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It was 1974 – my first visit to Africa – and the first time I had ever flown in a tiny six-seater bush plane. 45 minutes after leaving Nairobi, we reduced altitude to touch down in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, bouncing from thermal to thermal over endless plains on which herds of buffalo stampeded away and elephants stood and watched us.
Even before I had stepped onto the airstrip, I knew it would be love at first sight. The rains had just ended and the kiangazi had begun – the dry season that would tempt the migrating herbivores to pour in from the Serengeti. The ripening oat grass had not yet been eaten down. Instead, it stood tall, rippling in the wind like the waves of the sea towards a horizon that seemed like the edge of the world.
It was here, on the next day, that I saw my first lion. We had got up at dawn to find the cats before they went flat. And we hadn’t gone far when I saw him sitting on a termite mound, with his mane backlit by the rising sun. Then he began to roar; his breath condensing in the sharp highland air, like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils.
Who could fail to be hooked by lions after a moment like that? The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. And with each earth-shaking groan, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper under the spell of this wild kingdom. Since then, I have lost count of the number of lions I have seen and heard. But from that day on, they have continued to walk through my life and my dreams.
When you’ve been away from lions for a long time, you can’t wait to meet up with them. Fellow big cat fanatics will know the feeling. And even when I return to Africa now, I lie awake in my tent at night unable to sleep until I have heard them grunting in the darkness.
Long since hard-wired by evolution for a life on the plains, lions inhabit a parallel universe that is far older and wilder than ours. And for three years in the Mara, I was privileged to enter their world and wake each morning to the sound of their thunderous voices.
That was in the late 1970s, when Jonathan Scott and I were following a pride of lions whose territory lay around Musiara Marsh, near Governor’s Camp. The result was a bestseller called The Marsh Lions – a true-life story that revolved around Scar, Brando and Mkubwa, the powerful coalition of pride males that ruled Musiara.
I didn’t know it then, but what I had stumbled on was the greatest wildlife showcase in Africa. It is hard to believe now, but few people had even heard of the Masai Mara until 1977. The Serengeti was where you went if you wanted to see lions, but tourism in the Mara was in its infancy. Those were the days when you could drive all the way from the Musiara Gate to the Serengeti border with only the ruts of old tyre tracks to indicate the outside world had come this far. And to look out across its rolling plains from the top of the Oloololo Escarpment was to stand at the gates of heaven.
Always a pride of Africa
By the time The Marsh Lions was published, the Musiara pride had become as familiar to me as old friends. Sometimes – with Scar lying alongside me in the grass as I parked – I would wonder what it must feel like to be a lion. Surely the warmth of the sun on his tawny flanks must have been as pleasing to him as it was to me? Sights, sounds and the ineluctable smells of the African bush – all of the things we shared. But what else went on behind that implacable visage would always remain a mystery.
In those days, the pride consisted of between 15 and 20 lions – with two or three adult males, half a dozen lionesses and their cubs. Today’s prides tend to be smaller. The latest data for the National Reserve reveals a population of 1.7 lions for every ten square kilometres – giving a total of 200 to 300 lions aged one year old or more within the 1,500-square-kilometre reserve. This is a figure that still makes it one of the last great places to see lions, while the adjoining private conservancies have some of the highest lion densities in Africa.