He sat in the wheat-colored grass, the remnants of a fallen wildebeest hiding everything but his magnificently maned head and the blood stain goatee on his chin. Undeniably handsome, yet scarred from years of battle, he was Aslan in the flesh, as if plucked from The Chronicles of Narnia and deposited 15-feet from our land cruiser.
David was his name. He was the alpha male of a pride we found on a gentle slope five minutes from Mara Plains Camp in Kenya’s Olare Motorogi Conservancy where I was an invited guest.
The lions were in the last stages of devouring the remains of a successful nighttime hunt. A few of the cubs, sweet-faced with over-sized paws, gnawed on an exposed rib cage with the tenacity of a guard dog. A droopy-eyed adult female was lounging in the throes of a food coma. David sat separately from the others, as males often do, with a chunk of the kill all to himself.
I was with Ping, my Maasai guide, who had a knack for divining an animal’s next move and the savvy to know how to position a vehicle so that a photographer could get the best possible shot. He understood lighting and composition and often saw advantageous angles before I did. He learned his craft from the best in the biz, the owners of the camp, Beverly and Dereck Joubert, award-winning filmmakers, conservationists, and National Geographic royalty. Suffice it to say, he was an ideal companion for my photographic aspirations.
Not every camp caters to the needs of the professional photographer, or amateur for that matter, but photography is part of Mara Plains’ DNA. Large blow-ups of Beverly Joubert’s iconic stills offered a constant source of inspiration and guests had free access to Canon cameras and lenses during their stay. Customized vehicles provided ample support and stability for equipment, and guides, like Ping, had both wildlife training and knowledge of photography to make the most of each game drive.
David began to lick his lips with bold sweeps of his tongue that ended in giant yawns. Ping looked at me from his seat behind the wheel and I understood. I knew this behavior. Sitting lion + yawning + licking = about to get up. The question: Would he walk three feet and lay down again—which happens more often than not—or would he give us something more interesting to photograph? My shutter finger was itchy with anticipation.
Stretching as if practicing yoga, he stood in slow motion. My body involuntarily jumped a fraction of an inch, my reflexes on alert, camera at the ready. With a flick of his tail, he sauntered towards the rising sun giving me a perfect view of his furry lion butt. Not the best capture, but we were just getting started. A male cub, seeing an opening, stealthily picked his way through the high grass to chew on the carcass his father left behind. We lingered, waiting to see what would come next. When David continued on his way, Ping flipped the ignition and we were off.
Grant Atkinson, on of my favorite professional wildlife photographers, was in a cruiser next to mine along with two other vehicles. He was leading a small group on a photographic Safari that was also staying at Mara Plains. We all followed the pride, each anxious to get a good shot and conscious not to get in each other’s way. I could hear Grant reminding his guests about exposure compensation and I quickly updated my camera settings. Now and then it pays to eavesdrop.
I’m always excited when I’m in the presence of wildlife, but the truth is 7 times out of 10 you’re watching an animal do two things: eat or sleep. Predators, predominately the latter. The encounters you wish for, the addictive ones that keep you coming back again and again are when there’s a a lot of interaction. On this morning, we had it in spades. I could hardly wait to see what would happen next.
David’s impromptu departure prompted the other lions to follow. In a long, strung out, single file line, they moved east. David walked a 50 yards and then sat down again, letting the rest of the pride pass. Ping signaled that we should keep going, David would eventually follow. We drove parallel and uphill of the lions so we’d have the sun at our backs when we turned right to face them. If we’d driven on the downhill side the cats would have been back-lit and in shadow. Sometimes that can make for an interesting image, but this case, not so much.
We all had the same shot in mind: the pride walking towards the camera. We raced ahead of their path, stopping in staggered positions so as not to get into each others’ frames. Each time the lions passed a jeep, the guide would drive ahead of the pride, leap frogging past the other vehicles, to a place in front of their approach.
“Get as low as you can,” Ping recommended. I hit the floor so that I was at eye level with the cats as they advanced. Awesome angle. Thanks, Ping!
While driving, I noticed a youngster with mischief on his mind. Something about the look in his eye; the tilt of his head, and a low-shouldered trot that reminded me of my cat before she pounced. He was stalking one of his brothers and sure enough, he tackled his sibling by grabbing his haunches as if he were hunting a zebra. Unphased by the weak attempt, the brother walked on, dragging his assailant still clinging to his side.
Needing no encouragement, the other cubs joined in, and a hilarious scrum of paws, tails and fur ensued. For lions, as with all predators, play is fundamental in honing hunting and survival skills. For humans, it’s just damn adorable to watch, and if you’re lucky, a pretty great photo-op too.
The pride came to a stop under a fallen tree where they’d stashed another kill. The predators had been luckier than we thought and apparently dropped corpses like breadcrumbs to eat later. Ensuring I could get a good shot, Ping angled the cruiser on a diagonal.
The cubs pounced on the carcass with a ferocity that belied the meal they’d just eaten. Occasionally, a savage growl would pierce the air as one cat lunged at another in a fight over a tasty morsel, exposing bloody, two-inch incisors and razor sharp nails. Just as quickly, they went back to eating as if nothing had happened.
David plopped himself under a tree, uninterested in anything but laying down to sleep, his golden coat melting into the grass. ( I remember years ago, on my first walking safari, the guide said, “If we walk into a lion, whatever you do, don’t run.” I got the not running part—if you act like prey you’ll be treated like one—but “If we walk into a lion?” How could we ever do that? Watching David sink into camouflaged oblivion, I realized that walking into a lion would be a pretty easy thing to do. )
After a short while, the cubs spread out under the tree, grooming themselves before bed. Following their dad to dreamland was the next bullet on the agenda. The sighting was winding down.
“Shall we check out the leopards?” Ping asked.
Drive on sir! Drive on….