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Blood, Sweat and Photographic TearsBy Greg du Toit
The story of a wildlife photographer in pursuit of free ranging lion:
At first, the notion to photograph a truly wild lion drinking, seemed like a simple one, provided one knew where to find the lion and where to find water? Fortunately, living on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley in the south of Kenya, both the aforementioned luxuries were at my disposal. At the beginning of this year, I discovered a spring that wound its way down the Nguruman Hills, spilling onto the rift floor, where it formed a picturesque waterhole. At first glance the tiny patch of water, which covered an area of about twenty square metres, seemed pretty quiet and was after all, only a mere five kilometers from the closest Maasai village. Walking around the waterhole though, I noticed fresh lion tracks superbly imprinted in the fine volcanic dust. These prints were not left by habituated lion, but rather by a rare and wild type of semi-nomadic lion. These free ranging lion carry out an existence beyond fences, outside of any formal game reserve or national park, and roam the floor of the rift valley wild and free, just like all lion once did. Operating under the cover of darkness, these creatures are shy and elusive and just how shy, was a question I would soon try to answer. Kenya now has less than 2000 thousand lion left and Africa has lost 40% of its total lion population in the last 30 years.
Having the privilege of being able to construct my own private photographic hide, I went about the task with vigour and determination. After one week, I had completed digging a hole deep enough to conceal my entire body and had placed a rudimentary zinc roof with hessian sacking above it. Situated just two degrees south of the equator, I knew that the hide would not be overly comfortable, but I planned on getting my shot soon, and decided to jump in. The next couple of months involved profuse sweating and gave me a small taste of
Subsequently, I reverted to plan B, which entailed pitching a tiny dome tent on a small island of dirt situated in the middle of the waterhole. The location was good in that it would bring me closer to my subjects and gave me a better angle, but my tent was painfully obvious. The baboons could not reach my new location though and therefore I had no need to block my nose with a clothes peg. The flies however were worse, as they would squeeze in through the tiny zip opening and then get stuck on the inside. At any one time, I had at least a couple dozen buzzing around, but unlike my trench days I at least had the luxury of swatting them. Although, it must be said that tsetse flies do not respond to mere swatting and in the weeks that followed, I perfected my ‘squash and role’ technique. So once again, I patiently set out to capture the elusive beasts drinking. It was nearing October, the hottest month in the rift valley, and temperatures were soaring above 40 degrees Celsius. Surely, these wild and elusive cats would succumb under the oppressive heat and drink in the late afternoon or early morning? As the weeks turned into months, the tent proved to become a most uncomfortable location! After blowing away several times during a series of severe dust storms, I resorted to carrying large boulders inside, to perform the stabilizing task that the pegs could not. The slightest breeze would also cause the tent canvas to rustle, sending any potential photographic quarry running.
After spending countless more hours, days and a further three months cooped up in the nylon sauna, I had the opportunity to
So down came the tent, and the pale green water itself became my new photographic hide. With my rear end ensconced in the muddy bottom, all that protruded above the water were my head, hands and camera. The following months facilitated the most excellent opportunity to enjoy some prime bird watching as I got to know a pair of Egyptian Geese especially well. Like 'Big Brother', I watched the pair of them mate; build a nest; lay eggs; raise chicks and then, once fully grown, chase the young birds away with much fuss and honking. On one occasion, the tiny goslings swam right up to me, seemingly most puzzled by my presence or perhaps they were admiring my Nikon F100? The days, weeks and months that followed were incredible in that the water masked my smell and sound, allowing me to view a plethora of life that existed in the area. My list of mammalian subjects grew tremendously, and now included waterbuck, impala, bushbuck, reedbuck, warthog and my old disgusting friends, the baboons. The amount of unseen life that existed and survived on that one small patch of water astounded me, and having a frog’s eye view of the world, gave me a completely new sense of awe for the wonderful creatures that inhabit our splendid continent. I also especially enjoyed the White-throated Bee-eaters who would dip into the water just inches from my nose! The early mornings were a special time in that the Khori Bustards would come in for a drink, often times cocking their heads in their typically animated manner. In the afternoons, I more than once witnessed Lanner Falcons and African Hawk Eagles swooping in and snatching drinking doves just a few meters in front of me. The lion however, remained agonizingly and frustratingly absent!
After more than a year, my wife’s patience was wearing thin and my skin was covered not only in strange bites but persistent red bumpy rashes, the cause of which I finally put down to baboon urine! One particular week, the mercury in the camp’s thermometer soared way above forty, as I once again found myself firmly entrenched in my muddy quagmire. The heat wave persisted throughout the week until late that Friday afternoon, when it seemed to be reaching breaking point. Sitting in the water was no doubt the best place to be in terms of escaping the heat, but the light was about to fade and soon I would have to leave the waterhole and return to camp for another impatient night of torment. Just as I was about to pull my bum free from the muddy bottom and begin my trek back up the escarpment, my ever-faithful pair of Egyptian Geese leapt from the bank and hit the water with a furious honking and hissing. Wondering what on earth had alarmed the geese, I quickly scanned the horizon, only to see two full-grown lionesses sauntering purposefully towards the water. This was it, I thought, more than a year of literal blood, sweat and tears and now finally, my chance to get a shot of a free ranging lion!
Taking both deep and shallow breathes, I was grateful that the heat had infuriated the thirst of the cats, who kept drinking litre after litre of muddy water. Finally, I managed to psychologically remove myself from the situation and brought my shaking hands under some degree of control. The next twenty-seven frames were a blur in my memory as I triggered my shutter, in the hope that the resultant images would indeed be sharp and well composed. I was shooting hand-held and in horizontal format with both arms concealed below the water and I knew that in order to get my ultimate shot, I would need to switch to vertical format. Slowly tilting my camera vertically, my right elbow began to protrude from the water. Both lionesses immediately stopped drinking and fixed their intent gaze on me! I paused just long enough to say ‘our Father’ and pressed my shutter button just twice and more delicately than ever before. The sound of my camera's mirror flipping up seemed so loud that I expected it to echo off the rift wall. The next minute was tense to say the least, as the cats continued scrutinizing me, trying to decide what exactly I was? It was at that moment that I realized I was potentially treading on new ground in terms of animal behaviour. If the lions did not recognize me as a human, could they perceive me as prey? This was not the time for rhetorical questions and I slowly lowered my elbow back into the water. To my utter relief, the felines continued drinking.
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