Experiencing a safari with andBeyond was hands down the most mind-blowing and life changing memory created in all of my journeys. There is something magical about witnessing wild animals living out their everyday lives – sleeping, eating, mating, playing, hunting, working and dealing with adversity – you see it all. Not only are the animals beautiful to look at, but they are also insightful to observe because of the emotional and familial similarities to how we behave as human beings.
One of the many perks of a safari experience with andBeyond is the quality of rangers and trackers who guide you on daily outings to experience intimate moments observing wildlife. Rangers for andBeyond receive extensive schooling, training and pass countless tests to ensure they are prepared to provide guests with safety and expert knowledge when out in the wild. I had the pleasure of working with rangers Bruce and Ben for our game-drives, and both gentleman taught me more about animals and tracking animals in the wild than I could have ever imagined. Each morning and night we would join our assigned ranger on an adventure throughout the forest on a search to see something new or spot the ultimate sighting – a member of the Big 5. Of the glorious Big 5, who isn’t anxious to spot a family pack of lions, often called a pride of lions. Lions are the only cats that live in groups, which are called prides. Prides are family units that may include up to three males, a dozen or so females, and their young children. All of a pride’s lionesses are related, and female cubs typically stay with the group as they age.
On our third day at the andBeyond Lodge in Phinda Forrest, we set off early in the morning without any particular agenda – we were simply excited to accept whatever we ran into by way of a leisurely drive. As we made our way down the road from the lodge, our ranger Ben stopped the truck abruptly and told us to be quiet. I knew he meant it by the intense look on his face. As we sat in silence and anticipation for what seemed like forever, our eyes grew wide as we suddenly heard a sound that gives you goosebumps down the spine – the boisterous roar of a lion. You can hear the sound of a lion’s roar up to 5 miles away. This roar sounded like it was right around the corner – it was loud. With just the sound of the long roar, our ranger was able to approximate its southeast direction and determine how far away the sound came from. Knowing that the lion was right under our nose, we speed off on a mission to catch a glimpse. During the drive over to the source of the roar, our ranger shared a remarkable story that I would like to share with my readers here.
The Tragic Lion’s Tale
Over the last few years there have been two notorious family prides of lions located within this particular game reserve at Phinda. However, because of a tragedy within one of the lion prides, there is now only one family frequently spotted in the last year. See, last year, the male lion and head of the familial pack got very sick – perhaps with some form of cancer or terminal disease. The rangers said that when they would spot the male lion, he was losing weight drastically, no longer eating with the family and even shedding his gorgeous mane of pronounced golden fur. The lion was dying and in just a matter of months, he passed away. From that day on the rangers, who survey the game reserve daily with guests, noticed utter chaos in this particular family pack. When the father lion died, the family resorted to complete dysfunction, a phenomenon quite common regardless of the species. Unsure of how to rule themselves, who to follow or in other words how to survive without their male leading father, the lions started acting in the strangest of ways – fighting one another, some of them running away to live in isolation far from their familial pack and normal territory, and in a few extreme cases, the family members would try to kill one another. They could not cope or learn to survive peacefully without their father.
What was so mesmerizing to me about this story, the lion’s tale, was that it forced me to further understand grief, chaos and disorder suffered by human families in the aftermath of tragedy. See, as someone who has recently lost a father of the household, I know firsthand the confusion and chaos that can result from the painful loss of a person vital to the family hierarchy. I have read several articles about how it is common for family members to take out frustration on one another in the wake of tragedy, to isolate themselves and in the worst of scenarios, hurt fellow family members either emotionally or physically as a coping mechanism to the grief. As I think through this story of the lions on our drive, I could not help but think to myself how similar animal behavior is to that of human beings. The stories and observations of how animals cope with family problems allow us to reflect upon our action or inaction when faced with the same exact tragedies, as in this case – the passing of a critical family member. In the moments surrounding the loss of our beloved father, I frantically turned to my siblings and shared with them the story of the tragic lion family. In doing so, I reminded them that everyone faces loss and adversity – even African lions. What is critical, however, is remaining a strong family unit and working together to find order within a time that feels clouded with disorder. Quite the powerful lion’s tale, right?
Spotting the Lioness and her Cubs
And amidst these deep reflective thoughts on life, lions and loss, the truck crept slowly up to a grassy area. Within an instant of pulling up to the bush – she appeared – the lioness – the mother of the pack. Standing tall, strong and protective of her children and sisters, she made her presence known without even making a sound. And boy was she gorgeous. Strong, lean and defined muscles illuminated out of the grassy terrain. Her strength was captivating. We quietly watched her interact with the family, which was just the other females (sisters or daughters) and the young cubs. Typically the male lion, the head of the pack, lives by himself in isolation with other adult males and joins his immediate family for meals after the female lion hunts down prey to provide for the entire pride. When the food is provided by the lioness, the adult male lion always gets to eat first (even though he did no work to get the dinner). This offered for another point of reflection. I found similarity to the female figures in societies across the world who regularly cook or prepare meals for the family, just as the female lions do all the hunting and killing to ensure everyone can eat at dinnertime.
While we watched the pack of lions interact upon our first sighting, we noticed that they were being lead by the mother out toward the open area of the forest – the airport landing strip. Within the Phinda Forest, there is a small landing strip for private planes to transport guests to and from the safari lodges. It is a concrete paved road just long enough for a small propeller plane to land. Our ranger informed us that the lions fancy this landing strip because in the summer heat the pavement gets nice and hot for sunbathing. Recently the rangers have observed that the lions, who can go virtually anywhere they want in the thousands of acres of land throughout the reserve, prefer taking over the landing strip area because they enjoy laying out on the hot pavement. So as they crept toward this space of the forest, we followed by truck quietly behind them to see what would happen next. See below for more on this adventure following the lions.
Caution – Lions Sunbathing – Airport Closed
Thank God my camera was able to capture the insanely entertaining and real footage of this memorable sighting. This is a story that you would likely not believe if it weren’t for the photographic proof below, all taken through the lens of yours truly, Ladyhattan. As you can see, the pride of lions (lead by the Mama), walked about a half mile out of the bush and toward the alluring landing strip. Warm and flat from the African sun-rays beaming down above, the family of cats made themselves quite comfortable. Unfortunately for incoming andBeyond guests, no planes could land at the hotel for a few hours. Why not? Lions sunbathing, airport temporarily closed. Only in Africa.
Observing the lions enjoy some fun in the sun as a family unit, they appeared to do all the normal things we do with our family members: scratched one another’s backs, played games, took turns napping or growling, scared off a pack of antelope, and for one sweet moment four of the cats cuddled up closely together. Picture perfect moment. Lion bonding like you have never seen before, my friends. All of this activity occurred without the male of the family anywhere to be seen. Despite his absence, the group seemed very content enjoying time together.
After a few hours of lounging, something changed in the temperament of the group. On the opposite side of the landing strip we could hear the bush ruffling aggressively. The family of cats seemed to know what the sound was instantaneously, perhaps even recognizing a distinct smell from afar. And as soon as the mother of the group jolted up to get herself “fixed up” to greet the special guest to join the family affair, it became abundantly clear to everyone – daddy was home. Yes, that’s right, the male lion was making an appearance to the family outing. All the cats jumped up to show respect for the king of beasts – the mighty male lion.
Daddy is home indeed – look at that fiery mane of hair on him, ladies! African male lions can weigh up to 430 lbs and stand at about 4 feet tall. Let’s just agree, these guys are huge. Although not quite as fast as a cheetah, these cats can run at about 50 mph so we made sure to keep our distance in the truck. Watching him appear and the reaction of his family members was absolutely hilarious. Everything about the male-female interaction and obvious romantic tension reminded me of the dating rituals I frequently spot in a concrete jungle, my home of New York City.
He made his way over to the landing strip but waited on the far opposite side from where the rest of the group gathered. Standing alone in a cocky demeanor, he seemed to be signaling to his baby-mama to come over and greet him. And just like that, she did. The lioness pranced gracefully over to say “hello” and engaged in a funny ritual of rubbing her head against his. Brief nuzzling was followed by the lioness circling around the male lion. To put it bluntly, she appeared to be showing off her assets to him by waving her tail in his face as a seductive reminder, “I’m the best you’ve ever had.” We watched this interaction in utter astonishment. Particularly when the lioness shook her booty and walked off with a smirk on her face likely thinking, “boy, bye.” Although I was witnessing gigantic wild animals flirt and express romantic interest in the middle of Africa, it was not that dissimilar from an encounter between drunk humans at a bar in Manhattan moments after getting matched on Tinder or some other dating app.
Leading his Family to the Next Adventure – Naptime
After the lion and lioness made their hellos, the lion actually sat away from the rest of the family. He looked so calm, relaxed and happy. Perhaps he found peace in seeing his offspring playing and enjoying a beautiful day dominating the airstrip. He kept his distance and not one lioness or cub dared to invade his space as he sprawled out across the hot pavement like a king. Once he was done resting, relaxing and sunbathing, he communicated with the group that it was time to go – party’s over.
With a light roar, the group understood the plan, as they all started to follow the head male lion in what appeared to be a line of hierarchy. The lioness followed directly behind him, with the cubs behind her in order of size. Curious to understand what the next part of the family’s day entailed, we followed. With their mother and father looking forward, we saw a few of the cubs acting up and playing roughly with one another. Two of the cubs jumped in the air, wrestled each other to the ground, and made such a loud noise that the head male lion and lioness stopped to look back at what was going on. Gazing back at the children with disgust, it was clear to the cubs that they pissed off mom and dad. There was one cub in particular who lagged far behind and seemed to upset the group with his pathetically slow pace. And just like a dad punishes his naughty toddler, the head of the household grabbed the cub by the neck as a gentle reminder to keep up with the group or else. Once the family was on track toward a deep and heavy bush, we lost sight of the pride as they probably found the perfect shaded spot for a long rest.
What a day, what a spotting. The andBeyond experience was filled with adventures such as this; adventures that lead us to a place of better understanding ourselves and reflecting on certain behaviors through witnessing magnificent raw moments in the wild. An African safari is an item to add to your bucketlist – an opportunity to come face-to-face with the wild and embrace it for everything it is – spontaneously beautiful. I can’t recommend andBeyond safaris enough and look forward to sharing with you all a full insider review covering specific lodges and more wildlife adventures. Stay tuned for more to come on andBeyond. But for now, I hope you enjoyed the lion’s tale and my personal obversations of a pride of African lions. Message me at Ladyhattan@gmail.com for special direct booking rates to experience the African safari of a lifetime.