After working for a couple of years in the bush I was fortunate to visit New York on one of my leave cycles. I had been saving up to buy a new camera and the timing was perfect to upgrade. I threw all my savings into a new rig and it was definitely my pride and joy. I found it difficult to sleep at night if I had not checked on my camera, dusted it from the day’s activities and knew exactly how many steps it would take me to grab it in case of a photo opportunity.
I had been learning to use the camera for all of one solid week when another Mombo manager and I decided to go for a quiet afternoon drive up to Goss’ Floodplain. The Moporota pride (17 individuals at this time) had fortuitously come across a dead giraffe some two days back and were still sleeping and feasting next to the carcass. There were only scraps and sinew left but the smaller members now had their chance to feed whilst the grotesquely overfed adults waited out their digesting period.
By the time we arrived at the sighting there were no other game viewers as the sun was about to set. All the lions, barring the youngest (a few months old) were flat out, breathing heavily in discomfort as their bloated bellies made ample landing pads for the thousands of flies. They rolled every now and then as they mustered enough strength to get rid of the flies, seeking a few seconds of relief before the minute harriers landed again. The calmness of the sighting emboldened me to believe it would be a great idea to attach my new wide-angle lens, use the mini tripod as a stand and attach the Wi-Fi remote, slowly lowering the camera over the side of the car to capture a low level shot of the youngster feasting with the beautiful African sunset as the backdrop (Nothing to do with impressing the lady manager of course!) I believed this was a fool-proof plan as all the lions were fast asleep and they were all too full to move or even look at the camera.
The lowering of the camera was something akin to the first moon landing, gentle yet deliberate and without any hassle. I tapped it twice as if to say – don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you. It was then time to reposition the vehicle so as to enjoy the sunset and the scenery in a place where the smell was not so bad. The other manager at this stage had been breathing into her scarf as the stench of the decaying giraffe started to become too much for her. Whilst I couldn’t see her grimacing mouth, her eyes were telling me I had better hurry up or there would be trouble!
As I reversed carefully and performed what seemed like a 30-point turn, trying to get the right angle as well as not reverse over the felines scattered around the carcass, I glanced forward. I quickly noticed that the youngster was not feasting on the giraffe anymore and that she was standing very square-shouldered, belly drooping to the floor, panting and staring down at my camera, drool bungee jumping towards my pride and joy. My heart sunk. Keep calm I thought, she’s just sniffing curiously and will slump down in the grass soon.
A few seconds passed but it felt like a lifetime. “Move,” I whispered, not wanting to scare the lions with anything louder. I decided to start the car, a familiar sound for them and something that might snap the cub out of its fixation with my camera. Unfortunately, the sound of the engine starting seemed to only spur her curiosity and with a swift movement she plucked my camera from the ground and started walking away with it in the opposite direction. “HEY!” I shouted and drove gingerly forward. The little blighter then thought it funny to start scurrying away with my camera, I accelerated a bit, all the while watching to avoid tails and paws and shouted again, “Drop it!” My heart was beating faster and my brother’s words, to have my camera insured, were ringing in my ears, as I gave chase and the cub ran even faster. She was running from lioness to lioness, proudly showing them her “prize”! They in turn raised sleepy heads, looked at the cub, and you could see them saying with their eyes, “Drop it and he will leave you alone!” But she insisted that it was hers and kept running.
Plenty of options were racing through my head but there was none that involved me exiting the vehicle to chase the only surviving cub of the litter amongst 16 lions! I had no choice but to follow in the vehicle and hope she dropped it. Whilst this all took just a few minutes it once again felt like an eternity. The cub, having run away from all the females, realised it was outside the ring of prone bodies and vulnerable to predators. Fortunately for me she then dropped the camera and trotted back to her mother, having proudly stolen my pride and joy. I raced up to the camera, glanced around to make sure there were no lions nearby, opened my door a few inches and quickly lifted my camera to safety.
As I cradled it in my arms, whispering how sorry I was for leaving it in harm’s way, I gave it a quick once-over. Screen not cracked, lens still attached, buttons all clicked; the only damage seemed to be two superficial scratches, one on the side of the lens and the other on the camera body itself. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat for a minute to catch my breath and let my pulse calm to a safer level. I looked across at my colleague who had a “You idiot” stare in her eyes, and I knew it was time to head home.
Unfortunately, even though the camera did take some pics in the melee, they were all extreme close-ups of grass as the camera was pointing downwards in the little one’s mouth.
The lioness is still alive at the time of writing and was the only survivor of a litter of four. She struck up an amazing relationship with one of her brothers, a male born two years prior who also had a penchant for the curious, having been spotted removing one of the fire extinguishers near camp.
Written by Graham Simmonds