camp and actually straight past the guest’s room. We were on the tracks at first light, we tracked on foot for a couple of hours and when we stopped for our second water break i asked the guests if they were happy to continue. I reminded them that we were already eight kilometers from the camp and that if we stop now we had eight km’s to go back to camp as there was no roads anywhere near where we were that I could radio a car to pick us up from. They said that they were finding it tough going as it was now getting hot and they thought we should head back. I am always bummed if I have to give up on a track that I still have, especially since I knew that since it was hot the lions would surely have stopped walking by now and we must be gaining on them. I understood though as it was getting hot, we stopped and made the walk back to camp. It was a long track and we all felt a little down as we had tracked so far and had not even had a glimpse of the cats.
Then it was their final day with us, I woke that morning with Lions on my mind and knew this was the last bite of the cherry for these guests. We had to find lions this day! We headed out camp at first light. My plan was to drive all way to Mandavu dam and hopefully find a track on the road from the night before or best case scenario find the cats still on or close to the road. When we were almost at Mandavu there was what we were looking for. Fresh lion tracks all over the road, I stopped and jumped out and began to try and unravel what had happened. I walked down the road and found where they had left the road. I walked quickly back to the car and told the guests that we are getting on the track. I grabbed lots of water in my backpack and we were off. No need to go through the safety briefing as the plan was the same as the previous day.
At first the track was easy to follow as there was lots of sandy spots then gradually that changed into grass, not good when it comes to tracking. I had to repeatedly stop and do bigger and bigger arcs till I found the track again. The good thing was that we were following what looked like the whole pride from this area so had lots of options as far as looking for tracks. The tracks lead us to the big ridge that rises behind the dam. The tracks went up the ridge to the top and along it. It was slow going as there was lots of grass and rocks but we managed to keep on the track. We had been on the track for about two and a half hours when we stopped for a water break. The sun was well up and it was starting to get hot. I told the guest that the lions would be resting now in the shade and we must be gaining on them.
We moved forward on the track and came to a little waterhole up on the ridge; it looked to me like the kind of place lions would lie up. Good shade and some water. We approached slowly and found that they had indeed been lying here by the tracks in the sand. As we were looking at the tracks i saw a movement up ahead. It was a lion cub about six months old walking away about sixty metres ahead. It had not seen us; I motioned for everyone to get down. Slowly i stood up and saw one of the pride males staring at me through the vegetation. I quickly showed my guests where to look and for what seemed like ages they could not see him. Only when he moved and trotted away from us did they see him. Then another cub and a lioness came into view and then disappeared. We moved forward slowly and headed to the place where we had seen them last. I could see by the tracks they had probably heard us approaching and had decided to move off before we got there. We walked forward slowly and go another glimpse of a young male and a lioness as they trotted away. My guests had seen lions at last!
We stopped and I told my guests that we would leave it there as we had, had a brilliant sighting and I did not want to push them as they had been very relaxed with us so far. Everyone was buzzing from the tracking and then finding the lions at the end. We walked back the way we had come and had gone about fifty meters when i heard the low “contact call” of a lion not far ahead. I stopped and quickly turned and told my guests what the noise was. We dropped down onto our haunches and scanned the bush ahead. The call came again, now many guides practice all sorts of calls from imitating birds to call them in to copying a mouse in distress to try and call a genet down from a tree on a night drive. I am not very good at bird calls and my mouse in distress in suspect. However my lion contact call is not too bad. I answered the lion up ahead and immediately got a reply. We sat motionless. I called again and got a reply, then up ahead on the elephant path we had been walking out on the second pride male appeared with his head held high as he scanned for where this “lion” he could hear was. We were crouched down and had a little bush in front of us that we were looking through. The big fella stopped in his tracks about forty meters ahead and starred at the bush. We sat still and looked back. He turned broadside as he decided that this was no lion he was seeing ahead of him. He stood for a second more and then trotted away parallel to us and we had a very nice look at him as he moved off.
That was the icing on the cake of a brilliant safari.
By Julian Brookstein. Camp Hwange Manager and Professional Guide
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