The Sight of the Night

20 04 2010

Two nights ago, an entirely new experience usurped the throne of ‘number one coolest moment at Mpala.’ Five of us decided to go on a night game drive, so after dinner we grabbed our torches, zipped up our warm coats, packed a few cold Tuskers into a cooler and piled into our Land Cruiser. The night air was crisp and the sky was sprayed with billions of blazing stars. The moon was also part of the party in a spooky  crescent lying on its back; an irridescent smile alone in the dark.

Immediately as we made our way up a steep escarpment onto a large glade we were met by sixty or so small dots of floating light – eyeshine. A herd of impala stampeded away in the darkness as our truck approached. It looked like a floating river of sparkling lights. Beautiful, but the best was yet to come.

We continued driving slowly along the main dirt road. Suddenly one torch’s light fell upon more eyeshine off to the distance on our left. Speculations began and were bounced back and forth between us: bat-eared fox, dik dik, genet, jackal… we couldn’t agree. So, we did what all curious biologist would do… we went off-roading. Making our way over a pile of rocks and dirt we edged closer and closer to the unidentified animal. “It’s a bat-eared fox!” someone whispered. “No it’s not, I think it’s a jackal,” replied another. Before a consensus could be reached the eyeshine reacted to our headlights and shot down a den hole. “Where did it go? Keep driving.” After a minute or so, we gave up and decided to head back to the road.

And that’s when it began.

“Hey, um guys? Do you see those lions?” Within a second every one of us had whipped around and popped our heads through the look-out hatches on the roof of the truck. No more than ten meters away were two lions illuminated by our torches – a male and female – pawing their way across the glade. They were huge: muscular and well-fed. The male had a full mane of thick brown-orange hair while the female’s coat looked almost silver in the moonlight.

For a full fifteen minutes we sat and watched them. They remained within twenty meters of our vehicle the entire time. Most likely, it was because they were too busy trying to mate to care we were there: the female was in full heat and the male mounted her several times. It never lasted long because they were both continuously distracted by another male lion’s growling a short distance away. Lion drama.

King of the wild

After several minutes of attempting to mate they decided just to watch us instead. The male lay down and yawned several times revealing his massive set of razor-sharp teeth. The female walked around getting (scarily) close to us and then began playfully pawing at a wiry branch of acacia, just like a house cat. Eventually the lions grew tired of us and, together, walked away – probably in search of some privacy…


A female pawing at the ground

Everyone in the truck just looked at each other in awe. “Wow. That was amazing,” was echoed by all. By chance we had happened across this incredible moment. It’s one thing to view wildlife in captivity, but when all that separates you and a creature in its natural habitat is a sheet of metal and tires you experience this mixture of emotions: excitement, fear, exhilaration, appreciation, and a hint of something like magic.

Thank you, Kenya.

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