Text and photographs by: Pieter van Wyk
We’ve been seeing a lot of the Marthly pride lately and I was lucky enough to spend pretty much the whole of Wednesday (9th) with them.
Firstly, a bit of background information: The Marthly pride consists of seven members and are probably best known and most easily identified through the tailless thirteen year old lioness. A second mature adult lioness is also just over thirteen and she is the mother of the four sub adults (fathered by the Manyelethi male coalition) who are over two years old; three of which are males. Last but not least is the young lioness who is now about four and half years of age. This pride is going through an uneasy period with the two Clarendon males as well as the Matshipri males moving into their territory, but more on that later.
What turned out to be a fourteen hour game drive got off to a gloomy with overcast skies and a steady breeze greeting us as we left camp. This weather can be hit or miss as far as game viewing is concerned but the optimists in us banked on animals (especially predators) being active for longer due to the cool conditions.
We headed north along the Matshipri River and passed a herd of giraffes as they peacefully fed along the riverbank closely followed by a herd a zebra. Three hyenas then entertained us for fifteen minutes as they curiously inspected our Land Rover before moving off.
The forty-five minutes that followed were relatively quiet but such is the beauty of this reserve that simply driving around is a pleasant experience. We needed some warming up and decided some hot chocolate was in order and the vast plain surrounding Clarendon Dam was a fitting spot.
Things had picked up a bit by the time we got back on the vehicle and the sighting that interested us most was that of the Marthly pride. They were in the Sand River just south of Main Camp.
As we approached we could see six lions lying down in the river with their collective gaze staring north towards a herd of kudus some three two hundred meters away. The seventh lion, the tailless lioness, had started flanking the kudu but the game was up when a series of barks from the kudus sounded the alarm, she had been spotted. But this is what we had hoped for- predators being more active during the day. The lioness regrouped with the others and it wasn’t long before they were all up and mobile south.
The Marthly pride ascended the western bank of the Sand River and from that vantage point noticed several prey species to their south. A nyala bull was closest on their radar and the three lionesses began stalking towards it as the four sub adults hung back. One lioness flanked to the west, another to the east and the third continued southwards. Watching these big cats enter stealth mode is an impressive sight albeit somewhat eerie with each and every move they make being calculated and silent. We’d lost sight of the tailless lioness who’d flanked to the south and the other two were now only fifteen meters off the nyala with being completely unaware of the danger that lurked nearby. The tailless lioness burst out of the brush and came agonisingly close to the bull who in turn took off, luckily for him, in the only direction that didn’t have a set of teeth and claws waiting in ambush.
Undeterred the Marthly pride continued south towards a herd of kudu two hundred meters downstream. The kept the same ‘reverse V’ formation- one lioness on top of the bank using the thick vegetation for cover, the second lioness adjacent to the first but down in the riverbed using the reeds as cover with the third female hugging the bank behind them. The four sub adults were now following closely. The lions picked up their speed but kudus had noticed them and ran off. It then became apparent that they were targeting something much closer, a bushbuck. The tailless lioness atop the bank ran in on it chasing it towards the others. One bushbuck heading straight towards six hungry lions… thank you very much that’ll be 200 points for a kill on the scoreboard! The bushbuck had other ideas. With a staggering burst of speed and the niftiest of footwork it darted right through the lions in a feat that professional sportsmen can only dream of.
Just as soon as they had failed the Marthly pride were at it again. The next potential meal came in the form of a herd of giraffes and more kudus further south in the Sand River. They ran in again and again they missed. It was now time for a break as they settled down in the riverbed south of Maxim’s Lookout. This also gave us a chance for a breather and a moment to reflect on all the action we’d just witnessed. “That little bushbuck is probably still running.”
The cloud cover suddenly cracked like an egg and warm golden sunshine poured onto our skin for the first time that day. However the temperature was still cool and we unanimously decided to stay with the lions for the rest of the day. I called Rattray’s camp on the radio and asked them to send a packed breakfast out to us. We were in for the long haul.
Four kudu bulls entered the fray as they descended the bank opposite us and made their way into the riverbed. The lions were lying out in the open but immediately pressed their entire bodies flat to the ground and pinned their ears down. The blended into to sand remarkably well and went unnoticed by the kudus. With zero cover around and the watercourse still to cross- surely this was out of their reach… they didn’t think so. The older lioness with tail intact decided to use the only cover available to her- the Land Rover being used by a film crew. The others remained motionless. Her next move entailed something I had never seen before, she left the cover of the vehicle and proceeded to stalk through the river and she did so successfully before reaching the good cover on offer on the other side. She was now a mere ten meters away from one oblivious kudu bull. The younger on the three lionesses was next to make a move as she slunk off upstream and then crossed the river before heading south again on the western bank. The tailless lioness then crossed through the river undetected. It was a picturesque and captivating sight. The tension and anticipation was tangible. Unfortunately for the Marthly lionesses their hard work was undone when a large herd of impala approached from the west and alarm called as they noticed the young lioness. The kudus still hadn’t seen the lions but they headed the impalas warning and ran off. So close yet so far. By now the clouds had given way to blue skies and mercury levels were rising. The lions sought out the nearest shady spot and became stationary, as did we.
Midway through our 1pm breakfast a herd of buffalos entered the Sand River some distance to our south. One lioness had taken note of them but showed no desire to step out from the shade. The tactics lions employ when hunting changes a bit when it comes to buffalo as they tend to play the long game and with that in mind we decided to temporarily leave the lions and view the buffalos. There was a small element of uncertainty as we drove off because although the lions were sleeping they were also well concealed and hungry. All it would take is for one animal to chose the wrong time or place to go and drink. Never the less we threw the dice and it paid off. Seeing a couple hundred buffalo quenching their thirst in the Sand River is always a special sight and it was made even better when two herds of elephants joined them.
We returned to the Marthly pride about an hour later and they had barely moved an inch. We patiently sat with them as darkness eventually fell and they slowly became active again. They crossed the river for the third time that day before zoning in on a herd of impala. Again they tried and again they missed and would do so on two more occasions before our time ran up and we headed back to camp. It was indeed a privilege to spend so much time in the company of lions and it’s something you can’t really explain to somebody who hasn’t yet experienced it. I envy that person for they have so much to look forward to.