The coldness enveloped us like an icy shroud as we pulled out of Bush Lodge. Hot breath from our recently consumed coffee condensed on contact with the air, causing plumes of vapour to erupt from our mouths with every exhalation. Pain coursed through our frozen ears. But despite the numbing cold our spirits were high as the guests huddled into their blankets and hugged their hot-water bottles tightly.
Before long we encountered another animal desperate to get some heat back into its tiny body: a tree squirrel, sunning itself on an knobthorn branch. Unlike other such squirrels I have encountered (these creatures are so often overlooked), this one was strangely open to photographic opportunities. Perhaps it was frozen to the branch but it’s more likely to have been just too cold to expend the energy to flee to the higher levels of its lookout point.
Soon afterwards 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 it took us completely by surprise as we rounded the bend. After its (and our) initial shock subsided, the pachyderm relaxed and continued its argument with a large tree that must have said something unpleasant to him before we arrived. We watched quietly for a few minutes, marvelling at the elephant’s paradoxical mixture of delicacy and strength as it dismembered the offending shrubbery, and mesmerised by the wrinkled texture of its hide. At such close proximity, and with its testosterone levels spiking, we thought it prudent to not push our luck with this titanic landscape gardener and soon let it be.
Coffee was enjoyed at a beautiful vantage point overlooking one of the open plains in the reserve. We watched playful impala frolic in the grass as the hot liquid began to defrost our hard-to-reach areas and 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 that had taken place while we were 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 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 afterwards, the lioness began moving, calling softly towards the long grass. Three small cubs emerged from their hiding place and fell in behind her as their little legs struggled to keep up with their mother. Keeping a responsible distance, we followed the family into the thicker bush until she reached a large granite boulder sheltered by a drainage line. Having arrived at a suitable and safe place to rest, she leapt up onto the rocks. The 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 they made no sense to us, clearly filled them with joy. There was nothing to say as the air was filled with the delightful sounds and the zest for life of the youngsters as they 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 is best to leave it to your imagination. Suffice it to say that the experience was both magical and emotional. Soon the bundles of cuteness epitomised tired themselves out and the level of play subsided as their energy levels drained and the temperature increased. Before long, each cub had found a comfortable position on the boulder and settled in for a well-earned slumber.
We left the family to its privacy, joyous in the experience we had shared with them but also apprehensive for their future, which is pitted with danger and offers a minimal chance of survival. With the multitude of other marauding predators in the area, the likelihood of the cubs making it to reproductive age is perhaps just 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 are hopeful that the future is bright for these adorable cubs.