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The Lion Hour

We’re supposed to set out at four o’clock in the morning, but the minute hand is pointing to ten past when we are leaving the house. A few minutes delay is not a big issue. Waking up at 03:30 in the morning is not very pleasant, at least not on a regular basis. But it’s easier to find the wild dogs before dusk, while they are still resting. As soon as they start moving it’s difficult to catch up with them. They move so fast and don’t care about roads, which of course we must do. Yesterday evening when we headed back home, they were in the southern part of the reserve. Thus, we also have to add a fair bit to travel this morning.

Our monitors sit in the Hilux’s cab – Frede is driving with Michelle on his left-hand side. I sit behind Frede, on the front bench at the back of the vehicle. I have Ida to my left and a few more people behind me. It’s my turn to scan for the wild dogs today. We are using a telemeter to catch up the radio signals from the two collared dogs, otherwise it would be impossible to find them.

On the first high point Frede turns the engine off and let the car roll a few metres before it comes to a complete stop. He asks me to scan for the two dogs. I stand up on the bench to maximize the reach of the receiver and turn it on. We hear lions roar in the distance. It’s a mighty sound, although a bit scary. Especially when it’s dark outside. The signal is weak. The dogs are still far south so we are not able to locate their position from here. Frede asks me to scan for the elephants as well. They are perhaps further north and we might get a signal from our high point. He and Michelle step out of the cab to see where the signal comes from.

I can hear the grass rustle behind me, to the left of the car. At this moment, I am 100% certain that Michelle has walked to the back of the vehicle. So, I continue to scan in front of the car. I notice a sudden change in Frede’s face. It’s something with his eyes. Very firmly but still quietly he tells me to sit down. He himself is back inside the cab and has closed the door within one or two seconds. I feel a bit confused but sit down quickly.

When I look to the left of the car I see a female lion, only a few meters away from us. The engine is still off but the small lamp in the cab’s ceiling gives enough light to distinguish the contours of her body from the dark surrounding. We freeze completely and hardly dare to breath, the entire time keeping an eye on her. She doesn’t look back. Our presence doesn’t seem to bother her at all and she soon continues her stroll along the road. Following her are two cubs, about a year old. They are the same size as their mother. One of them were just behind us on the right-hand side when Frede jumped back in the car. We were surrounded by three lions.

We let them pass and give them a good 50 metres before we dare say anything. It’s amazing how quietly they approached us. The roaring seemed to be far away, but in some way, they stood just beside us. Frede starts the engine again and we slowly follow them.

The lions walk side by side in the middle of the road. They definitely have a place in mind to which they are heading. It seems they have no intension of stepping aside so we can pass. The only thing we can do is to follow them at a safe distance.

The small pride is slowly making their way forward. Frede turns the engine off whenever the road goes downhill so we silently roll behind them. One of the cubs is a bit fractious and lay down on the road every now and then, making the two others wait for him.​

It’s still dark outside and we need the red light from the torch to see them. When one of them are going too far ahead it’s hard to see. Only the eyes glow when it turns it head towards us. Even though we sometimes are standing completely still with the engine off and hardly dare to breath it’s impossible to hear them walk. They take slow powerful but completely silent steps. Their big paws look so soft towards the rigid gravel road.

They don’t really care about us and keep doing their business as if we weren’t there. But when we come close they clearly show us that they are aware of our presence.

We were heading out early to try to catch up with the dogs before they start moving. The meeting with the lions seems to delay us. But that doesn’t really matter. The dogs can wait today. I have to remind myself what a truly unique experience this is. It’s a privilege to be here together with these magnificent animals.

When the one cub is resting on the side of the road and the other cub and the mother take a small detour from the road we take our chance and drive pass them. The cub on the side of the road watch us curiously we drive by him. I wonder what he is thinking, lying there in the grass?

When I come back to the lodge and go through the photos I realise that the first picture was taken 04:25 and the last one 05:22. For almost an entire hour did we follow them. A full hour together with the lions. It sure didn’t felt that long.

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