Wednesday, October 5, 2005

But they be just lyin' around!

Finally, it was our last day at Tau Lodge. But we still hadn’t seen any lion. Jim and Dylan were determined to make it happen. So, dawn broke on our third morning at the lodge.

I made Mr. D get out of bed first, to do the snake check.

Well. I didn’t really tell him he was doing the snake check. I just figured if there was anything under the bed, he would draw the attack and then I could, ummm, run for help, I guess. (Or walk.) Works for everyone, really. He gets to feel morally superior for being a morning person and bounding out of bed like a crazy loon every day, and I get my own personal early warning system for snake. I could have asked him to check my shoes for scorpions too, but that seemed excessive, and besides, it might have clued him in. Better to keep him in the dark for now. He CAN be quite useful.

Another lovely sunrise with coffee on the verandah, and into the Landies for the lion hunt. Today, our driver was Dylan, an experienced ranger who’d been with Tau Lodge for more than three years. If anyone could find “tau”, it would be Dylan.

Up one road, down another. We spotted masses of animals: elephant, jackal, gnu, kudu, oryx, impala, rhino, giraffe, bear (no, NOT bear, you goose!!), monkeys (which by the way were climbing over the extremely electrified border fence. They’re the only animal undeterred by electric fencing). And we saw aardvark holes, and termite mounds, and prickly thorny bushes, and... no lion.

After about two very enjoyable hours of this, we were beginning to think that maybe it just wasn’t going to be. Still, it would give us something to look forward to on the next trip to a game park. Suddenly, the radio crackled again.

“bbbzzz, crackle, crack.... Tau!”

Another ranger said that two young lions had been spotted ambling along, very near the electric fences that we’d been going past. About 6 km ago! Ai yi! Dylan turned the Land Rover around (these guys can do amazing things with a gear box) and we turned back.

Dylan drove at about 50-60 kph, along these two-rut lanes, avoiding holes and washouts, thorn bushes and low hanging branches, doing quick zigzags and missing rocks and... gosh it was harrowing. (This is the test they DON’T give you when you get your British driving licence/license! Thank goodness. Though driving around Aldershot is daunting in its own way.) My insides were beginning to feel completely scrambled and I think my kidneys and some other internal organs had swapped places.

And then, we slowed to a stop, and Dylan went completely off road, creeping along through the bush (IN the Land Rover, of course). He was driving very slowly now, approaching the place where the lions were resting. Two other land rovers were parked there; now we saw them. Dylan inched forward, avoiding tree stumps, simply driving over and crushing other thorn bushes flat under the vehicle. And there they were.

Two young male lions, utterly sacked out under a tree, lying in some dry grass.

Wow. Big kitties! They were a lovely smooth, tawny gold, and if you hadn’t known they were there, you would have missed them. They blended in so beautifully, in the sere golden grass. We sat there for a while, looking at them. Dylan told us that they ignore the Land Rovers, even as close as we were (about 15 meters).

BUT... if you get out of the car.... consider your life over.

As we watched, both lions simultaneously lifted their heads... and sniffed. Now they were alert, smelling deeply, sitting in that “cat pounce” position, low to the ground, haunches twitching. “They probably smell an impala or a wildebeest nearby,” said Dylan. “They’re opportunistic hunters, so if something edible runs by, they’ll kill it, even if they’ve just eaten. Because they never know when they’ll be eating again next.”

We all sat there, spellbound, hoping it wasn’t us the lions were smelling. And then, they started to relax, and they relaxed a bit more, and then, whoomph, rolled over and dropped right off back to sleep!

We backed out of our viewing position, and headed back to the lodge for another fantastic breakfast, many hugs and goodbyes, and began our return trip to Jo’burg. But what an experience! We’d seen so many animals, and most of the big ones. We’d leave the water buffalo for next time... the last of the “Big Five”.

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