Hundreds of eyes peered at me through the leaves, beckoning me to raise my camera and fixate on a figure nestled in the branches. Except they weren’t eyes, they were a pattern of spots that adorned the sleek, muscular curves of the back side of the leopard. Disbelief mixed with awe started to spread through my body. I silently prayed for the leopard to turn around. This beautiful, massive cat was number one on the list of animals I wanted to see in Africa. I was desperate to see his beautiful face.
Unfortunately, my prayers were not answered and I had to settle for the bum view only of the elusive cat. Any trace of disappointment was short-lived in the midst of three magical days of safari on the Maasai Mara reserve in Kenya. My consolation prize for not getting to see a leopard face? Well, seeing a leopard period is quite amazing, not to mention several prides of lions, two cheetah families, large herds of gazelle, impala and various other ungulates, hundreds of elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, cape buffalo, zebras, hippos, baboons – the list goes on…
My African safari was overwhelmingly amazing – there was just so much to take in. In order to keep my brain from getting over-stimulated, I decided to dedicate this post to the big cats of Africa.
The leopard sighting occurred on the heels of a cheetah sighting on our first day in the Mara. Our group was already buzzing with excitement from our first view of elephants when we heard our Kenyan guide, David (Kamishina) ole Nkuito, on the radio in an exchange with his fellow guides. Being in Swahili, we had no idea what the conversation was about, but David’s knowing glances and whispers with our Canadian guide, Rick Castiglione, became a familiar pre-cursor to seeing something really cool. Of course, neither David or Rick gave any indication as to what we were about to see. On this occasion, it happened to be a family of five cheetahs resting on a mound of dirt – our first sighting of big African cats!
On our evening game drive that night, we got our first view of lions – two females on the prowl. I was ecstatic – one day on safari and I had already seen all three big African cats. Compare that to my 40 years of living in Canada, where I’ve only seen one of our three wild cats on two occasions (Canadian Lynx). Not that I’m knocking our Canadian wildlife – I love my country’s animals – it’s just quite a contrast.
Out of the three big cats, we got to spend the most time observing the lions. Our second sighting was quick but memorable. A large female lion ran across the road directly in front of our vehicle. She stopped on the other side of the road and made a series of grunting sounds, summoning her little, wee cub to run across the road to join her. David estimated the young cub to be about two months old. He/she was so ridiculously cute!
Our third lion encounter was a taste of what the Mara is like in the height of tourist season, when the wildlife always attracts a large audience. We heard the familiar rumblings of David speaking in Swahili, and soon found ourselves parked among 6 or 7 other vehicles watching a pride of four young-adult lions – two females and two males (I think? there may have been five). This was one of the few occasions during our visit where it was actually hot on the Mara, so the lions were taking cover under the bushes. Every glimpse of lions is amazing, but I found all the vehicles surrounding this group a tad unnerving. I’m glad we visited Kenya in early June, pre-heavy-tourist season, and our other lion sightings occurred in less chaotic settings.
Our fourth encounter with a lone, mature male was the opposite of chaotic. The setting sun cast an orange glow on the massive figure as he lumbered through the grass. His full mane cradled his face like the petals of a flower, highlighting his soulful eyes and bristly fur. He looked so gentle and peaceful, but fresh wounds and old scars revealed the hardship of life on the plains for the king of the savanna. We spent about 15 minutes watching him before he laid down in the grass, yawning his way to what I hope was a restful sleep.
As we left the lion to head back to the lodge, massive marbled clouds absorbed the pink and orange rays of the sun, overwhelming the sky with the last remnants of a magical day. If I saw nothing else during my whole time in Africa, that brief period with the king of wildlife at sunset would’ve been enough to keep me happy for the rest of my life.
But I did see more, a lot more. Our fifth lion sighting was after a rather intense downpour. As result of the rain, our group didn’t think we’d see anything on our morning game drive. But the rain stopped and Rick spotted some browny-orange figures in the distance.
Two adult females and four 6-month old cubs were enjoying some post rain down-time in the grass. I didn’t think anything could equal the amazing sight of the big male from the night before, but I was wrong. We had this pride of lions completely to ourselves, no other vehicles impeding our view as we watched them saunter through the glistening grass.
It was indescribably amazing to watch these lions interact. Every movement radiated the essence of their cat-ness – gentle head-butts, cuddling, licking their paws and grooming their family mates. One of the cubs was being treated to a nice bath from who I’m guessing was his mom. To begin with, it seemed like he really enjoyed the attention, his head leaning in towards every stroke of the long textured tongue. But after a few minutes, he lost is patience, bearing his teeth every time mom went in for a lick. The mom didn’t seem to mind and continued the bath. Of course, a mother knows when her offspring needs a good cleaning and no amount of resistance will keep her from her duty. Such an intimate look into the life of lions! It was heart-warming.
Seeing the wild cats and all the animals in the Mara is an experience I will never forget. I have to give a big shout out to our guide for the whole Africa journey, Rick Castiglione, Cielo Pictures, for making the Mara part of our adventure. His organization and expertise made for an extraordinary experience in every way. And a huge thanks to David (Kamishina) ole Nkuito, Enaidura Big Step Safaris, for his knowledge, patience and good humour throughout the entire Kenya portion of our African adventure.
View more lion images in my new Lions of Africa gallery, and until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂