Worth waiting for

Pamushana | May 2019

A call crackled over the radio that the tracking team had found the River Pride on a buffalo kill near Hwata Pan. “Bonanza!” I thought. Not only because this would provide good photo opportunities of lions feeding in relatively open area, and the clean-up crew of hyenas and vultures that would make no bones of the carcass over the next few days, but mainly because Hwata Pan is where we have our sunken photo hide, and the lions would have to go and drink there at some stage during the feeding frenzy. I’ve waited for 10 years to get a shot of a predator drinking at eye level to me from this hide – could this be the chance at last?

There were two groups of guests in camp, and after the first group had their fill of the lions feasting I went and photographed the scene. They’d already eaten an enormous amount, but were all eyes when another lone buffalo ambled towards the waterhole. You can see them staring in his direction in the next photo, while a concerned zebra in the distance looks on. In time they resumed feeding, and then were chased off by the dominant male who wanted another helping.

I went and set myself up in the hide, told the other guide my plans and that he and his guests should join me if they wished to be a part of my quest to photograph lions drinking. They did, and we all spent a fantastic session in the hide, but with elephant bulls – not lions. They were drinking and splashing and bullying one another – and it was wonderful to watch and photograph, and to be so close to the action. There is a shelf at chin level where you balance your camera, and when the elephants walk past the openings of the hide you are literally close enough to reach out and touch them (which obviously you don’t!).

But the lions were a no show. Eventually at about lunch time I headed back to the lodge to recharge batteries, download images, eat and rest. I did all the former, but there was no way I could lie down and rest with the question, “WHAT IF THEY ARE DRINKING NOW?” roaring in my head. I grabbed all my kit and headed out again, and let the other guides know that I’d call them if the lions headed towards the water.

Well, they were still a no show. I got there at about 14:00 and by 18:30 nothing had come to drink. In this time I had wondered if, when they did come and drink, if they would drink from the one blind spot at the pan. The pan has been widened at the sides by elephants and rhinos mud wallowing, and there is one tiny area that you cannot see from inside the hide. At 18:32 I checked the scene for the umpteenth time and lo and behold there was a lioness and lion about three steps away. I grabbed my handheld radio, whispered that the lions were coming to drink, and began photographing – but true to form they drank in the blind spot. So, I levitated onto the shelf, crouched there like a hamster, probably had a bit too much of myself exposed, but got the angle I needed by leaning around. And boy did they know I was there! Their eyes lasered right through my lens, branded my pupils, and let me know very clearly not to make any false moves. Just then the radio responded and the male shied away at the noise. The lioness settled back down, and drank for a minute or two more, but
it was all over so soon and they lazily ambled back to the shady bushes near the kill and flopped down to rest. It was worth every minute of the 10 years and one-day wait!

By the next day the lions had relinquished the bones to the hyenas and the vultures moved up one spot in the pecking order. It is astonishing how quickly a 700+ kg (1 500 lb) buffalo can be consumed, with nothing but its horns left which, in time, will also be eroded by insects and decay.