Text and Photographs: Jacques Proust
For the past five days I had the privilege of hosting the world-renowned wildlife photographer, Gerald Hinde. The most enthralling thing about taking out a photographer is that we get to spend the entire day exploring 13 000 hectares of the unspoiled African bush known as MalaMala Game Reserve.
On the eve before our second morning safari we planned what we would do the next day. We sat under a Jackal Berry tree in the main camp boma, absorbing the warmth emanating from the fire situated in the middle. While sipping on full-bodied Merlot under the gaze of the stars, our planning started. With the luxury of having a lioness with cubs (found by Bens Marimane) and also a Wild Dog den site (another story) on the property, it was hard to choose. After a lot of debating, we decided we would head to the southern parts of the property and follow up on reports of tracks of a lioness and her two cubs. An early wake up was in order.
On the morning of our lioness adventure, we woke up at around 05:30 for a 6 o’clock departure. With our packed breakfast of croissants, cheese, ham, and coffee, we set off.
During the middle of winter in the lowveld the mornings get crisp… very crisp. Jackets, gloves, beanies, and buffs were to be our best friends from then on.
After driving for about 45 minutes on the eastern bank of the Sand River, bypassing a few leopards and rhinos, we made it to the last area where lion tracks had been seen the day before.
We went westwards across the watercourse of the Sand River, eyes scanning for fresh tracks or any signs left behind. Once we were across the water, we noticed a lot of tracks to our right. These large pugmarks were heading up the river sand and you could see they were heading to a destination. These pugmarks were surrounded by many smaller tracks. It felt like we were reading a book, it painted a picture of the lioness walking upstream along the river with two cubs in tow with each taking five steps for every step their mother takes. This was an exciting book, one that we couldn’t put down.
We kept following
We followed the tracks through thick sand, sharp river reeds and uneven terrain, trudging along, excitement growing with every meter covered. We were searching and searching, working the area extensively, hoping and losing hope at the same time, but persevered.
And there she was – the lioness from the Charleston Pride with her majestic and angular elongated face, sitting on a raised sand bar next to a thick clump of bushes with the now waking sun kissing her tawny coat. We sat there admiring her, taking a few photographs when the light hit her at the right angle. This went on for a few minutes, and as much as we were enjoying the moment, we still had the question in the back of our minds, “where are the cubs?”
After about a quarter of an hour, the Charleston Lioness unexpectedly stood up, stretched and walked a few meters towards the dark shadowy bush. She lay down in the cool soft river sand, stared into the dense vegetation, lifted her head and made the softest contact call. Our excitement levels were now at an all time high. We knew what was about to happen. Our eyes were focused on the bush, confused as the branches moved gently, as if being tickled by a light breeze on a windless morning.
All of a sudden, out of the darkness came two lion cubs. They ran straight to their mother greeting and jumping all over her. This is what we came for and rewarded we were. They were playing with everything they saw, as if it was the first time they had seen the world. Elephant dung, tree stumps, river reeds, flowers, moms tail, and most of all each other and it was all such fun. At one stage the lioness glanced over towards our vehicle, looked into my eyes and slowly closed and opened her eyes, giving us an accepting blink. She was entirely relaxed, lying there proudly sharing the moment of pure adoration for her cubs.
The longer we stayed at this wonderful sighting, the more inquisitive the cubs became. They stumbled across the uneven sand toward our vehicle. Once they lost their confidence and realized they were too close, the cubs would spin around and run back for cover. Eventually the lioness rolled on to her side, inviting the cubs to come out of hiding. They obliged and went straight to her to suckle. With cameras clicking away, and smiles on our faces we continued to watch them.
They continued to alternate between feeding and playing for about an hour. Mom became a bit restless, as her tail was bitten one too many times. As each minute passed the intensity of the playing subsided, the cubs were getting tired.
They slowly made their way back into the safety of the bush. As sudden as it had started, it stopped and playtime was over.
Gerald and I decide that it was a good time to leave. The lioness had generously shared a memorable moment with us and we did not want to take advantage. I started the vehicle and as quietly as possible, left the area and headed back to camp.
That evening we again sat in the boma with the other guests and rangers. Everyone sat around the fire, escaping the cool evening air, discussing what the day had blessed us with.
No words could describe what was experienced, the emotions felt and the shear appreciation I had for the Charleston Lioness.
She is the true Queen of Hearts.