While the lions of the Vurhami pride near Crocodile Bridge in Kruger may have mastered the art of climbing trees and are often seen slumped high in the boughs of a marula, this rare skillset has seemingly not been completely mastered by two zealous teenaged lions a little further north, closer to Lower Sabie.
In the late winter of 2010, my then-girlfriend and I drove up from Cape Town to spend a week in the park. The trip was special for two reasons: it was to be my girlfriend’s first time in Kruger, and there was also the other minor detail that I planned to propose to her.
If a few days of brilliant game viewing was to soften her up to say yes, I figured the game-rich area of Lower Sabie would be the place to do it – and I wasn’t wrong. It’s hard to tell if those two lions played a role in enchanting her, but at the very least they served up one of the most remarkable – and entertaining – sightings of our lives.
Driving back along the tarred Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie Road after our first afternoon’s game viewing, we drew up to what must have been 50 cars all jostling for position. High up in an ancient jackalberry tree alongside the road, a leopard was standing guard over a fresh impala kill. It had pulled the carcass a good seven metres up into the tree and slung it between a fork near the upper end of a long, thick bough. Having already seen rhino, elephant, a few lionesses, and a huge herd of buffalo that afternoon, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to end our first day in the park.
As soon as the gates opened the next morning, we made a beeline for the kill, roughly five kilometres south of the camp, to see what the leopard was up to. All we found was a tree and the hanging remains of the well-eaten impala. The leopard was nowhere to be seen.
Later that morning we decided to swing past the tree for one more look. Barely a kilometre before the kill, we pulled up behind two healthy young male lions walking purposefully along the road. We drove slowly alongside them, following them on their march, and noting how every few metres they would stop and mark their territory, the scent of the leopard evidently fresh in their nostrils. Then we realised: these lions were walking directly to the impala kill. Knowing that lions aren’t renowned for their tree-climbing prowess, we wondered how they would react when they came across a dead impala hoisted seven metres up a tree.
We soon found out. The lions arrived at the tree, peered up into the branches and immediately set about devising a strategy to get to the carcass. With the prize slung up so high, on the far end of a steep branch not much more than 30 centimetres in diameter, I was convinced that these two burly males didn’t stand a chance of getting anywhere near it.
Well, try they did. For over an hour, the clumsy brothers had their ever-growing gallery of onlookers in stitches as they scrabbled and contorted themselves into a right old pickle. As one lion nervously made its way up the tree, the other followed, only to block the first’s descent, leaving them both clawing at the tree for dear life.
Eventually, after many failed and comedic attempts, the larger of the two lions got within a paw’s length of the mostly-consumed impala. It was an extraordinary sight to see a big lion so high in a tree. But then it just stopped and stared at the measly remains, as if finally realising that all this effort was not going to fill their tummies. In fact, they had probably burned more calories getting to the carcass than any meat on those bones could ever have provided. The round-bellied leopard was probably sitting in a nearby tree ‘roaring’ with laughter at these so-called kings of beasts.
It took the lions a while to work out how to get down again. Finally back on terra firma, they sniffed around awkwardly for a bit; cats are so bad at hiding their embarrassment. Eventually, they ambled off into the bush – pride dented and still hungry.
I would like to think that my proposal a few days later, in one of the luxury safari tents at Tamboti Tented Camp, was performed with a touch more elegance and grace than displayed by those tree-climbing lions. She did, after all, say yes.
This story 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 story, Steve Farrell, is a born and bred Capetonian with a penchant for both the bush and the sea. He tries to get to Kruger once a year, despite the long trek up from Cape Town. He’s yet to see any more tree-climbing lions, but he and his wife have twice returned to the scene of the proposal: tent number 40 at Tamboti.
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