The apex of a trip filled with superlatives. If there is only one post you could read of this series on our South African trip, this would be it. The trip of a lifetime boils down to five minutes that made it all more than worth it. On our second afternoon, and third drive, we saw an elephant and a bunch of antelope and I was wondering if this was going to be one of those “slow” afternoons. After an hour of driving around, Sipho and Louis, our guide/spotter stopped briefly and pointed to some animal tracks on the side of the road.
They said that a cheetah had probably recently passed (perhaps within the last hour or two) and explained that they could tell by the shape of the print and the height of the sand/dirt (the sharper the peaks, the fresher the print) surrounding the print. They were quite excited and explained that seeing cheetahs were a rarer occurrence than most of the other predators, and that this cheetah could potentially cross the “border” with neighboring Londolozi game reserve and may not be seen again for several weeks or months. They seemed rather anxious to see if they could track the cheetah, and Louis got off, loaded his rifle and started to walk through the low brush. We sped ahead to check the road at the open “border” between Singita and Londolozi and for an hour so we saw nothing.
We sped by a watering hole with randy zebras, briefly stopped to view some rhinos, and noticed a really agitated herd of antelope careening by, thinking they might be fleeing a cheetah. But mostly, for an hour and a half we saw nothing but the beautiful countryside. Finally, as the sun set, we rendezvoused with Louis who came on foot, and pointed in the direction that he thought the cheetah may have gone, but had lost its tracks. It was a wash-out, we thought, and realized sometimes you are fortunate, and many times, not.
After the sun had set, in the last light, we returned to the watering hole and set up for a quick cocktail. While enjoying our chilled sparkling wine and some salted nuts, Louis, our tracker, heard something in the distance and excitedly asked if we could pack up our drinks and try and see if we could find something in the distance. We didn’t hear a thing, but we immediately got back in the Rover, zipped up our jackets and sped off in near darkness. Our daughter went bouncing about with champagne glass in one hand, trying to finish her drink…
This is where the “five minutes” begins. About a kilometer or two from where we were drinking champagne, Louis kept panning the dark with a spotlight and suddenly, in a field filled with calf high grass, he spotted something. We all grabbed our cameras, the Land Rover went off road, and something just told me this was going to be something really unusual. It was almost pitch dark.
Remember we were on an open Land Rover, with literally nothing between us and the wild. We had never stopped in the dark before but as we got closer, the adrenaline was pumping, as we realized they had found the cheetah we had been searching for the past two hours!!!
It had an impala by the jaws… It couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes since the kill. And we managed to take a few fuzzy photos as the Rover drove slowly, bouncing over uneven land, to get a better vantage point. The headlights provided some light source, and we couldn’t use a flash, so you’ll have to imagine the utterly powerful scene unfolding.
Louis didn’t train the spotlight on the cheetah, perhaps it was sensitive to the light, and we just watched with fascination as it quickly fed on the prime parts of the impala.
The cheetah looked nervous, and anxious, and our guide was just about to explain why when the darkness, silence and the increasing cold was interrupted by the most blood-curling whooping of hyenas not more than 5 meters behind the Rover. Truly gave you the chills.
Mrs. MM’s photo just as the hyenas started whooping, and in a flash, they pounced on the cheetah, scared it off, and grabbed the impala, right before our eyes. It took a second or two and let’s just say we were more than bloody startled. I didn’t like hyenas, I decided then, and seeing how high they can leap and bare their fangs, while we sitting just a few feet above ground was beginning to really drive home the point how exposed we were. Thankfully, the animals didn’t seem to bother with us (much bigger and meatier than an impala I tell you!).
Two hyenas started to dig in, pulling meat off the antelope carcass, while looking menacing at the same time.
With a spotlight trained on them, we managed a few photos. Then what happened next is something we will probably never experience again. The hyenas and antelope were to the left of the Rover, and from the pitch dark to the right of the vehicle, you suddenly felt some movement, a bit of a thud and before you could think, the air seemed to be moving and a massive shape of an animal crossed the headlights of the Rover…
We have more than 3 photos of complete darkness, not sure what was going on, and everyone’s heart pumping so loud you could hear it.
… and with a deafening roar that scared the hyenas and totally freaked me, Mrs. MM and our daughter out. A lion had just entered the scene. What?! First the cheetah, then the hyenas, and now a freaking LION?!
Yes, the King of the Jungle (when there is no jungle) had just grabbed his dinner away from the hyenas. He picked up the impala, moved a few meters away near a tree, and proceeded to tear the poor animal apart.
He started with the stomach and intestines, munched on the meaty areas…
…started to crunch on the skull and bones (rather soft in young antelope we were told) and we watched in totally fascination, while Louis, our tracker remained on his chair in front of the hood, just feet away from the feeding lion. Needless, to say, we kept looking behind our backs into the darkness but apparently no other predator is likely to challenge a lion in this situation.
The hyenas hung around at a respectful distance, just in case the lion left some scraps for them to feed on.
The five incredible minutes were now over, but we continued to watch for another 20-30 minutes as the lion devoured the impala. Our guide, Sipho said this was a highly unusual visual treat, something that didn’t happen that often.
We were in shock, but a good kind of shock. An amazing kind of shock. It was day 2 of our trip and the trip was better than we could ever have expected.
We spent a last few minutes watching the lion who finished his meal and headed off and decided to return to the lodge for a special braai or local barbecue they had scheduled that evening. The drive back took over 15 minutes in pitch darkness and that powerful spotlight up front made it all a bit surreal, and we all murmured about the scenes we had just witnessed. It was truly a special experience.
We would get a second look at this lion the following day…