Excited to embark on the next set of adventures on our last full day at Gomo Gomo, we quickly threw on a couple layers for the cool morning and made our way to the lodge. Same routine as the morning before, with the tea-and mega-hard "rusks" waiting to be eaten. We all climbed up into the vehicle (with two less people in our Land Rover because some guests checked out), said hello to H.J., and we were off.
As soon as we left the lodge driveway, you could tell H.J. already had an idea where he was going. Apparently the lion roars we heard in the morning were quite close, and he was ready to go track the group of lions (called a "pride"). As soon as he mentioned the lions, the mood of the vehicle became quite excited, and within minutes we came across five female and two male lions lazing about the grass. As with many of our other animal encounters, it amazed me how they did not react negatively toward our beastly vehicle. Despite the loud engine, human smells, and metal frame, the lions gave us a cursory "I see you" glance, and that was it. Similar to a house-cat, these lions sleep about 18 hours per day, so finding them in the relaxed, lazy position was no shock to H.J. The manes of the male lions were absolutely beautiful, and the front paws of those guys were mammoth.
Let the photo obsession begin!
You lookin' at me?
Yeah, we were that close
In what seemed like quite the cavalier move, H.J. drove close to the lions, then a bit closer, then he actually put the nose of the vehicle about 5-6 paces from the lion and threw it in park and turned off the engine! Well, okay then! On this particular day, Julie was sitting on the side closest to the huge male lion, and judging by her ultra-slow movements and constantly gawking mouth, she recognized the fantastic nature of this moment. It probably goes without saying that it was during this portion of the trip that my camera lens spent a lot of time near my face. We were so close that with my zoom lens, I was literally looking at the lion's eyeball. I could not wrap my head around how comfortable the lions were with us, and soon, how comfortable we were with the lions. They got up and walked a couple times, but never more than 30-40 steps in one stretch. I honestly could have sat there all day and just observed them, but H.J. had informed us that there were some other vehicles waiting to come in to see the lions, so we bid adieu to the lions and continued our morning adventure.
If you look closely you can see some blood from an earlier kill
Getting up for a stretch
Bit of a mohawk
*SIDE NOTE* - I really like the protections and rules the guides have built into place to protect both the animals and guests. No more than two vehicles are allowed at one "sighting" at any one time, and if you are a third vehicle, you wait far away from the sighting until you get radio confirmation that the other vehicle has left the area.
Not more than five minutes removed from having left the pride of lions, we were reunited with Julie's buddies, the wild dogs! Another vehicle had been tracking them for some time, and we joined up with them, and very quickly noted the pinned ears of the dogs, on the prowl for some animal. Similar to the day before, they took off in front of us, and this time we had a wide open valley in front of us, so we followed them as they sprinted, then stopped, smelled the air, and bolted again. This went on for about 20 minutes before they went deep into the bush and we were forced to leave their side. We would find out later that soon after we left, they would find an impala and catch it. Damn, that would've been sweet.
Wild dog patrol
As we trekked along we ran into yet another elephant, this time with one infant by its side. The adult male was very unsure of us, so H.J. kept a safe distance, probably remembering back to the day before when he had to ward off a charge from another of the elephant's brethren. While we were there, he did put on quite the show with his trunk, which I was able to get on camera. Gotta love an animal action shot!
He liked the camera
Since we'd seen quite a few elephants, we moved on and had our morning coffee and snacks, Julie's daily highlight. I swear by the end of the trip I saw H.J. look at Julie every time he said "Ok, now let's stop for snacks," just to get her reaction. After a short stop, we continued on re-traced the steps of the buffalo we'd seen the night before. As they do not move quickly, we quickly caught up with them near where we'd left them earlier. H.J. kept a safe distance with them since there was a large herd and he didn't want to cause a stampede (thanks H.J.). He explained how hard the top part of their head is, and we watched as they protected their baby buffalo. It wasn't long before H.J. told us that since we had spent so much time with the lions and wild dogs, it was already time to head back to the lodge! Man, what an action-packed morning. Definitely the best overall drive of the trip.
After being dropped back off at the lodge and having some breakfast, H.J. came over to our table and let us know we would be having a bushwalk today since the winds had subsided. And on top of that, the rest of the guests at the lodge had checked out, with the exception of us and our British friends, so we would be going on a fairly private bushwalk! He told us to meet him out front in about an hour, so Julie and I went back to the room and hung out for a bit, and then spent some time on the observing deck before it was time to head out.
The four of us got to the front of the lodge just in time to see H.J. finish loading his rifle. Right then and there, we knew we weren't messing around anymore. We asked what the plan was, and he said we were going to pick up those lions where we left them this morning...
Yep, we were going to go stalk the lions on foot. In the bush. In Africa. With our trusty guide and his rifle the only thing between us and those meat-hook paws I referenced earlier.
H.J. then went through a long series of rules and instructions for the bushwalk, reminding us that we no longer have the appearance of a big animal like we did in the Land Rover. Here are the rules H.J. recited:
-No talking unless I tell you it's okay to talk.
-DO NOT RUN!
-Do exactly as I say, always.
-No photos unless I tell you it's safe.
-DO NOT RUN!
-Walk in a tight, single file line directly behind me at all times.
-DO NOT RUN unless I tell you to run.
-If we get approached by an animal, do not freak out. Just do what I say.
-If a lion charges, I will walk away from you, so he charges me, since I have the gun.
You get the picture about not running? Yeah, we did too.
With the safety sermon firmly implanted in our brains, and some hand signals to follow, we set off. We immediately collapsed into the single file line, and occasionally looked back at one another using our newly discovered hand signals, basically saying with our eyes, "ARE WE REALLY TRACKING A LION?!" H.J. moved at a brisk pace, and we all instinctively kept up, not wanting to have a gap between us. After about 15 minutes of walking downwind from where we had last seen the lions, H.J. came to a complete halt, put up the stop sign and motioned us to look forward over some tall grass. We raised our eyes to follow his gaze, and sure enough, through the reeds, there were two female lions and one male laying down in an open area. All four of us completely froze. H.J. told us we were going to try and get closer, so he told us to follow him, duck down, watch our step so as not to step on any unnecessary branches, and move very slowly. So we slinked our way behind some trees and got ourselves into a great viewing spot.
...80 meters from a male lion...
Re-read that last sentence again. Imagine standing on one end of a running track, and having an adult male lion just 80% of the way down the straightaway from you. We were totally in awe of this moment. As we all sat still, at one point the male lion looked up, glanced our way and saw us...and we collectively held our breath as he slowly turned his head away and laid back down. That single moment he looked at us was probably the most intense, heart-pounding, scary moment I've ever experienced. Julie would tell me later that it was so intense and phenomenal that she actually got emotional watching this all unfold. I can't say I blame her, cuz I was feeling the same way.
After a bit more viewing, H.J. signaled us to start backtracking and take the long way away from the lions. But of course, he said, make sure we remember to check over our shoulder every now and then to make sure the lions haven't moved (and no, he wasn't joking). We followed instruction, with me being the most frequent "over-the-shoulder" checker of the group. Ain't no lion sneakin' up on me!
Fully away from the lions, and been given permission to speak, the four of us all exchanged "Oh my god's" and "Holy hell's" with one another as we were finally able to vocalize and fully recognize what we had just done. H.J. smiled and laughed as we all explained how we were scared in the beginning. You will note here that I have said nothing about photos of this experience. After I got the rules from H.J. about photos, we really didn't have much opportunity for photos, so well decided just to enjoy the moment and leave the cameras in the bags. As much as I'd love to share with you the photos of that male lion on foot, I will always have it ingrained in my memory. We spent the rest of the walk playing "tracker", trying to identify tracks and H.J. explained how to tell the difference between the different cats, antelopes and dogs. It was a lot of fun, and made for great conversation as we trekked back to the lodge.
We spent some time watching the watering hole before and after lunch, with sightings of vultures, warthogs and vervet monkeys darting around the area. We took a short trip to the room to rest for a bit and digest everything that had happened over the morning drive and bushwalk, and before we knew it, it was 3:15pm and time to get back in the Rover for the evening game drive. Man, this schedule rocks!
Warthogs and a vulture
Grey vervet monkey in the tree (dead center of the photo)
Our last evening ride of the trip started off similar to the morning's ride, with us catching up to the nearby lion pride. We had a couple new people in our vehicle, so everything was fresh and new to them (not to us seasoned veterans who just stalked lions on foot), so obviously the lions were high-profile sightings. The lions were exactly where we had left them after the bushwalk, and looked to have no intention of moving any time soon, so after snapping some photos, we pushed on.
After driving for about 30 minutes without seeing much, we turned a corner to find a rhino blocking the road! He looked quite ominous, being slightly up the hill and directly in our path. We cruised up to him and watched as he begrudgingly moved off the trail. He was standing by himself, but off to the right there were three more rhino, with one of them being a young baby. The lone bull was quite ornery, and H.J. informed us that this particular rhino was a little off his rocker and had a reputation for charging vehicles. So it didn't take long before he started getting antsy, and H.J. quickly said we had worn out our welcome, so again, we moved on.
Thou shalt not pass!
The rest of the herd
The rest of the evening we had random animal sightings, including impala, kudu, elephants and a unique antelope called nyala. The nyala is a beautiful antelope with unique markings on its face, back and legs. We never got a great view of him, but I liked him anyway.
As we looked for a spot to stop for our last round of evening snacks (Julie cheered), we came across a large watering hole where more elephants were drinking and playing in the water. We stopped on the opposite side of the water and had our snacks and drinks while we watched the big guys romp and play. Off in the distance we also saw a lone giraffe eating away at some tall trees. Yep, just another casual stop for drinks with elephants and giraffes...NBD.
The lone giraffe after sunset
Last evening drinks on the game drive
On our way back to the lodge, we came across the two lion cubs that were part of the pride. We had been told there were two male cubs, but had yet to see them on our trip. It was very dark out, but the car headlights illuminated them enough for us to see them playing in the grass, then move along, as they were slightly less comfortable with the large vehicle as the adult males were earlier in the day. This was the last sighting of the night, so we set out for the lodge to have one last set of drinks at the bar with our loyal guide, H.J.
After spending some more hilarious exchanges with H.J. and Bernard, and seeing a honey badger run through the lodge grounds, we trudged over to the dinner fire-circle for one last entertaining meal with the lodge staff. We shared some more stories and jokes over dinner, and just as we had the previous two nights, we grew tired. But before we could flag down H.J., one of the cook staff hurriedly approached H.J. and quickly took him away from the table to speak with him and show him something. Being the nosy, curious kids we are, we got up in time to see him pointing out a large shadowy figure across the watering hole. At first the staff had thought there was a leopard or cheetah in the camp, but it ended up being a large jackal, which quickly scurried away when H.J. shone a flashlight on him. Apparently the staff is asked to inform the guides of any large animal sightings at night, as it makes it less safe for the guests as they walk around. Always an adventure, right?!
After the jackal left, we hailed H.J. for our last escorted-stroll to our chalet. We thanked him for a great day and said we were excited for our last game drive in the morning before we checked out to head home. Before crashing to sleep, we packed up our bags and got everything ready, as the upcoming day would be packed with game drives and lots of travel.
*NEXT UP* - Mating lions, a wounded elephant, our goodbye to Gomo Gomo, and the start of a long trip back home...