I wasn’t quite sure what was happening but Johnny’s enormous grin signaled something was up. Then suddenly, just like in a national geographic movie we were drawn to the noise of several hundred hooves thundering across the dusty road behind us. Snorting, panic stricken buffalo were running as if their life depended on it, and for one young buffalo it did.
We were on Safari at Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site on the banks of the Zambezi. My Sister and her husband had shouted us this trip. We were from New Zealand where our deadliest animal is probably the neighbor’s dog, so stampeding buffalo and hungry lions soon got our attention.
Barely 30 metres behind us, like superman fending off an evil opponent, a powerful lioness flew through the air and grabbed one of the buffalo calves by the neck. Then as she held on, three other lionesses also grabbed the calf and wrestled it to the ground.
At this point, against my better judgment but on our guide’s urging, we switched to Stretch’s jeep and he drove us slowly to within 4 metres of the attacking lions.
The lioness that attacked first, held onto the buffalo’s throat until it was almost dead – which took a while, or at least it felt like a long time. Her work done for now, she moved away and sat watching, panting heavily. It must have been a huge physical effort for her. As she rested, the five cubs attacked the carcass. According to Johnny, the mothers let their cubs have first pickings.
If listening to the sound of tearing flesh and crushing bone wasn’t bad enough, the anguished squeals from the calf as it was eaten alive caused the hairs on my arms to rise and goose bumps to mark my skin. I was witnessing nature in its purest form and it was harsh.
My discomfort grew further when Stretch turned the jeep and moved a bit closer and I was on the same side as the Lions and facing them. Though they weren’t that big as lions go, when the mums turned and looked at us – their teeth left me in no doubt about the damage they could inflict.
By now, Johnny, an enthusiastic young man with an engaging personality and manners his mother would be proud of, was lying across the bonnet of the jeep armed with a camera shooting as fast as his flash would allow. In his four years as a safari guide, this was the first time he had witnessed a ‘kill’ and witnessed it up close. His excitement was like an electric current in the jeep. He couldn’t stop grinning or shaking his head in disbelief, his camera shutter barely keeping pace with his excitement.
This was our second safari drive of the day and we had been heading home after what Stretch thought was a disappointing game ride- you see Stretch takes his job seriously and customer satisfaction is important to him.
At 6 foot 6 inches tall, his thick beard, sprinkled with grey covers his face and neck like a grizzly bear’s winter coat. He seems to blend in to the landscape despite his size. An ex-Zimbabwean farmer he is the founder and co-owner of Goliath Safaris where for the last 30 years he has entertained and guided thousands of tourists, introducing them to a world well beyond their imagination. His interaction with individual animals and his understanding of their behaviours made us feel safe (well almost) and the rifle that was never too far away was a good back-up!
The sun was getting low and in Africa darkness falls quickly. There were some blankets in the jeep so we wrapped ourselves in these. I think I was cold from a mix of fear and excitement rather than a drop in temperature, but the blanket was comforting.
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We used a special night vision torch to watch the young lions devour their kill as the African night closed in. We sat mesmerized, the whites of the cats eyes glowing in the dark. We had an 81 year old adventurer in our jeep, but she was getting quite nervous and I wasn’t sure her heart was up to all the excitement, so to the disappointment of some, we headed back to the camp. Here we dined in the open air served by waiters wearing guns strapped to their hips. Actually, they were the safari guides in disguise and the guns they told us “were merely a precaution.”
After dinner we gathered around the campfire. The Zambezi River was barely 30 metres from our feet set to the backdrop of a burning Zambia escarpment as fires scattered the range. Bruce the hippopotamus yawned and laughed nosily in the background. He was named Bruce after one of the kayaking guides who, while taking a group down the river, managed to capsize, tipping himself and everyone’s luggage and supplies into the Zambezi. Gladly, only his pride was hurt. Now, to entertain the tourists, Stretch has managed to perfect his laugh to sound exactly like a hippo. Even if the joke was bad, his laugh made up for the punch line.
The next morning we chose to go and revisit the site of the kill. The lions had dragged the carcass off the road and the Buffalo’s stomach contents lay in a pile away from it. It smelt of wet rotting grass and coated the back of my throat. Stretch told us that they do this because the stomach contents can spoil the meat. Four fat lionesses and their cubs sat in the shade of the trees, their stomachs round and hard from a night of gorging.
We moved in a bit closer (Stretch couldn’t help himself). The hyenas were circling in the background hoping for some tidbits of the feast. The youngest cub, who was being watched over by one of his bigger siblings, was the only one at the carcass. He had his nose buried deep in the ribcage and all we could see were his ears flicking and twitching as he disappeared deeper into the cavity. Suddenly, he emerged with the last of a hind leg clenched between his teeth. I could have sworn he was grinning in triumph. It was a worthy prize, missed by his siblings who now lay bloated with their greed.
We left them to it and continued on, this time in search of the wild dogs. Stretch said he had been tracking them for days and they were worth looking at.
Photo by Andrew Field