In the yellow early morning light, we cruised under the canopy of acacia thorns, the Land Rover tyres soundlessly puffing fine clouds of dust into our wake. Lewis allowed us to roll to a stop and scanned the horizon with his binoculars, a worn steel-cased pair from the British Army. We were in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya and this is always my favourite part of a safari – just after dawn, entering a game park with the taste of morning coffee and biscuits still lingering and a hamper full of promising brunch beside me.
Lewis whistled softly. “Vultures,” he said. “About two miles away, I think on the riverbank.”
I looked too, and could see in the distance what looked like three or four brown specs lazily circling above the trees. More arrived and joined the whirlpool as I watched, as if they were hoping to be sucked into the centre and down out of sight. But none landed.
Lewis started the engine and we moved on, turning towards the river and following a red dirt track as it snaked through the long grass. The animals turned out in numbers. Millions actually. From the lake of pink ‘ballet dancing’ flamingos at Nakuru to the unbelievable spectacle that is the wildebeest migration of the Masai Mara. But these were guaranteed. ‘Game driving is like fishing’, Lewis had told me. You can be lucky on your first time out and see something special.We were.
So, back to Samburu. The sun rose quickly, and I had to remove my fleece as we followed the twisting track along the river. The Land Rover groaned and lurched through a dried up stream, and within minutes we arrived under the vultures, in a clearing where the river turned sharply to the south. Standing less that fifty metres away, with her head low and her sunken eyes looking up at the circling birds was a huge lioness. One side of her face was turning black with blood and her breathing was heavy, her chest heaving with the effort.
Lewis cut the engine and we were silent. Slowly the lioness recovered her breath and looked around her. By now I’d picked out the tawny shapes of at least four cubs waiting patiently with another big lioness. It was as if they were all waiting for something, as if I was missing something.
Then I saw it. The first lioness turned and padded slowly back towards the rest. Behind her was the body of a full grown Grevy’s zebra. The lions had made a dawn kill and would feast here for several days. The lioness stopped, looked back at the zebra and the flying scavengers, and went no further. She wasn’t in the mood for sharing yet. A jackal trotted hopefully in a wide circle around the group, being watched closely by the other lioness. We waited long enough to absorb the scene then left.
Later on the drive we met a group who’d not seen any big cats and Lewis informed their guide of our find:
“Kunaye masharufu!” [There are lions!] (‘masharufu’ means ‘beard’ in Kiswahili)
“Kando ya mto.” [On the riverbank.]
“Wangapi?” [How many?]
“Saba. Watoto watano, wake wawili.” [Seven. Five cubs and two lionesses.]
The other guide smiled and his clients looked at us hopefully, unsure as to what our news was.
“Wapi?” [Where?] Asked the driver eagerly.
“Barabara iliyo karibu na mto.” [The road near the river.]
“Unaenda upande wa kulia kidogo” [Go a little bit to the right.]
“Wako hapo kwa corner.” [They are right there at the corner.]
“Asante sana! Kwaheri!” [Thanks! Bye!]
They sped away and Lewis looked at me and grinned wryly…
“Guerba leads, others follow!” he chuckled.