The fascination lies in the unpredictability of a game drive. You have no control over what you’ll see. If you’re wise, you’ll set out without expectation and accept whatever the wilderness delivers. If you presume to order an animal off the safari menu, such as a lion, then you’re doomed to disappointment. But there are exceptions.
We’re in an open-sided vehicle with a wrap-around panorama that extends all the way to the blue-grey shoulder of the Oloololo Escarpment. We’re driving through one of the dozen or so conservancies that border the famous Masai Mara National Reserve. Here, where the rolling plains are known as the Maasai steppe, the land still belongs to their ancient guardians, the Maasai, and a 360-degree scan reveals not a single other vehicle in sight. And herein lies the magic, because where the conservancies score over the national parks is by being able to control the number of vehicles allowed on to their land. And this delivers two great advantages – firstly the wildlife itself is less harassed and therefore more relaxed, and secondly, we have it to ourselves.
It’s our third game drive and we’ve already ticked some of the ‘big five’ boxes. But the lion is proving elusive. No matter: there are other sights to see. ‘Hippos!’ says the driver suddenly. He points to the river, which has been snaking alongside us for the past few minutes. Its banks, steep and muddy, are hard to see over. So we draw up close. The water is chocolate brown and flecked with creamy foam. There are whirling eddies in the water, but no sign of hippos. Until, that is, you look more closely. Then you see the round raspberry-pink ears. As we watch, an enormous head emerges from the water and splits open into a pink-lined yawn set with huge, ivory-yellow teeth. Following their leader, the rest of the hippos rise from the water to survey us. Amazingly, the river has concealed around twenty of the huge beasts. One has a coronet of weeds on its head.
Letting in the clutch, the driver eases the heavy safari vehicle back on to the track, which winds it way back on to the savannah. The light is fading now and the activity on the plains is picking up pace. There are great herds of wildebeest that cavort and skitter as we pass. Zebras stand tail to nose and stamp their feet. Plum-coloured topi perch atop termite mounds and survey their territory. Antelope flick their striped tales and emit their warning ‘zick zick’ as we pass. And a pair of ostriches are having a flouncing mud-bath. We’re traversing a small valley. A couple of old buffalo bulls, their great bossed-horns lowered, are meandering through the low, shrub. We halt for a photograph.
And then we see it. »
Something very large and golden is lying in the bottom of the little glade. It’s very still. So still that someone suggests it’s dead. The driver laughs. ‘Better not investigate,’ he says, ‘you’ll regret it.’
The lion is lying on his back, his great paws clutched around his snout and his head pillowed on a clump of bush. He’s fast asleep with his back legs splayed and his creamy-white underbelly exposed. He seems beguilingly defenceless: a huge, almost tickle-able kitten. The tip of a pink tongue protrudes from his muzzle. ‘The pride must be near,’ says the driver. ‘He is digesting. But the lionesses and cubs may still be eating.’ These driver-guides know their wilderness. And they know their lions.
We don’t have far to go: a few hundred meters away, on a stretch of khaki-coloured ground above the river, there are two lionesses. One is suckling her three cubs. The other is sleeping: or trying to. A pair of older cubs scramble over her ribcage. They’re mock fighting, batting each other with tiny paws and snarling to show miniature teeth. The lioness raises an idle paw to swat them away and they roll away fused into a furry ball of paws, claws and tails. In the foreground is the half-devoured carcass of a zebra. Its ribs, chewed clean, are stark white and its yellow teeth are bared. Lionesses and cubs alike ignore us. ‘Can you see the other lion?’ the driver asks casually. The other lion?
You’d think a lion would be hard to miss, but such is the camouflage of pale yellow fur against dense thickets of long dry grass, that it takes a while to locate him. It’s only the motion of his mane moving slightly in the breeze that reveals his position. And it appears we have disturbed him. Languidly, he rises to his feet, yawns, swings his dark-brown tasseled tail to and fro and emerges from the thicket. Fully revealed, he’s twice the size of the lionesses. And he’s walking very deliberately in our direction.
There’s a communal intake of breath. The vehicle is open-sided. Now the lion is a couple of meters away: less. There’s a swagger and swing to his walk. But we’re too awed to reach for our cameras and record it. For a split second he looks our way. The amber stare is chilling. Then he changes direction, pads away into the long grass, and disappears from view. But he has made his point.
It’s not until you see a lion in the wild that you appreciate its sheer, glorious majesty. And it’s not until you engage that imperious yellow gaze that the ancient race memories resurface. And then the fear kicks in. And it kicks in HARD.