During a recent stay at Vumbura Plains Camp we were very fortunate to spend an afternoon with a lioness and her cubs and watched them cross several large water channels. Vumbura Plains is located in the heart of the Okavango Delta and at this time in March the area is quite wet with the start of the annual inundation. It’s always special to see lions on safari. But on this day we witnessed something extraordinary.
We had been photographing red lechwe jumping through water when a call over the radio informed us that another vehicle in our group had spotted two lionesses. Getting a call like that and pursuing big game always brings anticipation. What would we see? Lion sightings during the day often involve watching them sleep under a tree to avoid the heat, waiting for them to wake up and start moving.
When we first arrived on the scene the lionesses were walking. We were told that one is the other’s mother and they’re part of a pride of five including three cubs between them. Presumably, they were returning from a hunt or from a long migration after a night hunt.
The younger mom was making sounds that resembled a long slow guttural purr. She was calling to her cubs. We learned she has two young cubs that she had placed away in a protective thicket to avoid predators while she was on the hunt. It’s amazing that the cubs knew to stay put and be quiet. We suddenly heard some soft high-pitched cries and knew her cubs were close by. Two very small cubs suddenly appeared and ran towards their mom.
Lions are very social animals and greet each other by rubbing heads and noses. I reflected on my own life as a person returning after a day’s work to see my kids. In this case, the lions face more daily risk and the reward of seeing their loved ones is heightened.
The mom, grandmother and the two cubs started to move. They were looking for a place to settle for the night. As it turns out, it was quite a journey. We watched the cubs and mom alternate in the lead as the cubs wandered in random directions, causing the mom to jump out in front and redirect them several times. Finally, they came to a large water pool about 100 feet across. It wasn’t very deep but definitely over the cubs’ heads.
Both cubs jumped into the water enthusiastically and then the smaller one (the sister) scrambled back to the safety of the tall grass. The mom circled back and picked her up in her mouth, starting to carry her in her jaws by the scruff of her neck. Lions typically generate bite pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch so it was incredible to see such care being taken with the precious cub.
The mom and the two cubs started crossing the water following the grandmother, who was already most of the way across. The larger cub (the brother) managed to swim on his own, paddling to keep his head above water.
All three of our vehicles sat in the water while we watched in astonishment and snapped away. Vumbura guide Zee Thek captured the crossing on video while sitting next to me in the vehicle.
We learned that lions at Vumbura Plains have become accustomed to the water and are used to doing these crossings, which is amazing considering that there are crocodiles and hippos nearby.
The lions all made it safely across and we literally cheered. The mom and cubs rested for a minute and then the cubs started running ahead. They reached a second water channel surrounded by tall reeds and the mom picked up the sister with her mouth again and they all crossed together.
It was quickly getting dark and we knew our photography time was fading. We were now shooting at several thousand ISO, which is close to the limit for digital photography. Some of us switched to phone cameras and tried to capture whatever we could. The lions continued across one more open plain and then a third water channel before we lost sight of them in the dark.
We returned to our camp elated and reviewed our experiences while comparing vantage points. We all realised how lucky we were. We also knew we had two days left at Vumbura to try and spend more time with these amazing lions.
Epilogue: During the next day’s game drive we had the chance to observe a coalition of four male lions (the fathers of the cubs we had seen). There’s typically a single dominant male in a pride but in this case, the males (we assume brothers) were all protective of the pride. On our final night at Vumbura we watched the pride of nine come together, including a third cub. We watched the cubs play with the fathers under the careful watch of the mothers. We saw a failed hunt of a reedbuck by one of the moms and then watched them all settle for the night together at the water’s edge. Overall, we had an amazing experience during our stay at Vumbura with the encounter between the lioness and her cubs being an extra special and unforgettable highlight.
Special thanks to Roy Toft, who led an amazing trip, and to Chris Liebenberg and the Piper and Heath team who did all our planning.
About Joe Andrews
Joe is a marketing executive in the technology industry by day and loves traveling and photography, preferably together. This was his first visit to Botswana. More of his photography can be found here: https://joeandrews.smugmug.com/
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