Year in the Wild Blog

Kruger National park – Lion encounter on foot!

There’s something about walking up to a snoozing lion that clears the cobwebs from your brain.

We were on a morning walk at Lower Sabie rest camp, with armed field guides Irving Knight and Promise Silinda. The guided morning walks are a great way to start your day while staying in Kruger.

At 5:30am, we had driven from the camp to an area where Irving thought there may be lots of wildlife. Well, the first two hours we saw very little, besides some wildebeest. So we stopped for a snack on top of a koppie, and simply sat and took in the view. In the distance, we saw three bull elephants feeding.

Then to the left, Irving spotted through his binoculars a massive black-maned lion ambling through the woodland. “Great!” Irving said, as if he’d won the jackpot. “Let’s head towards the ellies, and see if we can find that lion.”

For those who have never been in the bushveld before, or walked in it, this might seem like a crazy thing to do: walk on foot, TOWARDS a very large lion which could probably pull down an adult buffalo or even a giraffe. But the trails guides in Kruger are some of the best in the country, and take great pride in what they do. The enthusiasm for their craft, and their experience, is plain to see, and at no time does one feel unduly nervous. Sure, your internal adrenaline switch is ready to be flipped, and your senses are certainly heightened, but you do feel safe in their presence.

Irving and Promise were no different. They were calm and cool, but still excited. As we set off, walking TOWARDS the very large lion, which was about five hundred metres away, Irving became more and more animated in his instructions and interpretation of the unfolding scene.

“We have to stay very close together, and walk in a single line,” Irving explained, “and step as softly and lightly as you can. Put your feet where I put mine. Imitate a leopard or lion which is stalking its prey…watch how they crouch low, and place their feet very gently on the ground. We have to do the same now. If we do, we can get REALLY close to the lion.”

The goal, as Irving explained, his eyes intensely focused on the bush around us, “is to get within almost touching distance of the animal, and leave again, without it knowing we are there.”

That’s the goal, but it’s easier said than done. Try walking through the African bush without making a noise. It’s almost impossible, with twigs and grass underfoot, and plenty of whistle-blowers like oxpeckers, francolin and baboons sounding the alarm of our presence to the rest of the animal kingdom.

We first came across the bull elephants, who heard us, but fortunately couldn’t smell us, as the wind was in our favour. They moved off a little. “They probably heard us walking,” Irving explained, “but because there’s a bit of wind rustling the branches and leaves, they’re not sure exactly. That’s good for us with the lion…we can walk close to him, and he may not hear us.”

We walked for several hundred metres, but couldn’t see any lion…and were about to turn around and go back to the vehicle, when Irving dropped to his knees. “Get down, get down!” he instructed under his breath. “The lion…it’s just over there!”

The lion was snoozing in the shade of an acacia tree…and the mane of his silhouette was clear to see. “Now, we have to really be quiet, and move very slowly,” Irving implored. “Stay close to me…we’re going to walk behind that bush there.” Irving pointed to a shrub just twenty metres from the lion. Ah ha, I thought…this is going to be interesting.

We waited a few minutes, to gather our wits, and by that stage, Mr Lion had laid down completely in the grass, fast asleep. Irving gave the signal, and moved forward slowly, crouching low. We did the same, following him. The wind blew fortuitously, and we made it to the cover of the bush near the lion. SHEW! My heart was beating like a hammer on an anvil…one’s senses are sharper than they’ll ever be…especially your eyes and ears.

But then it occurred to us, what do we do now? The lion was fast asleep, we were hiding behind the bush, and all was fine…”Right, let’s all stand up slowly,” Irving instructed, his rifle cocked and ready to fire “and let’s get a better view of him. If he charges, remember, DO NOT run. He can cover 20 metres in a second. He will most probably mock charge, maybe even two or three times, but it’s unlikely he will follow through. Whatever you do, DO NOT run.”

We all stood up slowly, following Irving. But the very large lion kept on snoozing, oblivious of our presence. I took a few photos of the snoozing lion, but as Irving whispered, it doesn’t make for a very good photo. We looked at each other, and realised the ridiculousness of the situation…here we were, all prepared for a charging, angry lion, yet we had approached him so carefully and quietly, that we couldn’t get a peep out of him now.

After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only a few seconds, Irving imitated the distant call of a lion roaring…”woooaaa”…”woooaaa”…and immediately, our snoozing, very large lion popped his head up, wondering what on earth was going on. He looked at us, his one eye blind, his mane huge as anything, a bloody scar on his face from a recent tussle…and I thought, “He’s one mean-looking, animal-eating machine.”

I took a few photos, and the stare-down continued, as he looked at us sleepily for several seconds. Then he must have realised that he had been made a fool of, and trotted off away from us, perhaps slightly embarrassed. No charge, no aggression…the relief among the group was palpable.

We walked over to where the lion was sleeping. “How special was that!” Irving smiled. “Here was a male lion sleeping, right here…where we’re standing now…and he could have easily charged us, but didn’t…”

Kruger’s lions were once hunted intensively in the early 1900s, in the mistaken belief that it would help restore antelope and ungulate numbers which themselves had been hunted to low levels. Today of course, Kruger conserves several hundred lions, and it is one of the best places in Africa to see lions in their natural environment. To get up close to them on foot, like we did, is an experience of a lifetime, and one that is not easily forgotten.

My time at Lower Sabie had been incredible…I had seen several leopards, lions, cheetah, ellies, buffalo, hippos…and all the usual antelope. It’s a superb place to see these animals, and although it’s a bit touristy, I’d say it’s worth it. From there, I headed north to Satara, and saw yet another leopard on the way! (No leopards for 30 years, and now I’ve seen four in a week!) Satara is a beautiful camp in the middle of a large section of woodland and savannah, and is also known for its predators…and once again, its reputation proved correct. More to come tomorrow…

The snoozing lion...just twenty metres from us on our walk. What do we do now?

He popped his head up, and ahem, yes, there are a few seconds when you wonder what the hell is going to happen now.

Field guides Promise Silinda and Irving Knight from Lower Sabie...thanks guys for an amazing walk.

Spotted this lioness with four cubs on my way to Satara from Lower Sabie

Bataleur eagle...

No doubt we're in Africa!

The view from Nkumbe viewpoint between Lower Sabie and Satara

Skeleton of dead leadwood tree. It can live for longer than 1000 years, and stand for as long once it has died. The wood is denser than steel and will sink if placed in water.

Ellie washing

Kruger's scenery always surprises me with its diversity and beauty...especially the river beds, which are lined with huge jackalberry, apple-leaf, sycamore fig and mahogany trees

At Tshokwane picnic site...

Funny to look at, but very unfunny to bump into on a walk

This male leopard came out from the river bed to inspect me...

Look at how strong his neck is...a leopard can carry a prey several times its own weight up into a tree for safekeeping.

Pan with waterbuck

Sunset near Satara

No caption needed

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