Friday, October 11, 2013

Looking for lions

The top of the Land Cruiser pops up and the six of us peer out like meerkats at the bok on the grassy savannah. This is the best place to look for lions. They prey on the herds of bok here.

These tough old safari Land Cruisers are exceptional vehicles, purpose-built for the African terrain. Six of us in the back of this diesel engine on wheels have been bounced across potholes on the pink scar of red clay roads that rive the jungle green, hauled up into the volcanic mountains where the soil changes colour to a richly fertile muddy chocolate as black as the skin of the farmers who work it, and ratcheted back down into the expanses of sallow grassland. Some stretches on the road have been eight hours long. It's not a trip for those prone to car sickness, particularly with the diesel fumes in the cabin. So it's nice to periscope ourselves out the top of the vehicle and breathe the fresh air.

"Oh, look at this!" we shout and point and chatter like monkeys when we abruptly uncover a large, curved-horned waterbuck behind a clump of brush barely three metres away. We spook the shy creature with our excited cries and it bolts, leaving us holding cameras half-cocked and looking like stunned children left out of the game.

We blow a great shot. "We are such humans!" Magda laments comically, and we concur to shut up. It's our first lesson of the day.

The truck joins a small convoy of three other vehicles and we leapfrog between sighting wild boar and elephants. But the real quarry today is the lions. By nature furtive creatures, they're not easy to spot. Six heads pan and sweep, watching for indications like scattering bok, but we come up with nothing. The drivers work together, from time to time stopping and conferring in Lugandan, then spreading out in a net to scour the archipelago of dense green thickets dotting the savannah. Suddenly the vehicles congregate. One of the guides has spotted a pride lying in the long grass with a freshly killed water buffalo. Found them!

We surround and close in around a particular bush like cats on a kill, clustering in a tight group, jockeying for vantage, but we can't get any closer than about 200 metres – it isn't permitted to go off-road in the national park (rangers will impose a US$100 fine, a significant penalty on Ugandan wages).

There are eight vehicles, now, with people peering out roofs through binoculars or standing on top with telephoto lenses.

"There! There's one!"


Inadequate descriptions of coordinates follow, referencing bushes and trees... no, not that bush... the sort of triangular-shaped one... in line with that tree... to the right of the tall one.... And then there is the swish of a tail. There's a head, with the outline of the ears. A lion gets up and prowls around the bush and we fire off some shots, straining over the distance.

One tiny lion in the expansive landscape. It's as good as the humans today are going to get.

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