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Dawn King

Is there anything better than lying in your bed deep in the African bush and hearing the resonating roar of a lion? If you have had the privilege of going on safari and hearing the king of the jungle bellow forth, which incidentally sounds absolutely nothing like the pathetic roar you see in the logo of an infamous production company, then you will no doubt share my sentiments...

A lionís roar seems to start at the tail of the beast with a few gentle, meager and almost sheepish groans. These mutterings slowly but surely build into an impressively coarse crescendo of almighty roars, almost loud enough to cause the earth beneath you to rattle. If you are close to the beast at the time that he roars, you can almost feel the vibrations in your ribcage but if you are a couple of miles away, the resonating roar drifts over the crests and through the valleys, in a soothing and lazy sort of baritone way. This is my favourite type of roar to experience, a subtle reminder that the great beasts are out there, somewhere, roaming through the bush in the dark night. There is just something so primal about this sound, something that instantly transports me back in time.

For a wildlife photographer, a lionís roar, besides just being there to be relished, also has a very practical function, especially when heard in the wee hours of the morning. These large tawny cats are known to sleep most of the day and once a lion goes down in the yellow winter grass, they become very difficult to find. For a wildlife photographer, a roar can be a definite clue as to the general direction in which you must drive, when you do finally get out of bed that is. When I first started working in the bush, as a trainee wilderness trail guide, I learnt to use lion roars in the night, not to be able to find them on foot the next day, but rather to know where NOT to walk. During this time, my mentor, Mr Eldred Hapelt, taught me that in order to be able to glean accurately the direction of a lion from its roar, you have to sit upright in bed. Lying down, your ears are thoroughly unable to triangulate and the perceived direction is as good as only a guess.

On a recent visit to South Africaís Londolozi Game Reserve, I again had the pleasure of lying in bed and listening to the lazy yet persistent groans of one of the dominant coalitions of lion in the area. Blissfully aware of the enchanting sounds I was too snug, on a cold winterís night, to sit upright in bed. The night must have been especially cold in fact, because when I arrived at the safari vehicle in the morning, both my guide and tracker must have slept as snug as I did and none of us knew what direction to drive in. Thankfully, after some skillful tracking, not on my part as I was still half asleep, but by my guide Jess and her tracker, we managed to successfully locate the A cappella culprits.

It turns out that there were three males that had been roaring during night, in an attempt to track down their pride of lionesses. We followed the three boys just as the sun broke the horizon, and as they got ever closer to their females, they frequently lifted their heads and curled their lips back. This is known as the flehmen grimace and by opening their mouths and allowing air to pass over their vomeronasal organ, lions are able to sample pheromones. Just as the sun rose, one of the males showed signs that he was about to grimace and when he did, a lingering condensation of breath, caused me to hit my shutter button with an amateurish rush of panic. Even after ten years of photographing, my wild subjects still arouse in me an utter excitement that makes me feel like the picture I am about to take is my very first.

Technical Details: Nikon D3s body, 400mm focal length, ISO 200, F4 and 1/200th, beanbag

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