Posted in Africa, Lions, Uncategorized

Lions, Part Two

Before I fell in love with elephants, I went to Africa to see lions.  Fed by documentaries and National Geographic, I wanted the excitement of watching lions hunting.  I wanted tooth and claw and blood.  I wanted my skin to crawl.

So in 1999, near Kruger National Park, I spent a morning following the paw prints of Panthera leo krugeri, afoot in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve – the name derived from a Tsonga word that means “Danger! Danger!”

Six would-be trackers and two rangers named Syd and Bernardo clumped together and stared at a set of padded marks in the sand.  “Which way?”  Syd asked.  We pointed variously in the same general direction.  “Okay, ready?”

We scuffed our feet.  We’re sort of ready.  Syd hefted the rifle from its rack on the dash of our Land Rover and my eyes followed this motion.  I nodded to myself; the clenched spot in my chest relaxed a little.  The lions of Kruger actively hunt humans.  So far, a bullet into the ground at their feet has proven to be an effective deterrent.

Syd told us it was three years ago that he last fired at a lion.  “You cannot believe the paperwork!  Every bullet has to be accounted for.”

We followed the tracks into the bush.  Bernardo took up the rear.

“I am here to stop you from running,” he said with a small smile.

Eight people marching in a line and stepping on each other’s heels are not easily identifiable as prey to a lion.  But if I ran away from our group, I would trigger an instant hunting response:  Look!  Breakfast!  And it’s fat and slow!

I stepped literally in the lions’ tracks.  They’re about three-fourths the length of my boots.  And so fresh I could see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads.  I took a deep breath and tried to slow my pounding heart.

Slowly we made our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, early-warning radar for lions.

Syd picked up a handful of sand and let it fall through his fingers.  A fluttering wind blew from the right direction, into our faces.  If warned by our smell, the lions could decide to swing around behind and follow us.  Bernardo kept glancing backwards, as do I, the last one but for him in our column.  Even though it’s fall and many of the scrub thorns had lost their leaves, we couldn’t see very far behind or ahead.  Syd and Bernardo occasionally conferred back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan.  I probably didn’t want to know what they were saying.

Just beyond several deep gullies, the lions’ footprints disappeared into a thicket.  Syd stopped and listened intently, then swept his arm to the right.  We bypassed the thicket, perfect for ambush, and checked for lion prints on the other side.

In an open, grassy area beyond, our line bumped to a halt.

“See them?”  Syd asked.Image

As if on cue, two heads popped up.  The back of my brain started freezing.  Apparently I had stopped breathing a long time ago.  RUUNNNN! my brain yelled to my legs, but they were so far away they couldn’t make out what all the shouting was about.

The lionesses were under trees on the far side of the field.  They were lying down, but our invasion made them curious.  They stared at us, open-mouthed.

The whir of a camera reminded me that mine was dangling around my neck.  Through its telephoto the lions looked less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.

Then, off to the right, another lion roared.  Syd’s eyes widened in surprise.  A low “Tsssssss,” escaped between his teeth.  There were more lions here than we saw tracks for.  Everyone’s head, including those of the lionesses, swiveled in the direction of the roar.  Even my hair follicles were listening.

Almost simultaneously, a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounced into view near the lionesses and stopped.  The woman driver surveyed the two with her binoculars and wrote something in a notebook.  Bored with it all, the lions laid back down.

Momentarily distracted from the fact that there were lions to the left and lions to the right, we asked Syd, “Who’s that?”  Against all training, we’ve condensed into a tight ball around him.  Even Bernardo moved up.

Syd still stared in the direction of the roar.  “The ecologist,” he said, “she works in the reserve.”

The bakkie left the lions and rattled over the rough ground to us.

“Morning,” the ecologist nodded to each one of us in slow motion.  I wondered to myself if the lion that roared was moving in our direction.

She looked at Syd.  “There’s a male about a quarter mile up the road.  Be careful where you walk.”

“Is it?” he said, “thanks.”  Their exchange was so matter-of-fact it sounded as if they were discussing potholes.

“Right then,” she said and the bakkie joggled off.  Not even an offer of a lift.

Bernardo and Syd had a short conversation in Shangaan.  Then Syd said, “We go back the same as we came.  Bernardo goes to get the Rover.”

Bernardo led and Syd provided the rearguard.  As soon as we expanded into a column, the lionesses’ heads popped up and followed our exit.

We moved as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw.  As soon as we are out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trotted off, and I was now in the lead, careful to back-track our own footprints.

Soon we were in the Rover headed back to the clearing.  The male hadn’t roared again.  One of the lionesses opened her eye as we drove up, then shut it and flattened her ears.  We were an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.

Syd told us that these sisters were the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory.  Another pride recently moved in and killed all their relatives.  That was the reason they didn’t answer the male lion.  We were lucky; if they had answered, he would have come running.

One of the sisters had a wound on her shoulder and hadn’t eaten while healing.  Her ribs were showing.

“They do not bring food to each other,” Syd said.  “She has to be well enough to hunt.”

We watched the sisters nap.  We’ve evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we’re caged in a vehicle.

“Will they make it?” one of us asked.

“Do you feel sorry for them?” someone else added.

“Yes,” Syd said, “But that is just my feeling.  If they move to another territory, they will be okay.”

The lionesses napped side-by-side.  Without opening her eyes the healthy one raised a front paw and draped it over her sister’s neck.The Sisters b&w

No tooth, no claw, no blood.  Funny, how, even in Africa, you always get something different than what you expect.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

68 thoughts on “Lions, Part Two

  1. Very good blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but
    I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose
    starting with a free platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..

    Any suggestions? Many thanks!

    1. As you can see, I use the free WordPress. But I’m not selling or promoting. I’d suggest doing a year of blogging on a free site and see how it goes. Took a year and a half for my blog to get recognized and followed. In the meantime, you could do research on which way to go. One hint: you only have to blog once a week – more than that can be annoying to followers. Good Luck!

  2. I have a friend who works in Kruger she lives in a tent there and often tells me stories of how the roar of a loin woke her up or something like that. I loved reading this. Being a South African it bring a smile to know not all media about Africa is negative 🙂

    1. Your friend is very lucky to have such a great job! Hope you have a chance to visit her often! I really loved the Kruger area and hope to someday return to South Africa.

      1. I am aiming to go and visit her soon. She is leaving the Kruger soon so I should spark. Hope you can come visit us again soon 🙂

  3. Beautiful experience. I had a similar one. If you are interested, have a squiz at my post – Welcome to the world 🙂 Unique experiences we have had.

  4. Hello Cheryl, I really enjoyed reading your blog. Most inspiring, certainly made me think where my heart is. Do please view my posts or join me on facebook.Thank you.
    Best wishes Shaza Grainger.

    1. Hi Shaza – Are you a travel agent? I notice most of your blog posts are about trips. The elephants I visit are very near Abu’s Camp – they’re at Stanley’s. Yes, Africa is where my heart is, too. Check out “Lions, Part One” on my blog for a lion adventure at Stanley’s. Cheers and thanks for stopping by.

      1. Helly Cheryl,

        Lovely to meet you and I love your blogs.

        Yes I am a travel agent and prefer to be referred to as; specialists in Destination Management for our guests.
        Amongst our exciting property portfolio we represent Abu Camp.
        There 18 countries in Africa we represent only the most recommended destinations to visit for a safari journey.
        I am also associated in business with Dereck Joubert who filmed the Last Lions.

        When you have a few spare minutes please check out our website and we are on facebook. You may be very surprised who might find!

        All the very best and once again so great to meet you.


  5. adorable! We saw a couple lions at Camp Halali in Etosha NP this year. They just came out to drink some water though.. The last picture is my favorite! 🙂 So cute!

    1. Thanks, Suze. I’ve been to Etosha, also. A beautiful place! Did you check out, “Lions, Part One” on my blog? It’s from a long section in the book I’m writing.

  6. Loved the post- felt like I was there. Your writing got me to think about (feel about?) what I would have done. I confess I was drawn to the title mostly because of a huge kerfuffle today here in Tampa. *Disturbing Content Alert!* A taco stand was selling lion tacos. That’s right: Tampa, Florida… real lion meat. Everybody freaked out and it made all the local news reports; the owner said he didn’t understand the fuss, but wouldn’t do it anymore since people got so upset. (It’s OK if you delete my comment as inappropriate or off topic… or sad or just gross.)

    1. Thanks for your message, Tampa. Unfortunately the bush meat trade extends from lions to chimps to elephants, but I’ve never heard of lion meat sold in the U.S. People never cease to amaze me. Check out my latest post, “That’s Life,” for another perspective on what this country has lost . . .

  7. Nice story of a fantastic experience! Hopefully I can experience something similar at some point in my life. Congrats on the FP.

  8. What a wonderful and engaging write. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! You are certainly deserving of the honor, and we, the readers, are all the richer for being introduced to you! I look forward to reading more of your blog. Again..wonderful and congrats! ~Dennis

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Brain! Check out Lions, Part One for more adventure. (Do you really rent out your Brain? Than again, I suppose we all do, at one time or another.)

      1. I am a freelance marketing/media/promotion consultant, so my brain gets rented out fairly regularly. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed

  9. You are very lucky to have seen them close by and felt the adrenalin rush. The sister draping her hand over the wounded one is touching and the pic is nothing less than awesome…

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Sanscera. Yes, I was very lucky. There are moments in life that simply take my breath away. And there are other moments when I can’t believe I did what I just did. Check out Lions, Part One for the scariest moment I’ve had with lions.

  10. What a fantastic way to tell that story! I visited Kruger a couple of years ago and loved it, can’t wait to save the $ and go back!

    1. Yes, I am. I’ve had some amazing adventures in Africa. Check around in my blog – it’s mostly excerpts from those adventures. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. I definitely shall. I only get to see lions in the zoo here in Singapore. The closest I’ve been to a wild animal was a wild deer in India some years ago. It was a surreal experience for me because I could actually smell it from even a few feet away. You just don’t get an experience like that living in the city. Thanks for letting me live your adventure through your words.

      2. You are very welcome. And perceptive. None of the pictures you see or words you read help you smell the experience. A lion smells dusty and warm and, if you are close enough, and the lion has recently eaten, exactly like warm blood.

  11. You are much more game than I would be, I don’t think I would leave the vehicle. The last photo is precious : )

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for taking a look at my blog! I was taking a three-day game ranger training course to learn game tracks & plants. I got to drive a 12-assigner Land Rover & parallel park next to an elephant. The really great part about it was our teachers – they kept us out of trouble. As Syd said, “otherwise the paperwork was too much!”

  12. This story/recount is simply awesome. I’m was on the edge of my seat…well bed but still!!!!

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