Iconic doesn't begin to do justice to the image we share of Lions, when we think of African wilderness and safaris. Along with Elephants they are the prime African animal most people would think of first when considering the word 'safari'.
And so it is with the guides and trackers of Africa as they seek to show everyone what they want to see ; a Lion pride, a dominant, powerful male and lionesses with cubs. Preferably on a kill !
So weren't we the lucky ones ! Not only are there two prides within the boundaries of the Thornybush reserve, a piece of land measuring 13,816 hectares (ca. 140 square kms or 54 square miles) was fenced out from the rest of the Limpopo wilderness in 1955) but also a 'visiting' pride (a lion pride will require a territory of between ).
We got to see two of the prides on a few occasions and twice on a kill (meaning fat, lazy lions having gorged on the, both times, Water Buffalo.
Mapusa (who we nicknamed 'Scar' from the 'Lion King film) was the undoubted star, his powerful presence and dominance, despite being battled scarred and have lost an eye, a key feature of the pride.
However for me the cub eating the prime cuts (and innards) of one of the Water Buffalo, was photographically the most captivating.
Needless to say there were numerous vultures, and also a few Hyena (at one of the kills), in attendance (refer to the relevant sections on this page).
It is hard to describe the power, beauty and vitality, not to mention, the honour you feel, when in close proximity (no more than 3 metres, in an open top, windowless safari jeep !) to one of these magnificent big cats, and no the zoo doesn't count on so many levels.
I found the immense beauty of these animals, in their natural habitat, to far exceed those seen in captivity.
We were honoured to witness a female eating a just caught Dwarf Mongoose (sadly also hearing the howls from the mongoose's extended family for it's missing member) though photographically it was difficult as she lay in the bush mostly facing away from us.
On the second occasion we again missed the actual kill but our tracker & guide drove us rapidly to the scene of mother and son Leopards fending off a Hyena (chased around the tree by the mother - the Hyena settling for scraps dropped from above) with the male jumping up and climbing an impressive tree, with the Grey Duiker in it's jaws, with ease.
For many people the animals they want to see most are The Big Five (Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Rhino and Water Buffalo, so named as historically these were the most dangerous animals in Africa when hunting).
For my family, on this trip, we had more eclectic tastes !
Our favourite and most desired were Cape Hunting Dogs (I like this name better than the most commonly used name of 'African Wild Dogs') - luckily we did get to see them even if disappointedly just a glimpse in the night under a spotlight.
One of our other favourites being the Hyena (so much bad press, some resulting from their part as the evil foe in 'The Lion King', means the general public, more's the pity, don't hold them in such esteem, pretty much as the film 'Jaws' poorly and without warrant, disproportionately and negatively affected the public's perception of sharks.
Honey Badger, Aardvark, Cheetah and Pangolin filled out our "Weird List' of targets, not seen ... so all offer a more than valid reason to return !
Back to the Hyena (this is the Spotted Hyena, the other species being the Brown and Striped found in other parts of Africa); this is an amazing animal, though most think of them as scavengers stealing from others' kills (which they of course excel at) they are also very successful hunters in their own right, preying on animals up to several times their size, including wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, antelopes, and even young giraffe, hippos, and rhino.
The hunting success rate as a clan can be up to 74% compared to hunting alone with a success rate of only 15%, compared to Lions (30% as a pride and up to 19% as an individual).
One notable feature which allows them to rapidly consume even bones (for the marrow and calcium content), is their amazing jaw strength of around 1,100 PSI (which is claimed to be close to x2 that of a Lion and x3 that of a Wolf).
We loved their mournful call/whoop (pity we didn't get to hear their excited laughing too) that we often heard at night when they were hunting.
Listen to their call/whoop below (track courtesy of Zapslat.com) and see if you agree with us !