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Lions and lions and lions, oh my!

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I was asked to summarise my lion sightings from our recent trip by a friend. Here's what I wrote, I thought it may be of interest to some of you here.

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I've been re-reading my diary from our recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania and remembering, in particular, our wonderful lion sightings.

Our first lion sightings were in Samburu where we encountered a beautiful female, completely oblivious to the vehicles full of delighted tourists. She had, so we were told, recently given birth to cubs and was still lactating, though we didn't get to see the cubs. She'd hidden them well enough that, as far as our guide was aware, no-one had spotted them yet. Still, watching her enjoy the sunshine and, it seemed, the admiring attention, was thrill a-plenty.

But our best sightings came in the Mara. Our first sightings were in the Koiyaki Conservation Area, in which our safari camp was located. We came across a small pride of lionesses and their large cubs. These weren't so easy to make out, flopping in the shade of a small forested area. The cubs were at least 4 to 6 months old, maybe more. We didn't get too close or stay too long as the view was so obstructed and they were resting in the heat of the day.

We also had a number of encounters with a handsome male lion, presumably the head of this pride. He posed beautifully for us in the sunlight, chin raised and mane blowing in the breeze. He was absolutely in his prime and he knew it!

Our third encounter with this pride consisted of coming across three lionesses lying on their backs in the heat of the day. The nearest one was so fat we assumed they must have only recently finished gorging on a rather fine feast indeed.

On other drives we went into the National Reserve and were rewarded with some wonderful sightings. A particularly exciting one was of a single lioness sitting atop a rather large, grassy termite mound with her very young cub at her feet. This was right next to a track so we were up close and personal. The cub was the smallest we'd ever seen in the flesh and our guide confirmed it was about 3 weeks old. A second lioness was at the foot of the mound, in the shade of a small bush. The cub was lively indeed and we watched him traipse around his mother, swat her, nuzzle against her and exhibit much exuberance. Eventually he tired of the lack of response and trotted down the slope to the second lioness who tolerated him for a few moments before dragging herself up and walking across to another bush at the other side of the mound, still, luckily, in our view. The cub wasn't having that and raced across to follow her, eventually settling within her shade.

We had never imagined we'd see such a young cub as we'd learned (from documentaries, books and information gleaned from previous safari guides over the years) that lionesses tend to keep their cubs carefully hidden during their first couple of months, not just from other animals (including us) but also from the rest of the pride! So we felt very lucky indeed.

One day we headed into the heart of the reserve towards a mobile camp belonging to our main camp owner. Available for main camp guests only, it's relocated each season and consists of just 4 small tents in the old style. Each one is just big enough to squeeze in two traditional cot beds and has a small ensuite with bucket shower and drop toilet (complete with sand bucket for "flushing"). Magical and we were fortunate to have it all to ourselves the night we stayed.

Near the mobile camp we found a large pride of about 18 individuals consisting of a number of lionesses and older cubs as well as a very impressive, scarred and weary looking pride male. One of his lower incisors had, some time in the past, been pulled out of his mouth, but remained attached, such that it sat hanging over his lower lip the entire time.

The cubs in this pride were very playful and we enjoyed watching them boisterously pounce, swat and grab each other and the lionesses too. We spent several hours here and also saw one of the lionesses make a very lazy attempt to bring down one of the wildebeest milling in the vicinity. Doomed to failure from the start, as she revealed her position from much too far away, she aborted her run not long after she started it, the wildebeest having raced out of her reach.

Vehicles from other camps came and went, not too many, to our pleased surprise. But as the sun slunk low in the sky all but ours had to leave the pride in order to make it back to their respective camps and lodges before the sun set. As we were a mere 2 or 3 minutes from our camp, we were able to enjoy the last minutes of playfulness in the golden light before also retiring for the night.

The next morning we headed out as early as we could and were rewarded by coming across the pride feasting on two adult wildebeest they had hunted during the night. At first, the sky was still quite dark but once the sun came up, we had a lovely period of the most beautiful golden light again and watched in enchanted silence as the lions fed. Only once the sun had risen much higher in the sky did other vehicles finally join us.

But the Mara saved the most magical till last. Our last morning arrived and we agreed with our guide to enjoy an hour or two game drive before heading directly to the airstrip. To our surprise, he headed back to the small forested area where we'd seen the small local pride. Surprised only because we'd not had the clearest or most interesting sightings of lions there, compared to our other encounters with these beautiful big cats. We entered a small clearing within the forest, where we'd seen the three lionesses lolling on their backs a few days previously. We could see nothing. We could hear nothing. And yet our guide, a reliable and excellent guide indeed, was focusing intently. I began to listen and then, just as it seemed we would give up, I heard something. A small breath and movement from within the bushes in the ditch looping around two sides of the clearing. All of us focused again and then we heard a little cry, what could only be described as a cross between a yelp and a mewl. Eagerly, we peered into the bush where it had come from. And were rewarded by the sight of a tiny lion cub! He came into our sight only briefly before he was completely hidden again by the scrub. His mother had picked a perfect place to hide her tiny litter! Our guide finally explained that a fellow guide and friend of his had found this small litter of cubs just before sunset the previous night. Thus far, his friend had shared the knowledge only with our guide. The cubs were just 2 or 3 days old! That rather fat lioness that I'd assumed had overeaten was presumably on the verge of giving birth! We waited impatiently for another glimpse, knowing we could not stay long without missing our onward flight and the 2 connecting flights that followed! At this point the mother lioness returned. She wasn't in the slightest peturbed by our presence and we were able to witness several more glimpses of the tiny cubs including two of them suckling their mother. We weren't sure exactly how many cubs there were, I know I saw two individuals but may have seen more, it was hard to tell. Not long after the female arrived we spotted a male lion approaching, probably the same one we'd seen on previous drives. We held our breaths but decided, from the lioness' reaction, that he was probably the cub's father. He didn't come too close but continued past us. All too soon our guide told us we must leave and we reluctantly tore ourselves away, pointing out the location of the cubs to the two vehicles that arrived just as we were leaving.

Never would we have imagined we would experience a sighting such as this!

We did see lions elsewhere, notably a number of prides and males in Tarangire, a few lions too in Ngorongoro Crater and a pair of lions mating in the NW Serengeti. But our most precious lion memories were definitely made in the Maasai Mara!

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