The first rays of light from the rising sun had barely kissed the crown of our tents before a resounding and baritone voice echoed throughout the camp, “There are lions in the camp, do not leave your tents! I repeat, there are lions in the camp!”. My tent-mate and I froze as we remembered the incessant roar of the male lions that had kept us up late into the night. I had heard stories about their impressive ability to vocalize at up to distances of three kilometers, but the previous night their bellowing was frighteningly closer than that. It wasn’t until the morning that we understood just how appropriately named our campsite was.
The location of our camp was marked with a star and the name “Tau” on the map of Dinokeng Game Reserve. Dinokeng is the the only free roaming Big 5 game reserve in the Gauteng province and the second home base for our academy. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “Big 5”, it was originally used by hunters to refer to the five most difficult animals to hunt in all of Africa. The map of Dinokeng was also inscribed with a variety of Zulu names to indicate important landmarks throughout the reserve. I was woefully ignorant of the Zulu dialect and therefore the name meant absolutely nothing to me. When we arrived at Tau, a towering beechwillow tree sat smack dab in the middle of the campsite. Upon closer inspection, we realized the bark of the trunk was raked from top to bottom with wolverine-esque claw marks. This arboreal giant was the personal scratching post for the lion prides of Dinokeng. It wasn’t until later in the week that I overheard one of the other students ask a ranger the meaning of “Tau” and replied “lion in Zulu”. Fittingly enough, the trail cam duct taped onto to the beechwillow had snapped a picture of a lumbering lioness later that very night. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that we had a much closer and personal encounter with the fearsome beasts.
After we had heard the warning shout from our resident giantess, the two of us sat in stunned silence within our tent. Suddenly, we heard a muffled crunching outside the back of tent and then the unmistakable sound of padded feet beating the dirt ground. I bent forward to listen to the distinctive and soft rustle of fur as it rubbed against the canvas. We heard sniffing and the shuffling of the lion’s legs as it tried to determine what lay inside our two man shelter. Neither of us moved a muscle or spoke a word. Eventually, the footsteps receded and we remained in utter silence. Something stirred within me, an uncontrollable desire to view these majestic animals with my own eyes in person. I couldn’t deny this urge my trip to Africa wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of it’s most famous occupant.
I zipped down the tent and contorted half of my body through the flap of our door. A chill ran down my spine as I gazed upon the lioness with a combination of fear and awe. I was incredulous that an animal so large had the ability to run as fast as the antelope they preyed upon. She was also both stunningly beautiful and incredibly fearsome to behold as she sat smugly under the beechwillow. Her eyes never left the small group of unfortunate students that were up earlier than the rest and huddled around the fire. She slowly rose from this crouched position and began to creep forward before our instructor began to ward her off. He bellowed at the beast and raised his rifle high in the air. She froze, and soon decided that enough was enough. The lioness scurried down the road with the occasional glance over her shoulder. Her cubs were there as well and proved that she wasn’t alone in her foray into our camp. Needless to say, no one went to bathroom alone early at morning or late at night for the duration of our time at Tau Camp.