Stalking Cats and Injured Lions

We found her in the tall grasses, moaning and crying out to her pride. She was injured and alone after the previous night’s hunt. She called again, but we heard no response. She endured our stares and the clicks of our cameras before slowly rising and moving to another place in the grass. We could see the gash on her left hind leg from the cape buffalo’s horn and noted how often she licked her lips.

We visited her twice that day, sad to see she hadn’t moved, wondering if she’d make it. Our ranger told us she was 14 years old and near the end of her life span (African lions live 13 to 25 years). That night we heard her cries answered by others, and when we encountered the lions on a game drive the next morning, there she was, moving slowly, but walking, following the other lions in her pride, her children (two female lions) and grandchildren (eight male cubs).

In the back of the open land rover, I watched the stalking cats and trotting cubs, obviously on the prowl, a herd of cape buffalo nearby. We drove quickly through the bush, trying to stay ahead of the lions, through acacia thorns and branches, and straight down a steep bank full of sticks, bushes, briars, thorns, and trees to the dry river bed. As we reached the sandy bottom, holding on tight as we twisted and turned, leaning the opposite way, we got stuck. Our wheels spun as we saw the lions chasing a buffalo and heard the kill. We sat tight in the vehicle, not daring to get out of the truck with lions so nearby.

After being pulled out of the sand by another land rover, we caught up to the cubs and their grandmother and photographed them hanging out, waiting for a signal from the two lionesses who’d made the kill. A few hundred feet away, we found the hunters at the beginning of their meal. We parked and sat still, except for the movement of our cameras, watching as the lions and later the cubs, tore open the belly of a young cape buffalo only a few feet away. We listened to the sounds of their teeth chewing through the hide and smelled the fermenting contents of the victim’s stomach. The lions ignored us, used to the dark green trucks and the silhouette of the people inside.

“Uh-oh,” one of the women in our vehicle said as the grandmother lion began walking straight toward us. But Moses, our ranger, wasn’t worried. “She’s just looking for shade,” he said. And, sure enough, she lay down in the shade our truck provided, only inches from the truck and the people in it.

We left her and the others, still enjoying their meal, and headed back to the water hole near the lodge reaching it just before a large herd of cape buffalo arrived and wallowed in the water, looking for a drink.

Videos on this post by Tommy Taft on trip taken in August 2011.

Sleeping in a Tree House

It was dark, so dark that we couldn’t see anything beyond the truck’s headlights, only the faint outlines of the dam and Umlani’s tree house, our home for the night.

The moon had not yet risen, and the stars were not yet bright. Hendrick stopped the truck and scoped out the area first before he would let us out. He climbed up the tree house ladder and shone his big flashlight around the tree and the platform. When all was clear, he warned us, “Don’t leave the tree house. If you do, and a lion or a leopard is nearby, something bad could happen.” Hendrick’s tone was serious; he did not smile or joke. Equipping us with a radio and spot lamp, he waited while we climbed up the steep ladder; the girls to the first floor, boys to the second. Then he left, and the night was silent.

I sat on the wooden platform and listened and strained to see as my son pointed the spot light around the dam. Nothing but a flash of white. A bird on the water’s edge. I was scared of what I could not see or hear. Only hours earlier, in daylight and with a guide, we’d seen elephants at this very dam and lions not too far away. And rhinos, too, and cape buffalo and hyena. At least a half a mile from the lodge, we were out in the bush, in the Timbavati National Reserve in South Africa.

The moon rose, and we listened to the lions calling to each other across the bush, interrupted only by birds. I peered intently but could only see trees and bushes shadowed against the sky and the land. After an hour or so of watching and listening to the night’s blackness, we settled down to sleep on mattresses with sheets and comforters and pillows all enclosed in white mosquito netting. Or rather everyone else slept and slept well. I awoke at 1:30 a.m. and listened and peered through the tree house boards at the sky. I crawled out from under the netting and sat on the wooden floor but only for a moment, before I crept back to the false security of my enclosed bed.

Two hours later I awoke again, this time determined not to miss a sound or a sight. Wrapping myself in a blanket, I sat outside my bed and watched and listened. Not seeing anything and hearing only the piercing calls of the birds, I wished then that our guide was with us, to identify the sounds of the night. I listened and reveled in the experience, my eyes wide open.

When I woke my sleeping family just before sunrise, my daughter said in surprise, “We made it!” The four of us watched the bush reappear in the rising sun’s light, eventually hearing the sounds of the truck coming to pick us up.

Moses, our ranger called up to us, “Hurry, the lions are nearby.” We grabbed our things and scurried down the ladder, eager to begin another safari.

Trip taken in August  2011.

Lions at Night

Back from another game drive, I warmed my hands on a mug of tea. Others were drinking wine; the kids, hot chocolate. We sat around a fire in a boma or enclosure, waiting for dinner to be served at the game lodge.

Conversation was interrupted as the land rovers returned. The lions were on the hunt. Would we mind being late for dinner? Adrenaline rushing, I left my drink behind, ran to the trucks and hopped on the one in front. I covered my lap with a wool blanket as others clambered aboard with me. As we drove away, I saw the rest of my family in the truck behind.

The drive was fast and brief, the lions were near the rangers’ camp. We stopped short, and as our driver, Ginger, shone the spotlight around the bush, we saw only the hunt’s aftermath, a hyena hanging out; a lion licking its paws, bloody from the cape buffalo who got away; a few cubs playfully running in the dark.

Our hearts pounding, we returned to the lodge, wishing for more, but happy with the thrill. As I jumped off the truck and began walking into the boma, I was stopped. Rhinos were spotted in camp while we were gone. I needed a chaperone and a flashlight.

Escorted to our hut, we grabbed what we needed then headed back for dinner, hearing the sounds of hyenas on our way. Exhilarated, we sat on benches around big tables, sharing food and wine with guests from Australia and London and locals who work at the lodge. Laughter and stories were easy that night, and we slept well, ready for another day of adventure on safari.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft on trip taken in August 2011.

Rhinos in South Africa

Our first guided game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa was one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, white-knuckle adventures I’ve been on. More exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, our ranger took us off road and into the bush. We drove over and through thorn covered acacia trees, ducking our heads or leaning to one side to avoid being scratched. We held on to the bar in front of us as we were bumped and jostled. We were hunting rhinos, one of the “big five,” the most sought after animals of Africa.

When the ranger asked us if we wanted to track the rhinos on foot, I said, “Yes!”  We walked then drove again, spotting the rhinos and driving crazily to catch them from the front instead of from behind. Then back in the land rover, driving quickly, turning sharply, ducking and searching, the adults skittish with one of their babies nearby.

The ranger stopped the truck, and we watched; no talking, just listening and taking photos of their broad dark grey backsides with an occasional profile, amazed by the proximity of these prehistoric animals.

“Did you kill any rhinos?” My friend back in the U.S. asked me, a twinkle in his eye. “No,” I replied. “But we shot a lot, and we have the photos to prove it.”

To learn about the current status of rhinos in South Africa, read the article “Rhino Wars” in the March 2012 issue of “National Geographic” or listen to an interview with the author, Peter Gwin here.  To read about or listen to Namibia’s approach to saving wildlife and communal conservancies, click here.

Trip taken in August 2011.


Elephants! Big and grey with small eyes and long eyelashes, wrinkled skin and large ears, trunks swaying, they drank the water and ate the bushes, the young ones playing with each other, the even younger ones nursing or following their moms.

We were on a game drive, searching for the Big Five. We’d found one.

I sat still, my eyes big, watching these powerful animals lumber toward us, grazing the side of our game vehicle, unthreatened, unthreatening, except for the mock charge by one of the young elephants who seemed to scare only himself.