Night has fallen, and five of the Sparta males, the infamous Mapogo coalition, are sleeping on the grassy plains of Winnis’ Clearing. They lie flat and motionless, our spotlight only just illuminates the outline of their heaving ribcages.I park a respectful distance from them, turn off the engine, and although we can not see their faces, we soak in an atmosphere only they could command: five adult male lions. And us. Together. In the dark.
A gentle westterly breeze sent from the river tickles the back of my head and snakes its way through the grass blades towards the brothers, hardly disturbing the tops of their manes.
One awakens and lifts his head. Like the rest of his coalition he is a breeding male in peak physical condition. His thickened mane, his war suit, has just come into its prime. His shoulders and forelegs, enormous vertebrae snappers, stretch out in front of him. His large golden eyes pierce the darkness and then he cranes his neck back and lifts his huge nose: his finder of food, females, friends and foes. And as the breeze ruffles his mane once more, he finds something he did not expect on the air.
The next second is an image that remains with me forever. Something in his eyes changes, and without any spoken communication all five males rise together like Samurai warriors with swords drawn, suddenly aware of an assassin in their midst. They are staring at us. Through us. The filtered red light casts an eerie glow over their huge frames as they wade quietly through the grass. There is almost a look of disbelief on their faces: how has another lion managed to sneak up on them, and which lion would dare to do such a thing? A look of disbelief and a look of focus: it may be killing time again. The five lion-eaters walk slowly but with intent straight for our vehicle. And then I smell it too: the distinctive smell of lion dung. It’s on my tyres. I must have driven over it earlier in the day….
I whisper to my guests to remain still and silent as the coalition surrounds our Landie from all sides and gives it a thorough inspection. They slide their noses over the panels for what seems like ages, and take particular interest in my front tyre. I have a great view of one of the male’s eyes a meter from my foot: there is no door on the driver’s side. They raise their heads and examine us inside the vehicle, and as I promise my guests they will not jump inside I marvel at the fact that they don’t. After a few ancient minutes they return to their resting spot and leave us to drive home, feeling wonderfully alive.