Lions Can Climb Trees

Photographers are sort of crazy dudes who will try lots of things in pursuance of that one great shot.

A few years back, while on our reserve (ZUKA – Northern KwaZulu-Natal), we were called into a sighting where a pride of lions had taken out a kudu. I was driving my old Toyota open game viewing vehicle which had a cut-out entrance where the passengers stepped into the vehicle, rather than my latest vehicle where they must climb up and over the side to get into the vehicle.

Yvonne (my wife) sat on the seat immediately behind me and was less than a metre, directly opposite that cut-out gap. Behind her were two Italian ladies who were visiting us in SA, on their very first expedition to Africa, and who could be conservatively described as highly excitable, volatile and with voices which easily reached the peak crescendo of a Cicada beetle at Xmas time.

The lions were making a real racket enjoying their kudu meal, and we had only 1 out of 5 visual because of all the long  grass in that area. It was about 10h00 in the morning and the sun was hot. Being a totally open vehicle, with no roof, I pulled up under a tree and positioned the vehicle no more than a meter from the trunk, to take advantage of the shade. While we sat there with the excited, squawking Italian ladies, one of the sub-adult lions decided that it needed a change of scenery, and proceeded to head directly towards us.

Lions don’t look at you, they look straight through you, with absolutely no emotion on their faces.

As it got closer, so the Italian ladies’ frenzy became more shrill, to the extent that Yvonne had to clamp her hand over the one’s mouth in order not to alarm the approaching lion!

The lion came directly to the vehicle and put its face into to cut-out doorway to check out the scene. It  was obscured from my vision, but the look on Yvonne’s face told the story. It was classic, to say the least… I guess you would expect that sort of thing when a wild lion is literally no more than an arm’s length from your legs!

The lion then sprang into the fork of the tree, right opposite me and I could see his paws, moving backwards and forwards on the stem, as if preparing to jump into the vehicle! I could smell him and hear his breathing, which was not too difficult, as he was no more than 2 metres from my face! It lasted only about 15 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. That  lion gazed at me and then at the ladies behind me, while its paws were twitching on the branch, as if it was ready to jump right into the vehicle – that bothered me intensely!

I barely managed to grab one of my cameras, which had a wide angle 100mm lens. I knew that any of my white lenses, just wouldn’t be able to capture an image that close. Instinctively I also managed to grab a flash and attach it. Without a fill-flash I had no chance to getting any shots under that darkly shaded canopy of branches.

With my back hard up against the driver’s door post, I just kept taking shots as the lion  suddenly turned and bounded up to the branch above. This gave me a little time to start breathing again and I quickly started the vehicle, which fired up on the first twist of the key, and moved about three meters backwards.

The lion-bearing branch was directly overhead and any missed footing or worse still, a broken branch, could only result in one branch and one lion in my lap or on my head! As I was photographing this precarious balancing act, one of the lion siblings also decided that she’d  had enough to eat for the time being, and followed her brother. We endured an exact repeat performance, again holding our breath until both lions were perched on the same branch, but this time, at a slightly safer distance of 4m from us.

I guess they looked to be a little more than two years old, as the male had only very slight signs of his mane starting to grow, and both still had “kitty spots” on their tummies. It was amazing to see approximately 260kg of lion standing on such a flimsy branch, which I was fully expecting to give way at any moment.

The first lion then turned and seemed to want to get past his sibling, but she simply refused to back down and responded by wedging her bum in the crook of the branch and refused to budge. They went nose-to-nose for less than a minute, when suddenly the female started to slide, losing her balance and landing with a resounding “thud” next to the front of my vehicle! With a very embarrassed expression of her face, she quickly slunk back to her breakfast.

The final shot of this sequence shows her falling, with her sibling looking at her quizzically, seeming to say “You stupid lion. I told you to move!”

The remaining lion sat on the branch and proudly surveyed his kingdom, as all good kings of the jungle should, when they are pleased.

By this time, the stifled spluttering and squawking from behind me, prompted me to reverse out of the sighting and head back to camp. It took a number of “anaesthetics” to get my heart-beat back to normal, and copious amounts of wine for the ladies regain to their composure.

The sequence was all shot with a 100 mm lens, using a flash.

Keep away from photographers… They’re nuts!

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