It had been a year since I’ve seen my family. They’d been in lockdown in the UK and I’ve been out here, in the wildernesses of Tanzania. The last time we were together they flew in to meet our newborn baby – Willow – born 11/11/19.
We were so excited to be back together and unanimously agreed we would head out on safari as soon as possible. We set up camp in one of the small clusters of yellow-barked acacia trees with plenty of shade, some excellent company (albeit noisy) in the form of black faced vervet monkeys and a view of a big, old single tusk elephant walking towards the slopes of Kilimanjaro. As the sun began to disappear, Chris and I were in full discussion about what the plan should be for the morning; but as the expression goes, best laid plans…
In the early hours, before the sun had even thought about rising, Chris woke me up. There were lions calling in the distance; definitely more than one. They were not that far away.
Willow, our one year old, was still asleep in her little tent. We sat up, still, listening, trying to gauge the direction of the calls. The night had been full of activity, hyenas whooping, zebra and wildebeest unsettled and galloping around all around us – surely they were waiting for that first blue light just as anxiously as we were. The calls were getting closer. We jumped up – Chris ran to wake up the others while I got the vehicle and my camera equipment ready. Within ten minutes everyone was ready to go. I ran and grabbed Willow, she was just waking up and super excited as soon as she saw everyone in the car. It wasn’t the first time in her young life that mama and baba have woken her up to search for lions. We drove the car up onto a small hill near camp so as to get the best vantage of our surroundings.
We scanned the horizon with our binoculars and almost immediately spotted a lioness. We noticed that she was walking towards a male a few hundred meters in front of her. Her gaze never wavered from where he lay basking, minding his own business. As she neared the male she quickened her pace and we thought perhaps she had cubs to protect and would chase him away. But she wasn’t aggressive, she began circling him, over and over. She was inviting him to a honeymoon.
A few moments passed before we noticed another male in a thicket nearby. He had a strong likeness to the first male leading us to deduce they were brothers. He was watching the two lions with keen interest, he was also more wary of the car in a way the others weren’t. We kept our distance from him so as not to stress him out. It was clear he was not happy to be left out of the courtship but we were all caught off guard with the speed of his decision to take action.
The air filled with deep belly growls that unexpectedly erupted, silencing everyone in the car (even Willow) and sent a wave of goosebumps across my body. The fight was happening 30 meters from where we stopped the car and by now the sun had well and truly risen, flooding the land with that beautiful light that you only get in East Africa. A photographer’s dream. I passed Willow to Chris (who was in the driver’s seat), grabbed my camera and quickly moved myself out of the car onto the dusty ground.
The brothers didn’t hold back, it was a protracted and bitter dispute. The air was filled with golden dust, deep guttural snarls and flying saliva as the brothers carried on. Through my lens the visual sent lightening blots of adrenalin through my system. I was acutely aware that all other sounds around me had stopped, the birds, the zebra, even the wind was still. The brothers fought in rounds, pausing to catch their breath and come back at each other with another angle.
After what could have been minutes or hours the dust began to settle as their stamina wavered. I was brought back to the moment by Willow’s voice which was a quivering whisper, “mama, mama.” She had been silent throughout but I think our complete absorption in the event had made her feel uneasy. I jumped back in the car and took her in my arms celebrating how patient and quiet she had been during one of the most violent and exciting lion encounters I’ve witnessed.
It seemed the war was won by the first male and he scampered off to rejoin the female who was waiting for him nearby. We left them as they retreated to the shade where they would wait out the heat of the day, while we returned to camp, eager to share what we had seen.