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How we will remember our 22-day trip to Kruger in the late spring of 2013? Not for the giraffe near Punda Maria, cut down in a fight and close to death, that mysteriously rose like Lazarus. Nor for the chillingly plentiful lion spoor in the sand around the point on the eastern boundary fence where Mozambican refugees frequently enter the park on foot. Rather, that trip was defined by an incident that happened not only on our very last day, not only within sight of the farmlands that creep right up to Kruger’s southern border – but not even strictly inside the park at all.

We had just passed under the boom at Crocodile Bridge Gate. As we rounded the bend that leads down to the low concrete bridge over the river and back out into the real world, we saw a collared lioness sitting upright in the grass to our right.

Collared-lioness-kruger
©Stella Stewart

Just a few metres from the side of the road, she sat intently staring diagonally across the bridge to the far bank. We followed her gaze and saw, to our surprise, two lion cubs standing hesitantly on the opposite side of the river, right on the water’s edge. They were clearly working up the courage to take the plunge and swim across to their mother. How they had become separated, I don’t know, but I suspect that the lioness had earlier crossed the bridge and, like naughty children, the cubs were too busy playing to follow. Then with the arrival of some cars on the bridge, they had probably been too frightened to walk across it on their own.

From our vantage point, parked up on the left-hand side of the bridge directly opposite the cubs, we watched them debate for a while whether to swim or not.

Eventually the cubs ventured into the water. It was a calm day and the water was like glass. They were hesitant at first, even turning back briefly before they had gone out too far, but with longing glances across to their mother, they steeled themselves, wrinkled their noses and committed to the 100 metre crossing.

Lion-cubs-swim-kruger
©Stella Stewart

With their mother watching intently from the near bank on the righthand side of the bridge, the cubs paddled furiously across the water, heads just above the surface, clearly hating every second of their swim. They had barely got a third of the way across when the lioness suddenly jumped up and walked purposefully onto the bridge, growling and snarling at something upstream.

Lioness-snarling-kruger
©Stella Stewart

We craned our necks and scanned the water. To our horror, gliding swiftly downstream from the west was an enormous crocodile. The lioness paced up and down along the edge of the bridge, snarling menacingly at the croc, which slowed down and stopped just three metres from the bridge.

For a minute or two there was a stalemate. The crocodile didn’t dare move forward for fear of the wrath of the lioness. Meanwhile, the cubs on the other side of the bridge had reached the halfway mark. But, hearing the growling of their mother and sensing danger, one of the cubs lost its nerve, turned around and began swimming back to the far bank. Fortune usually favours the brave, but not in this case. Turning around and heading back would ultimately save that cub’s skin. Pressing ahead, as the braver of the two did, would prove to be a fatal decision – one aided by a miscalculation on the part of its mother.

Rather than stay on the bridge and hold off the crocodile – which was clearly working – the lioness dashed around and down to the righthand side of the bridge to face the crocodile from the shoreline instead. With the route ahead of it suddenly clear, the crocodile swam under the bridge and closed in on the cubs.

In a panic, the lioness rushed across to the left-hand side of the bridge, right in front of our car. The cub that had retreated was comfortably far away, heading towards the reeds on the other side, but the cub that had pushed on was just a few metres from the near bank. The crocodile cut a line straight for it.

Crocodile-captures-lion-cub
©Stella Stewart

The outcome was inevitable. As the croc closed in, we watched helplessly, knowing there was not a thing we could do to stop it. The lioness, on the other hand, was far more resolute. With a flying leap, she dived straight off the bridge into the water with a splash and tore through the crocodile’s wake. The cub spun around in the water and snarled at the encroaching croc. But it was too late. In an instant the water frothed and the crocodile snatched the cub between its huge jaws. The lioness was just a metre from the croc’s long tail.

Heroic to the end, the lioness launched herself onto the crocodile – but rescue was futile. Kruger’s apex land predator was no match for Kruger’s apex water predator, and the croc simply disappeared under the surface with the cub in its mouth.

As the ripples flattened, the lioness realised that the water was not all that deep and stood up. Gazing left and right, she scanned the water for the croc and cub, but there was not even a bubble or swirl to indicate where they had gone.

Lioness-in-the-river-kruger
©Stella Stewart

Looking shocked and dazed, the lioness slowly plodded through the water towards the reeds on the far bank, into which the surviving cub – which had safely made it across – had disappeared. It was heart-breaking to watch. What thoughts were going through her mind as she paddled forlornly across the channel in the middle of the river, then waded the rest of the way through the shallow water, before also disappearing into the reeds?

We sat silently for a while, unable to find the right words. Usually when you pass through the boom, wave goodbye to the gate guards and exit the park, it is a sad occasion. And so it was here – except our sadness came not just from leaving but from the most gut-wrenching thing we’d ever seen. For our entire journey back to Durban, our conversation returned time and again to the extraordinary sequence of events at the bridge over the Crocodile River.

Some days later I read that a pride of 12 lionesses, one lion and a single cub were seen less than a kilometre from Crocodile Bridge. The heroic lioness – identifiable by her tracking collar – is the alpha female of the Vurhami pride, which is well known in the area. Tragically she originally had four cubs – two were killed in unknown circumstances, one fell prey to the crocodile in front of our eyes, and the little one, which turned back as she held off the crocodile, remains her only surviving offspring.

Surviving-lion-cub-kruger
©Stella Stewart

But just how fortunate the lioness was to have kept that last surviving cub only became apparent to me a few weeks after my return. I was poring over my photographs of the incident when, in the picture I had snapped of the two paddling cubs soon after they had set off from the far bank, I was shaken to discover something I had neither seen at the bridge nor spotted in the photographs earlier. Trailing some metres behind the cubs, churning up only the slightest of wakes, is the distinct and ominous shape of a fast-approaching crocodile. I have no idea where this crocodile came from, nor where it disappeared to after that, but quite how the surviving cub made it back to the reeds alive is nothing short of a miracle.

Crocodile-lion-cubs-kruger
©Stella Stewart

This article was originally published in 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of 101 jaw-dropping stories as compiled by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The author of this particular tale, Stella Stewart, is an international aerobic gymnastics judge and lives in Umhlanga, KwaZulu Natal (KZN). A board member of the KZN Gymnastics Union and the aerobic gymnastics administrator for the South African Gymnastics Federation, she also has a burning passion for wildlife and is actively involved in the quest to save the rhino. She visits Kruger at least twice a year and always makes the most of it – her longest single trip lasted 23 days.

Got your own Kruger tale? Submit it for the next edition here.

Ndumu River Lodge
101 Kruger Tales by Jeff Gordon

101 Kruger Tales is a book, compiled and edited by Jeff Gordon, that showcases extraordinary stories from ordinary visitors to the Kruger National Park. 101 Kruger Tales was first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Jeff Gordon is one of the myriad ordinary Kruger visitors, with no special affiliation to the park. But he happens to enjoy a good yarn, so he invited other ordinary Kruger visitors to submit stories about their experiences. The result has proved popular beyond his imaginings, and he has already started collecting stories for a second compilation. He likes his boerewors a touch underdone, his biltong thinly sliced and his Amarula on ice.