The coldness enveloped us like an icy shroud the moment we pulled out of Bush Lodge. Hot breath from our recently consumed coffee condensed on contact with the freezing air causing plumes of smoke to erupt from our mouth with every exhalation. Despite the numbing cold our spirits we were high as the guests huddled deep into their blankets and hugged their hot water bottles tight. The prospect of another unscripted bush encounter however, kept our eyes and minds as sharp as the pain coursing through our frozen ears!
Before long we encountered another animal desperate to get some heat back into its tiny body. An often overlooked Tree squirrel was sunning himself on an exposed branch of a Knob-thorn tree as we drove past and for once, was strangely accommodating for photographic opportunities! Perhaps he was frozen to the branch but more likely just too cold to expend the energy to flee to the higher levels of his look out point.
Not long after, we almost literally bumped into a massive roadblock in the form of a musthing bull elephant. For such an enormous creature the elephant is a master of concealment and took us completely by surprise as we rounded the bend. After his (and our) initial shock subsided, he relaxed again and continued his argument with a large tree that must have said something unpleasant to him before we arrived. We watched quietly for a few minutes marveling at the paradoxical mixture of delicacy and strength as he dismembered the offending shrubbery; and mesmerized by the wrinkled texture of the hide covering the muscles needed to compliment such a large animal. At such close proximity, and with his testosterone levels spiking, we thought it prudent to not push our luck with this titanic landscape gardener and quickly let him be.
Coffee was enjoyed at a beautiful vantage point overlooking one of the open plains on the reserve. We watched playful impala frolic in the grass as the hot liquid began to defrost our hard to reach areas and we reveled in the warmth of the sun’s rays as it rose higher into another clear blue African sky. As we departed, I asked for an update on the events of the morning since we had stopped and was overjoyed to hear that not far from us, a lioness had been spotted with her young cubs. I made a bee line for the area after being called in and struggled to hide my excitement from the guests. Being the deliverer of such wonderful surprises is part of the enjoyment of a career in the guiding industry. As we arrived, the female was resting in the grass, scanning the horizon for a potential meal or perhaps danger that may threaten her cubs. Either way, the level of focus contained within those golden eyes left little doubt that this mother would protect her interests at all costs. Soon after, the lioness began moving and called softly towards the long grass. Three small cubs soon emerged from their hiding place and fell in behind her as their little legs struggled to keep up with their mother. We followed the happy family into thicker bush from a respectable distance until she found a large granite boulder sheltered by a nearby drainage line. Having reached a suitable and safe place to rest, she leapt up on to the rocks as the following fluff balls scrambled up behind her.
For the next 15 minutes or so, the cubs acted like typical kids, engaging in a variety of games that, although made no sense to us, clearly filled them with joy. There was nothing to say as the air was filled with delightful sounds of the zest of life as the youngsters explored the boundaries of their strength and agility. Anything that I write here will not do justice to the spectacle we were privy to so perhaps it best to leave it up to your imagination, suffice to say that the experience was both magical and emotional. Soon these epitomes of cuteness tired themselves out and the level of play subsided as energy levels drained and the temperature increased. Before long, each cub found comfortable positions draped over the boulder and settled in for a well earned slumber.
We left the family to their privacy joyous in the experience we had shared with them but also apprehensive for their future which pitted with danger and only minimal chances of survival. With the multitude of other marauding predators in this area, the likelihood of making it to reproductive age is perhaps only 50% if we are optimistic. Still, with the support of a strong pride behind them and a mother whose maternal instinct knows no bounds, we remain hopeful that the future is bright for these adorable cubs.