Often times the excitement of the search is just as thrilling as spending time with wildlife on an African safari. Experience what it’s like to search for and see lions in the wild in this first-hand account from Nat Hab traveler Debra Eliezer.
Morning in the Bush
At 5:30 a.m., I pull together the last of my multiple layers of clothing and follow our guide, Kane, along the path from the tent to the waiting Land Rover. It’s the last day of our safari to Botswana, and we’ve decided to get all we can out of it by departing before the sun rises on an anticipated fourteen-hour excursion into the bush. Until the sun appears, it stays remarkably cold, and I shiver as we walk on the footpath. Other than the occasional grunts from the hippos that seem to permanently stay encamped in the river just outside my tent, there is little to break the silence of the early morning.
There are six of us traveling together on this Botswana adventure, and everyone has managed to get up on time. We’re all eager. The Land Rover moves quietly along the sandy paths that serve as highways in this part of the bush.
Kane sweeps the surroundings with a spotlight, looking for incandescent eyes in the darkness as we huddle under the warmth of wool ponchos. It’s not long before we discover a genet in the upper reaches of a nearby tree. But this morning, we’re searching for lions and continue on with only a brief stop to watch this small cat.
The Quest for Lions
In these past several days in Botswana, we have seen some amazing wildlife species, but not until yesterday did we finally spot our first lion. We had had a couple of near-sightings; but usually after hours of searching, we turned up empty. Initially, the group was pretty sanguine about it as there was still plenty of time in our trip. But as the days passed, we were all getting a little more anxious. When I embarked on this expedition, I had been excited just with the opportunity to travel to Botswana and had no real “must-see” animals on my mental list, but even I had to admit that it would be disappointing to go home without seeing at least one lion. Then yesterday afternoon as we traveled several hours overland from the airstrip to our camp, we finally came upon three male lions lounging under a tree in the late afternoon sun.
“Came upon” makes the sighting sound effortless—it was anything but. In reality, we had pushed even our trusty Land Rover to the test by attempting to drive through a very dense patch of small trees. This went on for at least a couple of hours with much backtracking, getting stuck, and driving around in circles searching for a clearer path. Kane was so intent on the pursuit that we kept silent and concentrated on hanging on to the handrails of the vehicle as we hurled through various forms of vegetation, trying to duck fast enough to avoid getting swiped by a stray branch. Just as we returned to the main trail, when we thought we had to once again abandon the quest, Kane drove back into the bush in a section north of where we had just been trying to break through, and right there waiting for us were lions.
The Border Brothers
Seeing lions in the wild stands out as a singular, heart-thumping experience. The thought of being so close to animals so powerful is truly awe-inspiring and makes your blood race. The lions we encountered, a threesome known as the “Border Brothers” due to their propensity to wander back and forth across the Botswana/Namibia border, were draped across one another as they languidly tried to wake themselves from a day at rest in the shade of a tree. After several minutes of lying quietly, all three abruptly jumped to their feet, and I nearly dropped my camera in terror. They had sensed something, although there was nothing obviously edible wandering nearby. We drove off in search of what had startled the lions and found a herd of giraffes only a short distance away.
Despite their towering height and the relatively low landscape, we had not seen the giraffes from where we sat, but clearly the lions knew they were there. Kane told us that the lions appeared to have eaten not too long ago and would probably not hunt anything that didn’t literally stumble across their path. But the giraffes were taking no chances. They gradually began breaking away in small groups for safer ground. We positioned ourselves between the lions and the giraffes and watched, fascinated, as both silently acknowledged the others’ presence, as though deliberating on how to best act on their instincts. It was a fascinating exchange, and one we desperately tried to record through multiple camera shots of the quizzical-but-highly-attentive giraffes staring off into the bush and the alert-but-not-altogether-interested lions trying to shake off the day’s rest.
More in the Morning
Not content with merely one lion sighting, however, Kane sets a goal on this particular morning to find more. He says that the way to be successful is to start moving early; thus the predawn excursion. The great thing about Kane is that we all know he’s as eager to spot these animals as any newcomer to Botswana. Despite growing up in the bush and leading numerous tours annually, he still gets an adrenaline rush from every lion he sees.
Shortly after the sun rises, it is obvious that Kane has caught sight of lion tracks. It’s a behavior we have now grown accustomed to. Kane suddenly becomes very intent on footprints next to the Land Rover and furtively scans the surrounding area, all the while keeping his eyes on the course he is driving. He doubles back a lot, drives off into the thick bush, and frequently stops to walk alongside the fresh tracks. His quick but careful movements tell us that he thinks we are close to a lion. But he is in his “tracking zone” and verbally communicates nothing to us. By this point in the tour, however, he doesn’t need to. Our anticipation builds simply by watching him. Then we hear it. The sound of a very distinct and not-too-distant roar.
It doesn’t take long before we find the source of the roaring. Two of the Border Brothers are casually walking around a clearing not too far off the main driving path. As before, they ignore our presence and stride around the area with no particular direction. The two are much more active than when we saw them yesterday, but familiarity breeds a small degree of comfort. Collectively, we are much more at ease than we were during our first sighting. We stay for a while observing the brothers before heading off. Kane has heard via the radio from other guides in the area that a whole pride of lions is off in the direction we are heading toward today.
The hours pass quickly as we bounce along the sandy bush roads, and while time is measurable, distance is not as easy to ascertain. About three hours after watching the Border Brothers, we finally stop for breakfast alongside a dry riverbed. Due to the rough terrain, it’s hard to say whether we’ve gone ten miles or thirty; and while it really isn’t important, it’s one way to try to put this vast landscape into perspective. After discussion on this subject with Kane, I am no closer to an answer except to know that we are about halfway to the farthest point of the drive. It seems that all references to distance are with respect to time and where things are in relation to the airstrip or the only other two landmarks in this area, the river and the camp. You can travel for hours here and see no one else or anything discernible from anything else, except for the animals. It’s what makes this place—and this experience—so amazing.
Perhaps we’ve all started taking animal sightings for granted, since none of us are particularly effusive about the fact that at our breakfast stop we find ourselves surrounded by dozens of elephants, zebras, warthogs, and impalas. Or perhaps we’re just feeling unoriginal saying the same words of awe over and over again. But it is a truly spectacular sight, the kind you hope for on a safari. The animals enclosing us occasionally glance in our direction, but mostly they decide that ignoring us is the best course of action.
A Hard and True Nature
It’s by becoming just another part of the landscape that we begin to see the real personalities in the animals: elephants throwing dirt on their backs for protection from insect bites and sunburn, warthogs scurrying around looking for food, and zebras resting their heads on each other’s necks, creating a dizzying array of black-and-white stripes. We see animals interact with one another and others that are interested in getting a closer look at us, but who are wary at the same time.
We also see injuries, a sad but very real fact of life out here. Off in the distance, there is a baby elephant with a hurt foot that can only drag his leg behind him. Kane speculates that a hyena may have attacked him. While the mother elephant keeps a close watch on her calf, Kane predicts the life expectancy of this little guy is not long. The phrase “survival of the fittest” takes on a hard and true meaning when you’re watching a small, charismatic elephant calf with a damaged limb out in the wild.
The sun is high, and we have long since shed the wool ponchos and layers of fleece in favor of sunscreen and T-shirts. As we set off crisscrossing through the bush, vultures circle overhead. Before long, Kane spots fresh lion prints and reverts to his tracking mode. This is an easy one. No bushes to plow over, no small trees to disengage from the vehicle—just a relatively unencumbered path to a fairly fresh kill.
Underneath a fallen tree lies a gutted-out giraffe. The animal has been cleanly picked over and is just starting to emit an unpleasant odor.
Almost hidden from view, we see the cause of the giraffe’s death. A very robust male lion is so full that he is panting for breath. Nearby we also discover the pride of lions—six of them altogether—completely satiated from their recent meal.
It’s the middle of the day, but the lions are all very much awake, almost as if they are too full to sleep. As with the others, they take little interest in us despite our crashing through bushes and revving the engine as we bump and roll over tree stumps to get closer to them. They may not be hungry any longer or have any interest in us as nourishment, but if nothing else I can’t image why they don’t consider us an annoyance they’d prefer to dispose of for disturbing them while at rest.
Lunch with the Elephants
Any worries about not seeing lions on this trip have been put to rest, and the group seems much more relaxed about any other potential sightings. Anything we see now will be an added bonus. Kane promises us an unforgettable lunch, which seems like it could be a difficult debt to pay given our morning. After considerable time observing the pride, we head off. We still have a couple of hours to get our fill of all Africa is before lunch, and the sun is unrelenting when we’re not in motion.
En route we spot a leopard, which almost appears to be waiting for us atop a fallen tree branch. He even accommodates the more aggressive photographers in the bunch by walking around a bit and striking a few poses at various angles. But the real magic of the day, for me at least, lies in front of us. Despite the numerous elephants we have seen on this safari, nowhere have we seen the sheer volume that we see today. Topping a ridge, we come into full view of about a hundred of the massive beings. As we drive on, more and more elephants materialize. By the time we stop in front of a watering hole, the land is just teeming with them. This surreal place is our lunch spot. As always, Kane is right again and has fulfilled his lofty promise.
Despite being the most common of all the animals we’ve seen, elephants fascinate me. There are elephants here who seem to just enjoy each other’s company, baby elephants who look like they want to find something fun to get into trouble over, and lone elephants that are perhaps nearing the end of their lives and looking for some peace and quiet.
Every elephant is different.
Some seem interested in us, some tolerate us, some completely ignore us, and others try to scare us off by charging. The elephants clearly own this spot and do not tolerate other animals muscling in to get to the watering hole. Little warthogs attempt to scurry between the elephants, but they are quickly rebuffed. Zebras frolic in small groups along the fringes, looking for a break so they can dart down to the water’s edge, but the elephants are on top of things and don’t let down their guard. A sole impala slowly makes his way to the hole and is just about there before being pushed back to the bushes. There is no question that this is elephant territory and there is no sharing.
Evening in the Bush
The setting sun casts a brilliant red glow over the horizon. We were planning to be back to camp hours ago, but it’s nice to be out here to witness this sunset. We haven’t seen a trace of another human being the entire day. We come upon a baobab tree that has transformed itself into a dramatic picture frame for the sun’s scarlet orb. We pull out our cameras to try to capture this truly African image, but inside we all know that it will be impossible to photograph this moment in a way that comes anywhere close to portraying how amazing the scene really is. If nothing else, our mediocre images will at least remind us of how much more powerful it was to actually be here in person.
On the home stretch back to camp it is pitch dark. Kane pulls out a spot-light for a chance to see any nocturnal animals we might meet. Once the sun drops below the horizon, the temperature also drops. We start layering on the clothing that we had hours ago discarded. Suddenly, we come to a complete halt. Out of the hazy dust in front of us, we can make out a cape buffalo; then three, then ten, then dozens and dozens. Our path is soon blocked by an enormous herd of buffalo headed toward the river. Some stop briefly to stare at us, but most accept us without inspection as just another character of the landscape as they continue on the slow march to water.
Finally, hours after we return to camp, the realization that this was our last day in the bush hits us. We end on a high note, however, having seen so much in one day of exploring. But the reality of having to pack to return to civilization is looming large. While it’s impossible to travel without expectations, I generally try to enjoy the overall experience of traveling more than finding any particular animal or one poignant moment. This day of lion-tracking has surely been memorable, but I also fondly recall many relaxing evenings spent by the campfire just watching the African sunset and feeling the day’s weariness ease out of my body.
As impressive as seeing the lions and animals of Botswana on this safari has been, for me half of the thrill of the journey is in the search.