Had I, with the blessing of hindsight, to choose a half hour into which to compress the African leg of my Big Cat Quest, this morning between quarter past eight and quarter to nine would do well. We saw in this time six lions, a leopard and a cheetah.
We went north from Mbuzi Mawe, through the gorgeous Togoro savannahs, golden heads of grasses stirring in the morning's breeze. All around were antelopes: tan and slate topi, milky tea hartebeest, Grant's and Thomson's gazelles, keeping time with their tails. With them were many buffalos and zebras. There was much here for a cat to eat.
The first lions were two cubs under six months which cantered across the track ahead of our jeeps and dived into a dense bush by a small marsh at the roadside. Their faces, and the face of a sibling, poked from this bush and the grasses by it, checking what manner of creatures these were that were staring so rudely.
As we stared, Richard lifted his binoculars to the largest tree behind the marsh and laconically announced it held a leopard. A leopard so close to a den of young lions was remarkable, but there it lay, relaxed, on a thick horizontal branch. The lion cubs by now were venturing from their bush, slipping away to the long grass. With them, to our surprise and delight, went a sleek lioness, perhaps their mother, and two more cubs, one clearly smaller and from another litter.
|There is a leopard in the lower left of the tree.|
Richard spotted a second lioness among spindly trees at the top of the slight slope to our right. We raised binoculars and together said, 'Cheetah!' It was possible now to see lions, a leopard and a cheetah all at once, within a few hundred metres of one another and of us, all found within half an hour of seeing the first cubs.
I made so bold as to think that Africa's cats approved of my Big Cat Quest.
We cautiously approached the cheetah, but it had settled into the shade of a tree as the day's heat rose, so we drove on to the north. A few minutes further we came across a male lion in the open, haloed in bright grasses. I pointed him out to my clients and they thought I was joking. How could the cat-watching be this good? 'Wouldn't that be nice,' said one. 'No, look!' said I in response.
He sat, our lion, in the grass, his dense mane the almost-black of the darkest chocolate. He turned his impassive tawny eyes to our jeeps and stared. This was the lion we had all still been hoping to see.
|The dark shape in the centre of the photo is a lion.|
A little further we met another lioness, with two still-spotty cubs, at the edge of a small stream. There were ostriches, there were European and lilac-breasted rollers, there were European bee-eaters (above the great male lion's head), there were Bohor reedbuck and there were lappet-faced and white-backed vultures. On the way back there were still lion cubs under the bush, and a lioness close by in the grass.
And we, we were very happy.
Simba na watoto, chui juu ya mti na duma: a lion with cubs, a leopard in a tree and a cheetah.