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‘Once you have been to Africa, you will never be the same’

Wildlife travel journalist Brian Jackman recalls his incredible first trip to Africa where his life-long fascination with lions began   Nothing prepares you for the…

Wildlife travel journalist Brian Jackman recalls his incredible first trip to Africa where his life-long fascination with lions began


Nothing prepares you for the impact of Africa. Strange sights, new sounds, unfamiliar smells. It is a total assault on the senses, like being a child again and seeing the world afresh. Once you have been there, breathed its dry air, watched distant storms trailing across its immense horizons and been awakened by a million purring doves, you will never be the same. At least, despite everything I had read, that is how it was for me.

My initiation took place in Kenya’s Masai Mara national reserve. I had flown by light aircraft from Nairobi at the end of the rains and the land was still as green as Ireland as we bounced from one thermal to the next over endless plains on which herds of buffaloes stampeded away beneath our wings.

Even before we touched down on the rough dirt airstrip, I knew it would be love at first sight. The kiangazi was just beginning, the dry season that would tempt the migrating wildebeest to pour in from the Serengeti, and the ripening grasses had not yet been reduced to stubble by the hungry herds. Instead, they stood tall, rippling in the wind like the waves of the sea towards a horizon so far away that it seemed like the edge of the world.

Until then I had never seen an elephant in the wild, tusks gleaming, huge ears flapping; six tonnes of silence drifting like smoke between the thorn trees. Nor had I heard the rumble of lions greeting the dawn.

Next morning, I set out at first light to find the cats before they sought the shade and had not gone far when we spotted an adult pride male perched on a termite mound. He was still quite a long way off, so I watched him with my binoculars, a magnificent sight with his mane backlit by the rising sun.

He began to roar through half-closed jaws, and with every cavernous groan his breath condensed in the sharp morning air like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. All other sound ceased, as if the whole world were listening, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I thought: who could fail to be hooked on lions after a moment like that?

Two years after that first visit to Africa I was back again in the Mara, staying at a bush camp run by Jock Anderson, the genial owner of a company called East African Wildlife Safaris. One of his guides was a young Englishman who had hitchhiked around Africa in search of a job and pitched up here beside the Mara River. His name was Jonathan Scott – now renowned all over the world as one of Africa’s finest wildlife photographers.

Jonathan became my guide and we immediately struck up a friendship that would last a lifetime. He wanted to show me a pride of lions he had been following. The core of their territory was Musiara Marsh in the north of the reserve near Governor’s Camp, an area that provided everything lions need: shade and water, plentiful hiding places where they could raise their cubs, and an abundance of food all year round.

During the dry season, the migrating wildebeest and zebra would come to drink at the Marsh every day and the lions would lie up in the reeds and ambush them. The Marsh Lions, Jonathan called them, and when we decided to write a true story of their triumphs and travails, that became its title. Neither of us knew it then, but three decades later the Marsh pride would become the world’s most famous lions as the feline superstars of the BBC’s Big Cat Diary television series.

Those days spent in their company were among the happiest of my life, and what a privilege it was to enter their world and come to know them as individuals, each one as recognisable to us as an old friend, in the same way a shepherd knows his sheep.


At night I would awake to hear them roaring, and the magic never failed. “Hii nchi ya nani?” is their message when translated into Swahili. “Whose land is this?” Then, as their tumultuous challenge dies away, they answer with a rhythmic coda of rasping grunts that make the air vibrate; yangu, yangu, yangu, mine, mine, mine!

Sometimes, observing Scar, Brando and Mkubwa, as we called the three Marsh pride males, I would try to imagine what it must feel like to be a lion. Like me, they would have smelt the grass and heard the sad cries of wood doves in the noontide luggas – the bush- choked seasonal watercourses in which they took their rest. Did we not feel the same sense of pleasure when the sun warmed us on a cold morning? Thirst, hunger, aggression, fear; there were many sensations we must have shared, but what else went on behind those implacable eyes would forever remain a mystery.

So habituated did the Marsh Lions become to our presence that sometimes, far out on the treeless plains, the pride males would seek out Jonathan’s vehicle and slump in its shade, panting harshly in the blistering heat as they lay within touching distance for hours on end; but only once did we ever experience a potentially risky moment.

It happened back in camp one afternoon when I had joined Jonathan for tea in his tent. I had been there no more than a few minutes than one of the camp staff came rushing up in great agitation. “Bwana,” he said to Jonathan, “we have a simba in camp!”

Without hesitation Jonathan leapt to his feet, grabbed a canvas-backed seat, and stepped outside, leaving me with no option but to follow him.

Sure enough, there was the lion, a big, shaggy male, standing no more than a few metres away. For a moment there was a stand-off, with the two of us holding our chairs in front of us, confronting the lion we recognised instantly as Brando, one of the three territorial pride males. Then, with a gruff “whoof” expelled through his half-closed jaws, he turned and trotted away through the riverine forest. As he did so, we noticed a noise above our heads, and there was our cook, halfway up a tree where he had taken refuge when the lion arrived.

Afterwards, when my pulse had returned to normal, I started thinking about the macho posturing of trophy hunters, proudly posing for a picture beside the carcass of the lion they have just gunned down, with their professional hunter in attendance as additional insurance in case anything should go wrong. If you fancy a real adrenalin rush, I thought, why not put aside your gun and try confronting a lion at close range with nothing but a chair to defend yourself as we did?

Looking back now I can see that the life of the Marsh Pride in those glory days was a golden age for the big cats and the boundless savannahs of their savage kingdom. To a casual eye it was a serene and shining landscape, as peaceful as an English park. There was no malice in it, no hint of suffering or hostility. Orioles called with clear voices from the dappled shade of forest figs. Hippos chuckled in the river, and boubou shrikes chimed their monotonous xylophonic responses from the heat-drugged thickets. The sounds of summer lulled the senses; but the world of the plains animals was a constant paradox. Nothing was ever what it seemed.

Tranquillity was an illusion behind which stalked old familiar spectres: hunger, thirst, disease. Those golden vistas, outwardly so innocent and benign, were full of sudden, violent images. The pristine plains were a charnel house of skulls and bones, half-eaten zebras, bloated vultures. Hidden in the tall grass, slovenly hyenas raised gory muzzles from a shipwreck of ribs, and hungry lions tore at their kills with paws encased in gloves of blood.

All this I discovered and none of it dissuaded me. Rather, it drew me even deeper into the timeless world of the African plains. There would be other lions along the way: the Kalahari males with their big black manes, the buffalo-killers of Duba Plains in Botswana, and the lion that prowled around me one night while fly camping beside the Ngare Ndare sand river in northern Kenya. But none would I ever know so well as the Marsh Lions of the Masai Mara where my life with lions began.

Culled from https://www.telegraph.co.uk

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