Originally written in 2011, this true story was entered in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Travel Writer of the Year competition. Sadly it didn’t win, but was commended by the judges. I had forgotten about it but found it again during a new year clean up of old files. It’s a lovely story with a sad ending that demonstrates just how fragile life is in the wild, one more reason why we should take greater care of the wild things we have.
Solo – adj/adv: for or done by one alone; unaccompanied.
January in Sabi Sand, South Africa, close to the Manyeleti River. At five in the afternoon the temperature is beginning to moderate from mid forties centigrade to a more tolerable thirty something. The Robson pride is sprawled in scrub either side of the sand track and doesn’t look good – they haven’t eaten for days and the play-fighting cubs show gaunt ribcages and bellies. Anton stops and we spend time watching the relaxing cats. Cats of all types are experts at doing nothing, and sitting in the herb fragrant bush to watch them with just the gentle chirrup of insects all around is a wonderfully calming experience. They must hunt soon and as the day cools down it’s odd that the adults show no sign of trying to find prey, or even moving much at all. One of the females gets up eventually, stretches and yawns, and walks down the track. We follow until she veers into the bush. There’s no sign of the rest of the pride and so we leave in search of other distractions and the promise of a ‘sundowner’ (South African for gin & tonic) in a quiet spot.
Night comes quite suddenly in the bush and we’re soon ambling our way back towards camp about 4 miles away. Rufus the African tracker is perched on his special seat over the nearside front wing of the Land Rover with a mega zillion candle power searchlight, with which he spots, from several hundred yards away, chameleons, bush babies, and tiny Little Owls, no bigger than your hand to the amazement of guests.
Anton’s radio earpiece crackles. “Go Gideon. (Pause) What! Where? We’ll be 5 minutes.”
“Hold on guys, we’ve got an appointment!”
This is ranger speak for ‘there is an interesting sighting and I’m now going to drive like a lunatic to get you there’. Driving through the bush in daylight with Anton when he’s on a mission usually rearranges one’s body parts quite effectively, but darkness adds another dimension to the already fairly terrifying. Rufus concentrates on using his spotlight to see what’s ahead and just clings on. Around a corner and the darkness is suddenly blacker still, but with eyes.
“Bloody cows – move!”
Such un-ranger like sentiments are directed at the breeding herd of buffalo spread ten deep across the track and in no hurry to go. Eventually after several Afrikaans expletives and some assertive driving we get through and soon see a spotlight in the bush off to our right. We are now on land owned by our lodge so we can go off road and Anton takes us straight through/over several small acacia bushes, with Rufus guiding him around rocks, fallen trees and other bush detritus. And still no clue from our taciturn ranger as to what we’re heading towards. As we reach the other Land Rover and Gideon we kill our lights and see in a tiny clearing the lioness we had watched earlier, but not as expected over a kill. Instead Gideon’s spotlight reveals what appears to be a large wet rat on the ground in front of her, struggling to get its feet. A single newly born cub just minutes old. Blind, deaf and unable to stand or walk, this tiny new baby is totally dependent for protection on its mother in a very hostile and dangerous world.
Gideon turns off his light and we watch transfixed in the darkness and silence as the mother licks it clean and picks it up gently in her mouth to move it into cover. Then she roars. And roars and roars. As we sit in the roofless Land Rover in complete darkness suddenly we’re aware of shapes all around. It’s the pride, summoned to greet their newest member. We are completely surrounded by lions so close we could touch them, and they in turn each investigate the newborn. Suddenly a big male is there, and this is dangerous. Males are known to kill cubs not of their making but Mum gives a warning rumble and all is well. It’s been just another day for the pride but a very, very special one for us all, rangers and trackers included.
The following morning at dawn we find them. As the morning sunlight touches the youngster’s back for the very first time I get a half decent shot of the two of them. The next time we see Solo as he has been named, he is 18 months old and just beginning to get his mane, the badge of office of the male lion. Sadly that’s the last time. It’s not at all unknown for lions to be cannibals. A very few months later four rogue males from up north wipe out all the local prides including the Robsons, with very few survivors and Solo never makes it to adulthood.