Updated: May 15, 2020
In the dappled shade of the surrounding foliage, I witnessed a trio of restless lion cubs playfully attack each other as they waited for their mother to return from her adventure into the Savannah.
Seeing lion cubs is an evergreen experience that will never wither or grow old. The excitement and anticipation of the experience sends electric pulses up the spine and shivers down the body. Your limbs seem to lose all muscular function and you are instantly rooted in place. All of a sudden the idea that you are in the wild flies out of your brain as your mind can only focus on the dangerously cuddly cubs that are gleefully playing in front of you.
And, believe it or not, this is only a fraction of what I felt when these cubs came into my view...
The day was drawing to its conclusion and there was only a few hours left before the land succumbed to darkness. During the daylight hours my family and I had been enjoying a driving Safari in the Selous game park, situated in Eastern Africa. Our vehicle of choice was this hunter-green jeep that had suspension as good as a steel rod. You could feel every bump and imperfection in the ground and as you can imagine, a back country-dirt road had many of those pesky imperfections. We had seen many incredible sights that day such as a herd of giraffes crossing a stream, to a wake of vultures feasting on a large carcass. Yet for all the wildlife we still saw no lions. However, something in my bones told me we had yet to experience the crescendo of the day.
After our brains were almost saturated from what we saw, we decided to head back towards camp.
It begun like any other return trip with us heading towards what was considered the 'main road.' Since we had some time to spare we did not race to get home and so we slowly bumped along the road, keeping our eyes peeled on the neighboring landscape for anything seemingly mobile.
To our surprise we did come across a small gathering of hyenas who had made their den inside the drainage pipes that lay underneath the road but they quickly ran away as we approached.
As the last of my hopes went up in a cloud of dust, our driver got a call on the radio. I could not understand what they were saying but by the sheer energy of the conversation I could tell it was something exciting . Sparks were flying out of the radio by the time they had stopped conversing and i was about ready to explode myself. I do not know many words in Swahili ( the African language they were speaking), yet, one of the spoken words reverberated in my mind like a gunshot:
The Jeep gained a set of wings as it began to fly down the dirt road towards what we hoped were a set of lion cubs. Everyone in the car was ecstatic and we were barely in our seats. This is what our expedition had been leading up to!
As we neared our perceived destination we began to slow to a gradual crawl and for a moment the only sounds were the deep grumble of the Jeeps engine. Our eyes were transfixed on the grassy area that was around us, and, like sentries we scanned the land for any sign of the cubs. We weren't particularly far from the main road and so i had my suspicions that the initial sighting of the cubs was a mistake. However, that all vanished in a blink of an eye when our guide silenced the engine and directed our gaze to a dense patch of grass off to our right. My eyes were not as trained, or sharp as the guide's and so it took me a moment to realize that the patches of dried grass i had been looking at were a little more mammalian in nature.
Then it hit me.
There they were in all their majestic grandeur. Three of them we counted, each lying on their stomachs with their golden paws out stretched in front of their muzzles. The liquid orange glow that poured from the setting sun illuminated the lions fur and danced about in their eyes. At a quick guess, i would say we were less than 50m away from these cubs but i wanted to be closer. I wanted to feel like i was among them, and so i did not hesitate get my camera and slap on the biggest lens i had available (100-300mm).
Through the camera i got to see many intricate details that were invisible to me before. I could see a light dusting of dark specs on their coats that beautifully contrasted with the lighter fur and I caught moments where their tails would gently twitch to get rid of an invading fly. But what was most spectacular was when i caught the cubs beginning to play with each other. The one furthest away from the Jeep just seemed to get this urge to annoy their siblings (#relatable) and what started out as gentle badgering quickly escalated to full on tackling and nibbling each other. It was quite hilarious to witness actually. But in amidst the fray the two leading cubs seem to freeze in the cutest embrace i have ever seen and, as if they knew i was watching, i caught them staring directly into the camera. ,
That moment is the photo you see captured above and to this day it is one of my favorites.
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks" ~John Muir~