People come from all over the world to visit Africa, and in particular the ‘wilds of Africa’, to see for themselves a host of fierce creatures such as crocodiles, elephants, lions and, occasionally, tigers (yes, I regularly get asked if we are going to see tigers!).
But the animal that my guests most frequently ask to see is a lion – and I can totally agree with this, as I believe that lions are the epitome of wild Africa. A trip to Africa without seeing one is like a trip to the Sandwich Baron and ordering a plain bread roll with only butter on it; it’s just not right! The thing is, I don’t work in a zoo, so it is not like I can simply stroll up to an enclosure and point at an often-inanimate object and say ‘lion’. Finding the big cats, even in our 16 000-ha of traversing area, can sometimes be a bit challenging, and often many hours are spent tracking them on foot (because, occasionally, they are not so inanimate and do walk … far!). But the reward is great when you get to show your guests, who have travelled oh-so-far, one of the greatest animals on the planet.
Sadly though, I once made a mistake. I accidentally took a relatively nice photo of a relatively rare lion (and by ‘relatively’, I actually mean ‘extremely’, but only in the latter case that is!): a white lion. White lions made Timbavati relatively famous (OK, I’m sorry, but it’s my word for the day!) back in 1978 when the animals were ‘scientifically’ discovered by Chris McBride on his family’s farm in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, South Africa.
Without turning this into a science lesson, what makes white lions unique is that they are not albino. Instead, their pale pelage is the result of a recessive gene that only occurs in a couple of regions in the Kruger National Park area – notably Tshokwane – and far more prevalently in the Timbavati area on Kruger’s western boundary. The condition that produces these anomalous lions is known as leucism, and it results in a lack of melanin being present in the fur. Unlike in albinism, pigmentation is still found elsewhere in the body, particularly in the eyes, which take on anything from a blue-grey colour to gold, as is found in ‘normal’ lions. White lions are born to regular, tawny-coloured lions that carry this recessive gene. Should two gene-carrying lions meet and mate, they have only a 25 per cent chance of producing a white cub. This reduced chance of inception, combined with any lion cub’s even smaller chance of survival, makes the likelihood of having a conspicuously coloured white lion survive to adulthood very, very low. As a result, there are presently only four known wild, naturally occurring white lions in the world.
This rarity wouldn’t be a problem if any request from my guests to see lions were not followed by the dreaded line: ‘And if we could see the white lions too, that would be great!’
Until April this year we had good white lion-viewing in the area, but our reserve is part of an open system and we have no control over where the animals roam. So when two three-year-old white lionesses were chased out of the area by other lions, we were suddenly left unable to fulfil viewing requests from guests. Instead we developed a truthful answer: ‘You never know when they could come back’. I’m sure that I am not the only guide who says this with a bit less gusto as each day passes and there are no signs of our girls’ return.
Our lodge is pumping at the moment and we have had record occupancy levels. This is fantastic for business, but not so fantastic for the guides as it means that, for once, we actually have to work pretty hard! I enjoy a beer, I won’t lie. In fact, it is a little white lie, as that should probably be in plural form. I also enjoy pizza (and I’m not a greedy bugger, so I shall keep that singular). After my 52 consecutive drives in one month and approximately 52 requests for white lions, I needed a bit of a time away, so on my last evening, I went to the local pub with a friend. The problem is that I live in the middle of nowhere and my local pub isn’t so local (almost 50 km away, at the entrance to the reserve), and it is a bit of a trek to get there. But for pizza, I would go 500 kilometres, and for beer, I would go 500 more.
Just sitting in a vehicle with a roof and a windscreen felt refreshingly different, and having a radio that announced songs and not animal sightings blew me away, so arriving at a bush pub with a television, a fridge full of ice-cold beers and a pizza oven was almost too much for me. But I forgot about all of those things when the owner reminded us that we were still in the middle of the bush when he mentioned that some lions had just killed a buffalo in the river in front of the pub (proof that despite longing for certain signs of civilisation, I am still a bush boy at heart)!
Sitting on the deck with the smell of my pizza cooking and the drops of moisture from my beer dripping over my fingers, I was distracted by a splashing in the river. I turned around to see a few lions emerging from the reeds and jumping through the water into another reed-bed. One looked rather pale in the beam of a high-powered torch and we asked the other patrons if they knew which pride it was and if the lion was a white one, but I wasn’t sure I could believe their alcohol-infused answers. I had only drank half a beer at this stage, so I was semi-convinced that I hadn’t imagined it. As more lions streamed out of the reeds, two of them lined up side-by-side at the water’s edge, and the difference between them was immediately apparent. I was sitting, having a pizza and a beer, at a pub, watching half of the world’s wild, white lion population frolicking about in the river below me. Only in Africa!
Needless to say, I had to have another beer to celebrate this rather surreal moment as the sounds of the lions chasing yet another buffalo in the reeds drowned out any semblance of the ‘civilisation’ that was surrounding us. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. I don’t know how many hundreds of drives and thousands of hours I have spent out in the bush since I last saw white lions – the animals that many guests have planned entire trips around – and here, on my night off to ‘get away’ from the bush, I was spending the evening watching two of the rarest animals in the world.
Perhaps it was a bit mean of me to allude to this fact later several times on Facebook!
Finishing my pizza and beer, I jumped back into my car and excitedly headed back to the lodge – my high spirits were not due to my wish to get back to work; with the way the night was going, I was almost convinced that I would to find a pangolin on the way home!
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