“The shy one”Posted: November 2022
One day in February, I was on my way to “Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp” in the western part of the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Mbuzi Mawe is the Kiswahili name for a small antelope called a “klipspringer”.
These elegant animals are usually found on the “kopjes” or “koppies”, a word adopted by the English from Afrikaans. These are the huge granite rocks scattered across the vast plains.
The picturesque Mbuzi Mawe camp is set up amid a batch of gigantic kopjes.
Since this place is famously frequented by klipspringers, I had decided to spend a few days there with the intention to take a special shot of this animal.
From the Land Rover I spent an entire day scanning the area around the camp in search of this elusive creature.
I arrived back at camp before sunset without having taken a single shot. From my tent, I looked out on another large outcrop of huge kopjes and considered how far it was from the camp. Knowing I still had an hour and a half before dusk, I estimated I could reach those kopjes on foot, before nightfall.
Since security measures are taken very seriously in such a camp, I had to get permission from the camp manager to leave the premises. Normally this is only permitted if one is accompanied by an armed game ranger.
After 15 minutes of negotiating, the ranger to agreed to go out with me.
He assured me that there would be no lions around at this time of year, and so he would leave his rifle at camp. This suited me fine because instead, he offered to carry some of my photographic equipment.
And so we commenced the bushwalk towards these rocky islands.
Already from a distance, I could make out the deep, rounded gorges covered by shady crowns of evergreen fresh shrubbery.
A few baboons were already taking advantage of the protection afforded them by the rocky hillside. We were also welcomed by perhaps the most striking inhabitant of the kopjes - the rock hyrax. A chubby little thing with dense fur, it looks much like a marmot. In reality it is kin to the African elephant.
Cautiously we crept around the hills of up to forty metres in height in search of the klipspringer. It is difficult to catch it in its habitat, as the colour of its bristly thick coat is a mixture of grey and green tones - a perfect blend with lichen-covered granite.
When approached at the foot of the hill where this creature is located, it first remains motionless for a while, hoping not to be noticed, only to take off like lightning.
In vain, my eyes darted across dozens of shadows and fissures in the rock mass. Time was running out. The ranger gestured that it was high time to start the journey back to camp, as the sun was almost touching the horizon. Within half an hour it would be pitch black.
Disappointed, I folded my tripod.
Suddenly, some fifteen metres above me on a ridge, I looked into the big black eyes of a beautiful antelope, which cocked its head and regarded me closely.
I had found my prey! Slowly, I lowered my tripod to the ground without even opening its legs and pointed my heavy lens on this elegant animal. It was still looking at me, with its big soft ears wide open and forward.
I pressed the shutter button once, and the click was enough to startle it, and it dashed away.
But - I had the shot.
With a deep sigh of satisfaction, I turned to see the stern expression of the game ranger, tapping an impatient finger to his watch - we really should leave now.
That’s when it happened.
Less than thirty metres away from us behind the first kopje came the deafening roar of a male lion!
All of nature seemed to be holding its breath and listening.
The silence had now become oppressive and ominous.
My heart pounded between my ears.
The ranger’s expression was of shock and overwhelm. He hissed, "There aren't supposed to be lions here around this time of year!" Then, remembering his decision not to bring it: "My rifle!" His eyes were as cold and black as those of an enraged mamba.
He investigated which direction the wind was coming from. Thankfully, downwind, and taking our scent away from the predator!
We did not turn but walked cautiously backwards, with our eyes tracked on the direction the sound was coming from.
Every yard we carefully walked backwards seemed like inches to me. I feared that at any moment I would see the golden yellow mane of the lion appear among the rocks in front of us.
Thankfully, the distance between the kopjes and us kept increasing, with no further incident.
Darkness fell in with the dramatic speed of Africa; within minutes the kopjes were enveloped in shadows. The setting sun emitted its last theatrical glimmer of pink and golden light, and then it was dark.
The darkness was impenetrably black.
Arriving back at camp and still reeling from the thought that we could have come face-to-face – unarmed! - with a hell of a lion, I was reminded of the story my wife Marleen told me back in the days when she managed the Ndutu Safari Lodge in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
One evening, after the last guests had gone to their cottages and she made her way to her own lodgings, seven lionesses killed a giraffe just behind her house. She shuddered as she entered her own front door, unable to block out the wet gristly noises of the giraffe being dismembered by the ravenous predators. The night was filled with growls as the big cats competed for the best cuts of the kill!