The Lions in the Riverbed

Part of the lion pride in the riverbed, with some of the older cubs

I was working at a lodge in South Africa, and the lodge owner’s family/friends were visiting.
So it was a very laid back few days. On one particularly cold and rainy afternoon, me, along with the guests, the lodge owner, and the head guide/tracker all went on a relaxing game drive.
We did not see to much, most animals were hiding away from the cold and rain.
But as we came to one of the dry riverbeds in the reserve, we spotted a white rhino and her calf!
They were on the other side of the river.
There was a river crossing not far behind us, so we turned around quickly and went to it.
We crossed the dry riverbed and drove to area we had seen the rhinos.
They were gone. As if they had simply taken flight and flown away!
At this point, the rain was only a faint drizzle, but evening was approaching.
The head guide/tracker, I cannot disclose his name, who had been in the industry for many, many years and was highly qualified, offered to go on foot to check in the river bed for the rhinos, and maybe he could find where they went and if they were accesible.
This was agreed upon.
Normally, I would have accompanied him, but I knew he had had a particularly stressful day, and guessed he might need some alone time. So I stayed where I was.

He got off the tracker seat, and took off his radio and placed it in the vehicle.
Do you not want to take it? I had asked, and the lodge owner also suggested he should take it, but the head guide said he did not want it to get wet in the rain.
He then started off for the steep edge of the river.
Both me and the lodge owner called after him to take a rifle with him.
As a guide, if you are going to track something out in the Bush, you should ALWAYS take a rifle with you for protection.
You almost never need to use it, because you generally already understand animal behavior well enough, and know how to show wildlife respect, especially dangerous wildlife. 
The head guide denied the rifle, saying he was just going down quickly, and then he would be back. Again, we suggested taking the rifle anyway, but he promised he would be quick.
He walked away into the fading light of early evening, the cold, drizzle of rain splashing off of him, and he disappeared down the steep side of the riverbed.
We waited awhile. The guests chatted away in the back of the vehicle. Everything else around us was quiet.  Only the dripping on rain drops on leaves, and a whisper of breeze in the grass.


It had been quite some time, and I thought, he should really have come back by now. I felt a slight feeling of foreboding.


My ears, as well as the lodge owner’s, suddenly caught a sound further up river.
My heart went cold. It was a sound I knew instantly, but desperately hoped I was wrong.
Maybe I misheard it?
It was like a deep, barking “brah!” type sound.

We quieted everyone.
Silence.
A long silence…

“HEEEYYY!!! HEY!!!! HEY!!!!!” the silence was broken by the sounds of our head guide screaming. He was WAY up river.
In an instant, we started the engine of the game viewer, and flew up river along the bank. There was way down for the vehicle, it was to steep.

As we came towards the screaming and yelling, my eyes fell upon the scene…

Down a small, muddy cliff, and in the sandy riverbed, first I saw the head guide.
He was taking rapid steps backwards, his jacket was off, and he was waving it frantically in front of himself, yelling at the top of his lungs.
Then there came charging at him a ferocious lioness.
Her legs were stiff and she was snarling, her huge teeth bared.
She was not mock charging.
She was charging with the intent to kill. The jacket the head guide was waving at her seemed to be confusing her slightly, just enough to keep her from pouncing and grabbing him.
And then there was another lionness charging at him.
And another.
And another!

Everything was happening in moments, yet it seemed to be in slow motion.
The head guide was in mortal danger, for the entire pride of lions was in that riverbed, and this pride had several sets of new cubs with them. They were going to kill him to protect their young.

I do not know if any words passed between me and the lodge owner. I only remember that we each grabbed a rifle, for thankfully I had brought two with us that day.
I don’t remember much of those moments, but I know that I had the rifle ready to fire in an instant.
I did not feel anything at all. I just knew what had to be done, and that I was going to do it.

We charged down the muddy cliff side as quickly and carefully as we could.
There was lots of yelling from all of us. And the head guide was able to stumble over to us.
We stepped between him the angry pride of lions. Ready to shoot. 
I remember feeling entirely calm in these moments.
I don’t think my heart rate had even increased. I was looking down the barrel of the rifle, into the eyes of one of the charging lionesses, I felt so aware of everything around me. Every sense and every detail was heightened to a point of purity. And felt such a sense of calmness.
I remember, in those few moments that seemed an eternity, I willed the angry lioness to see how much I did not want to do this. Because shooting one of them was something I never wanted to do.
Don’t do it. I remember thinking towards her.

Watchful but calm pride members

And then, they backed down.
They did not want this either, there was the loud, metal “clank” sound of the lodge owner loading his rifle, and this made the lionesses back away, still growling, and go back to their cubs.
All of this happened in seconds. And then the head guide, who was very pale, took the rifle from me. For it was actually his rifle. (Legally, I actually was not allowed to use it, but that was the last thing any of us were thinking.)

Ferocious snarling came from my left side, and all of us whirled around to face another charging lioness.
And I knew her.
She had charged many people before. She had chased one of the vehicles I was in before, jumping at the back. And I had caught her sneaking in the shadows between the tented camp I worked in, trying to sneak up on a client who was distracted by other lions in the distance.
This lioness was very aggressive, and fearless, and she charged at us, while we yelled at her.
She came so close, that I believe she was about to be shot.
Then she crouched down suddenly. Snarling.

Yawning lioness

We tried to edge our way back up the steep bank. I watched her tail, it twitched in an upward motion, which meant…

Another afternoon with some of the pride, relaxing

She snarled and charged again!! 
We yelled again.
She crouched.
Over and over and over, this happened. For every step away we took, she charged.

Yawning. Another time with some of the pride

Twice she came to a point where I believed someone might really shoot her. Then she would crouch once more.
Step by step, she escorted us back into the vehicle.
And as we got in the vehicle, she glared at us, came forward again, but was interrupted by the gentle moaning call of her sisters, calling her back to the pride.

Leading the pride away

With a slash of her tail, the lioness turned and went back to join her pride.

We found the rhinos the next morning…

Everyone was safe.
Also, the rhino mother and her calf had apparently caught wind of the pride of lions, and bolted from the area before we had arrived.
We did see them the next morning, far away from the lions.
And the memory of that encounter remains clear and loud in my mind to this day.
We saw that same pride again later on that night, and the cubs were playing as though nothing in the world had happened.
And those same cubs are now grown up, healthy and capable lions, and powerful members of their mothers’ pride.

An older cub
Proud mother

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