Wild magazine editor Romi Boom was treated to bumper lion sightings when she visited the Kruger National Park in August. In one day she saw no fewer than 20 of the big cats.
Mid-afternoon on 11 August, within 10 minutes of entering Malelane Gate en route to Berg-en-Dal rest camp, we were greeted by a traffic jam. “Must be lions,” we joked, as we inched closer to the vehicles stopped all around.
On a previous visit, we had come across a pack of wild dogs just minutes after entering the park at the Phalaborwa Gate, so we knew the golden rule: be prepared for the unexpected and have your camera ready as soon as you pass the security boom.
Lo and behold, five lions were taking a siesta slightly back from the roadside. Photo opportunity zero. Even so, our hearts sang with joy. We were in Kruger, and the fatigue from our long drive vanished like morning mist.
The following day, soon after we set out on our afternoon game drive on the park’s oldest concession, Jock Safari Lodge in Kruger’s game-rich south, we found six lions at ease alongside the track leading to Fitzpatrick’s. This child-friendly, private camp accommodates six guests only. The family from France who accompanied us on the game viewer had seen lions on all of their game drives. Predictably the conversation turned to the movie The Lion King and soon the kids were excited to spot Simba’s minder, Zazu the hornbill, and his friend, Pumbaa the warthog.
Meanwhile guide Estiaan Houy had plans of his own. After skillful manoeuvering of the Land Cruiser in dense thicket, he located the pride he was hoping to find: 14 lions, including cubs of various sizes. Flat as pancakes, most of them, although an occasional yawn, rollover and stretch indicated they were indeed alive and well.
At the scene of a kill
The Biyamiti River serpentines through the concession and passes right in front of the lodge. It was in the dry river course that our next lion encounter took place the following afternoon, and what an extraordinary sighting it turned out to be. Guide David van Zyl tracked lion spoor until he found four males, their magnificent manes stained with crimson blood. They were a coalition, David explained, three of them brothers. Upon closer inspection, the scene proved macabre: they were feeding, in turn, on a rhino carcass.
Jock Environmental Monitoring Unit (JEMU) is a vital resource in the struggle against the ongoing onslaught on rhino in Kruger. A small, non-combative monitoring unit, it provides SANParks’ section rangers with accurate, current information on suspicious activity in the region and on environmental incidents such as animals injured or killed and even veld fires.
Without further ado the feeding lions had to be chased away so that Estiaan, JEMU team leader, could ascertain whether a crime had been committed. We were holding our breaths as he lifted the carcass and saw the horn intact. A collective sigh of relief, despite poignant emotions, as he concluded that the bull had been killed in a territorial fight. The police would have to be notified straightaway, nonetheless, and the horn removed for documentation and safekeeping.
Setting new records
The morning of 14 August proved no less sensational. At 6:22 on the H3 main road, we found a pride of 12 lions with cubs and sub-adults sleeping snugly on the tarmac. Nobody at the sighting, and with dawn breaking, we cherished having it all to ourselves. What a way to start the day! Half an hour later, at 6:59, still on the H3 main road, eight lions were strolling amongst the vehicles of a few early risers. Our tally for the first three days in the park now stood at an incredible 49, a new record for us.
Following further off-road adventures on the Mafunyane 4×4 Adventure Trail, and a few days in the north of the park at Pafuri Camp, we made our way back to the southern part of Kruger. North of Letaba the cats found us again, once more on the tar road: two lions which we nearly missed by scanning the distance while the big cats were reclining just off the verge (one vehicle at the sighting), and seven lions in the distance in the dry riverbed on the H1-6 (a crowded scene). We would not have seen them if a lioness did not attempt a half-hearted stalk before returning to the pride to flop down alongside her companions.
The final tally came to 58 lions in 8 different sightings in 11 days.
Three takeaway lessons for lion sightings
Trust me, it’s really easy to look right past a pride of lazy lions, perfectly camouflaged as their tawny pelts melt into the caramel-coloured grass. To improve your chances:
- Drive slowly;
- Get out on the road at first light;
- Do not shun the tar roads. Benefit from other eyes to help you find the prize sightings.