Originally published March 2018
The term “Big Five” is tossed around by camera-safari tourists, but the phrase has more sinister origins. Big game hunters named these animals, as they were the most dangerous to hunt and the most difficult to kill.
Lions are unwilling members of the Big Five, as are both black and white rhinos, cape buffalo, leopards and elephants. But luckily, on the Shishangeni Preserve, lions are only hunted by wildlife guides and awed tourists armed with cameras and binoculars.
The Preserve is home to four bachelor male lions affectionately called “The Brothers”. No two safaris are the same, even if they take place at the same preserve. Last year I saw the Brothers over a long distance, close enough for my little Samsung telephoto to bring in what I thought then were some very nice shots. We also were able to hear them roar, sending warnings across the veldt to some distant intruder.
This year’s trip surpasses that one by a long, long shot.
We ran across the Brothers on the first evening drive. Three of them were sprawled on the grass, belly-up and full of prey, and Dixon, a wildife maverick who fearlessly pushed our LandCruiser off the red dirt road and into the veldt for a close, close look at this guys.
My favorite boy happened to lift his head up to stare at us for a few seconds just as I pressed my shutter. My favorite “What you lookin’ at?” photo.
On the way back to the lodge as the day darkened, we encountered two of them again, in the road, resting and in no mind to move out of our way. Dixon backed up, turned around, and took another route.
I was satisfied. Close-ups of lions, scars and all, in daytime and nighttime. For a treat, on our evening tea break, we heard a lion giving off several huffing roars. Dixon said they were letting each other where they were—checking in, so to speak.
Never think you’ve seen it all. There’s always something else.
Our final drive on Sunday morning, we spooled past giraffe, elephants, brown snake eagles, and a lady leopard tortoise. All the time, Dixon was on his walkie-talkie with the other guides, and got a message that excited even him.
When Dixon wants to get his guests to a very cool sighting, he doesn’t waste time. The LandCruiser is large, canvas top over roll bars, no windows except for a folding windshield in case of rain. When Dixon hits the accelerator, this vehicle flies down the road, windy and bumpy and hella fun.
This wild ride was certainly worth it. One guide vehicle was already there, and another arrived just after we did. My first sighting of the lioness was as she paced away from the crowding trucks, and disappeared into a stand of brush next to a water hole. Watching her push her way inside, Dixon announced that there was a male lion in there, and that the lionesses—where was the other one?!—were bothering him.
Dixon wasn’t going to wait until she reappeared. He drove into the bush, pushing aside branches, and followed the lioness as she emerged on the other side. Turning, she went back in, and we circled back to the place we had entered where the second lioness was lying not far from a licked-clean extremity bone, belonging once to something large.
Lionesses are elusive and rare, and rarer still is get a sighting of her cubs. There were no cubs about, but we had closeup views of the two ladies and finally the male, who emerged from his hideout—probably seeking some relief from the heat—to see what all the hubbub was about.
I was satisfied again, more than I had dreamed. But as we left, and started back to the Lodge where checkout and cars waited, we had one more unexpected encounter.
Next week, the black rhino.