By Jemima Middleton
It was an unlikely afternoon.
Stifling and sticky-hot: that kind of pressing heat that wilts or melts anything it touches.
I was slower off the mark than usual, hanging around the office when I should have been cooling off in the pool or having a rest before dinner. I eventually wandered to the front of camp, joined by another manager in need of a dip. We watched, content, as a fish eagle landed just above us, and we nodded hello to a passing group of lechwe. Everything was peaceful, and serene.
“Jem, Jem, for Callum!” I leaned slowly towards my radio, pausing to dry my hands, and answered him, thinking my swim might be curtailed by early-returning guests.
“Are you still at camp? The Western Pride is mobile…and they are heading right for Little Mombo.”
I looked at Graeme, with eyes like saucers. “They’re coming! They’re coming here!” Suddenly, we were leaping about the small plunge pool like excited children, diving over each other trying to glimpse the approaching lions. Suddenly, I noticed a group of zebra to the right of us, grazing obliviously. My radio crackled into life again.
I hurled myself out of the pool and ran, slipping and sliding across the deck, to my camera and binoculars in the office. This was it: after all of the stories I had heard about Mombo, and having not seen a kill since the age of 7, it was going to happen right here in front of my camp.
Back in the pool, I called the rest of the lodge to tell them what was happening. Graeme and I scanned the floodplain, searching for a dash of beige, the sleek, crouched form of a hunting predator.
“There!!! She’s there!” I saw her, a quick, feline head up in the grass only a few hundred metres from our vantage point in the pool. She was looking straight at the zebra. I glanced behind me where a few others had heard our calls and were slipping quietly into the pool to get the best view. I could see Callum with his guests now, on the other side of the lioness.
We glanced over to the right, and simultaneously, Graeme and I noticed another lion, with a great dark mane. A male, we thought. A third lion emerged, slowly, between the other two. Their formation was perfect. The zebra would be herded right into the jaws of death.
Suddenly, there was a great rushing. The maned lion exploded from the right, chasing the zebra back towards us. The central lion emerged and continued the chase. The prey zigged and zagged, the first two predators fell back. Now, surely the third female must be in prime position. She launched herself from her grassy hide-out, and swerved to join the chase. Too late. The zebra disappeared in a swirl of dust, careering past Little Mombo and beyond (they were then seen within a few minutes on the other, safer side of camp.)
I had been so transfixed on the zebra and that one, bold lioness, that I lost sight of the other two. I looked back to my right at Graeme, unable to express my complete incredulity, and then my heart stopped. There, directly in front of the pool, the deck, our cameras, us, was the maned lion. A few, mere metres from our vantage point. I grabbed at Graeme and kept mouthing, idiotically, “Lion, lion, lion, there’s a lion” and was entirely torn between taking pictures and ducking down into the pool so that only my eyes and nose were above the water. Suddenly, Phenyo, who had joined us earlier, said, “It’s her. It’s the maned female.” I couldn’t believe it. This great lion, with its dark-tawny mass of a mane, was the one the locals have nicknamed “Mmamoriri:” she is a formidable and brave lioness, who looks more like a king than a queen. Ryan Green has studied this lioness and written her story here.
She barely glanced at us, her eyes fixed still on the dust left by the fleeing zebra. Eventually, she padded off through the grass to join her fellow assailants, and just like that, they were gone. I may never experience this again, but I can say for certain that an afternoon swim has taken on a new meaning, and I have a feeling that there are many more tales of Mombo to come.