Saturday, July 12, 2008

Looking into the Eyes of a King

On my recent trip to Kenya I had one unforgettable moment in life. Coming face to face with a fully grown African male lion. Simba as they call in Swahili.

Well it was our first day at the world famous masai mara reserve in Kenya. Supposed to be numero uno when it comes to wildlife reserve. On par with the slightly more famous Serengeti plains in Tanzania bordering Kenya. A place where I hope to go in the future to catch the annual wildebeest migration.

We three woke up really early even before the sun was up, closed our tent and greeted our guide/driver (Douglas) with the one Swahili word that all the tourists seemed to know and what we had learned first. The African greeting…“Jambo” (hi in Swahili).

We set out in our open roof van, early morning at 6.30 am just as the sun was rising in the horizon, turning the sky in to an orange glow.

The rising sun

We saw impalas and zebras grazing lazily. They seemed least bothered as our vehicle rumbled on, breaking the serene silence of the savanna.

Various Herbivores grazing

Now this is what you call a "Zebra Crossing"

Then we came across a herd of African elephants. They were huge compared to their Asian counterparts. They crossed right in front of our van and walked by as if we didn’t even exist.

The last Elephant crossing right in front of us

The two things that I really wanted to see were a pride of lions and a cheetah and if really lucky a leopard. Leopards are heard more often than seen. They are nocturnal and often hunt in the night and laze on top of trees during day time. I had seen one in Indian jungle. So I was prepared to miss the leopard, one of the “Big Five”, the others being Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino and of course lions, the king of the jungle.

And so there we were, driving on through the tall grass. I had chosen to go to Kenya right after the rains. It’s between the low season and the high season. The low season being the months of the long rains. Mar to May end and the high season being July to Oct, that’s when the wildebeests arrive at the mara in the millions from the Serengeti plains, on the way crossing the crocodile infested mara river. A scene nearly everyone would have seen in animal planet/national geographic channel.

The world renowned Mara River where the wildebeest's cross

After a while, Douglas spotted something in the distance. All I could see was a lone vulture sitting on top of a small tree. But he seemed to be looking at a small patch of thick bush right next to it. I realized there was some dead animal in the bush. But what was keeping the vulture from swooping down!?

The Lone Vulture...

As we reached close to the bush, Douglas slowed his vehicle and we all peered into the thick bush. I saw something move inside the bush. I peered ever more closely and there it was...lions

My first view of the majestic African Lions. They really looked beautiful, perfectly blending into the tall brown grass. It looked like there were some lions feasting on a kill. The bush was much too thick to see through clearly, so we decided to go around to the other side and we slowly backed off and moved real slow through the thick grass to the other side and as we approached the other side, our guide was looking at his right side, into the bushes without looking ahead.

Even I was looking at my right side but suddenly I saw something move in front of our vehicle. And there it was, a lioness was standing right in front of our van, in full view. Douglas didn’t see it and he was driving slowly straight at it.

The Lioness in front of our Van

I shouted at him to stop. He stopped and I was exclaiming “wow lions..lions with a kill” all excited and he hushed me to be quiet. Hearing the commotion, the female lion slowly walked into the bush and we could now clearly see there were 3 other lions feasting on a cape buffalo.

Lions enjoying a cape buffalo

Then we saw a male lion lying down much more closer to us, hiding in cover, guarding the pride and keeping a watchful eye on us. The lion was less than 10 feet from us. But he was lying down. So we continued snapping happily. But the damn camera was focusing on the bush rather than the lion

My Camera in Auto mode focusing wrongly on the Grass iso Simba

so I put it on manual mode and started taking some more snaps.

The Male lion laying on the ground just before it got up

lo and behold… all of a sudden the lion got up and the other two in our van got scared and took a couple of steps backwards in the vehicle. But I stood my ground, facing the lion. My hands and head were outside the van taking snaps. I was determined to get the best shot of this truly majestic animal and so I stood still and went on with the clicking.

Approaching our van from the side

And then suddenly it took a couple of steps straight at our vehicle and looked straight into my eyes. It was now just a couple of feet away from our van. touching distance, so to speak. I could clearly see blood dripping from his mouth. The buffaloes blood. There I was, looking eye to eye with the king of the jungle. A truly terrifying but memorable experience. One to cherish for the rest of my life... but was there going to be any :-)

Looking into the eyes of a King

The top of our van was open and one jump and the lion will be inside our van. My heart was pounding real fast. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw both of the others had backed off to the back end of the vehicle. I slowly pulled my hands and head inside making sure not to make any sudden movements so as not to get the lion excited in the wrong way, and slowly took a step backward. The lion immediately took another step straight at me and was staring right into my eyes, assessing me perhaps. It was now just touching distance from our van. I held my breath and stared back. I was captivated by the lions stare. I didn’t know whether to look somewhere else or to return the stare. We looked into each other’s eyes for about half a minute. And then the lion opened his mouth wide and I thought to myself ‘oh noooo… it’s going to jump in”.

The white you see is our van. the lion was that close!!!!

But all it did was yawn lazily and then looked at me for one final time and then slowly turned back and trudged back nonchalantly into the bush.

The Lion joining the pride after retreating

Well… to summarize the trip, we were lucky enough to see 4 out of the big 5 (African Elephants, Rhinos, Cape Buffaloes), plus Antelopes, Impalas, vervet monkeys, Baboons, Jackals, Spotted hyenas, Burchell’s Zebra, Warthog, Hippos, Giraffes, Bushbucks, Kudus, Elands, Waterbucks, Heartebeest, Topi, Wildebeest, Gazelles and a cheetah losing out its kill to a hyena, but that’s another story.

The Poor Cheetah with a Kill, just before losing it out to Hyenas

Our lone miss being the leopard. No one had seen the leopard on those 3 days we were at the reserve. One entire day we spent, looking at the tree lines hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive one, but to no avail.

I left the reserve with the Swahili saying ringing in my mind...“Hakuna matata” (no problem)..
hope to see it at the Serengeti plains in future.


neeth said...

One interesting thing to note... did u guys know that the male lions of Tsavo, Africas most feared ones, doesnt have mane at all...beacuse of high levels of testostrone.
if you had seen the movie, 'The ghost and the darkness", the story is of tsavo lions. but the lions are so violent that they choose the more softer ones which has manes.. but ironically they look more scary than the mane less Tsavo lions :-)

Soorya said...

The snaps are just astounding da! , i keep coming back to the blog to view and re-view that coool sunrise and the majestic lions...looking into the eyes of a King indeed!...Lucky you , you have had an incredible wild life safari...compensates my disppointment over our tour of the Jim Corbett National Park in India last month ...Great pictures and maginificient animals!

Rat said...

Truly fantabulous!
Kenya - on job, or picnic-ing?