Birding Without Borders

Day 196: Big Cats

On safari, sometimes it’s hard to focus on birds.

July 15, 2015: Kruger National Park, South AfricaThis morning we ran into a massive lion jam—someone had spotted a pride of lions and about 20 vehicles were parked on a narrow road in the forest, jockeying for the best viewing position. There was no way to wedge our van into the middle of the jam so we stopped at the edge, with the lions out of sight, and waited. 

A couple of minutes later, the lions decided to come to us. Three females, a male, and nine cubs suddenly stood up and approached our van; they paid no attention to cars and walked casually through the gaps between parked vehicles. The cubs crossed the road and one of the females even stretched out for several minutes within spitting distance (“just lion around,” said Martha)—it was hard to believe these were wild animals. Yes, lions!

A car pulled up next to us with two women in the front seats and the driver rolled down her window. “Can we get through?” she asked. Wayne glanced ahead and said something like, “Well, there’s a lion in the road. You might want to wait a minute.” Just then, the lion moved and the woman smiled. “Oh, great,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.” Things melted down in our van as the women drove off: “You’re surrounded by lions!” said Brian. “What, you’ve got forms to fill out or something?”

It was the kind of day in Kruger when anything seems possible. In total, we saw 24 lions today in three groups. We also came across a rare black rhinoceros and identified more than 30 other species of mammals—probably the biggest mammal day I’ve ever had. But the best was saved for last.

At Kruger, if you’re not in camp by 5:30 p.m. the rangers will give you a big fine, and we cut it close this afternoon. About 5 kilometers from camp, Wayne looked at his watch and predicted, jokingly, “We’ll make it as long as we don’t see a leopard or something.” A couple of curves later Wayne suddenly burst out, “Guys, there’s a leopard!” Sure enough, a big, spotted cat walked slowly between some bushes then, incredibly, came right to the edge and looked at us for several moments. 

My photos are stamped 5:26 p.m. We floored it back to camp and passed through the gate less than 20 seconds before it closed for the night. Only later, at dinner, did I realize that the leopard capped off a good run: This afternoon we saw the “big five” (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard) in a span of less than three hours!

New birds today: 11

Year list: 3583

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