Its amazing the random string of thoughts that can stroll through my head before heading out to photograph. Rarely are they about photography, and more often than not, my mind wonders toward coffee or on this particular morning, if Matt was really telling the truth about baboons being able to open doors. So did I lock the door to our room? I couldn't remember, and it was killing me on the inside.
Matt, our tracker, was in quite a rush this morning, we were a good 20 minutes ahead of the other cars, something that never bothers me, as long as I have a warm cup of coffee.
"Did you hear them this morning?" Matt asked. He is a 28 year old white South African with deep voice and thick accent. Man I wish I had that accent, I remember thinking that to myself on numerous occasions throughout the trip, and it wont be the last time I mention it.
"There were two rival male lions spotted near camp and the local males are tracking them down, they have been calling each other for hours. We need to catch them before they leave."
The vegetation on both sides of the road was thick, far denser than that you typically think of in Africa. It has the feel of driving down a logging road back in the states, (minus the tall trees). I was watching the world fly by, not really paying attention to much else, a product of my personality, I don't like mornings, odd since most wildlife photography takes place in the early morning. I did have a cup of coffee in my hand, which usually boosts my spirits, however it was far too hot to drink, which makes me sad. In fact, I often find it worse when I have coffee, but can't drink it.
That was my thought process as the car started to skid. That work me up, amazing how adrenaline does. Matt had slammed on the brakes, dust was spiting from under the tires. I covered my lens so not to spill gear onto the floor, or worse yet, out of the car. I do have good reaction time regardless of how much sleep I get. As the dust eased, I assessed my situation. Gear is good, and just as important, coffee appeared to still all be in the mug, albeit a little dusty. I remember that brief moment of being very proud of myself a midst the instant chaos, almost smirking as I realized that I once again just got lucky I was that I didn't have broken gear and molten hot coffee all over my lap. But the smile quickly faded when I realized the cause of the sudden stop.
It was a small cub, no more than a few months old, laying dead in the road. He was on his side paws outstretched, eyes still open. There was steam rising off of the large bite wounds in his back and neck. The attack had happened maybe 15 minutes earlier. I turned to comfort Adrienne, my wife. She is a sensitive soul, someone who accidentally runs over a squirrel and grieves the loss for a week. So I had no idea how she would handle this, but did prepare for the worst, tissues in hand. She had her hands clasped over her mouth, but wasn't crying. I had a quick sign of relief.
Matt grabbed the radio to signal it in as he pulled around the cub, but throughout the car, nothing was said. Unlike most mornings where you could hear the chatter or monkeys, or the early morning call of birds, its as if the animals themselves were holding their breathe. The land was eerily silent.
When we finally caught up the the local males, four of them in total, they were already on the scent of the invaders. They had faces of warriors, preparing for battle, stoic, like stone statues. Big cats are amazing animals, and are quite expressive, but when you see one, especially a large male without any expression at all, it creeps me out. Their movement was silent, their breath forming steam as they pressed forward. They followed one another in a line, marking their territory in tandem, stopping at moments to listen, and smell the air. They knew we were there, but they had business to attend to, felt a little like a kid at the adult party.
We moved a few times, pulling in front of them and resetting the car. They weaved in and out of the three cars that were there like we were an obstetrical course. This was my first experience with the males and at times, they walked so close to use I felt like they were going to climb right in the car, luckily, they never did. And as quickly as we came upon them, they vanished into the dense brush out of our reach. No sounds, they didn't look back, they just disappeared into the underbrush like ghosts.
I took two things away from this morning, first, don't mess with lions . . . they hold a grudge. And second, always make sure you have a tight lid on your coffee whenever you're in the field. Not much would have made that experience more devastating than boiling hot coffee on my genitals.
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