Memories can be preserved in many mediums. Objects, photographs and smells all contain the power to evoke powerful and immediate pangs and feelings that whisk us away to far-off places and oft-forgotten periods of our lives. For nearly two years I have dealt mainly in pictures. A camera and a pair of binoculars are pre-requisites for a seasoned safari-goer, and in an effort to make the most of my time in this secluded pocket of wilderness, I have followed suit. My dedication to this unfamiliar sport has been anything but consistent. I should keep my camera at my side each day, but most days it stays buried in a lovely backpack next to my bed. My carelessness has led to more than a few missed opportunities to photograph elephants shaking the roof of the office, or hornbills stealing sausages and cakes with increasing confidence and skill.
This past month was particularly disappointing. Distracted by work I failed to take a single photo, save a few I snapped to prove to the office that the spinach being sent from town was not, in fact, spinach. I’ve felt slightly stifled and confused lately by my presence here, and abandoning this newfound hobby was doing me no good. So it was when I found myself on a game drive with a family of American clients last week. Camera in tow, I departed camp ready to soak up the bush with fresh perspective and the wonder that had drawn me to make a home amongst the wild things.
On this particular evening we were looking for a lion. He and his brother had been moving in and out of our concession for months now, but in an exciting development, he had impregnated a resident female. Our guide had found him asleep on the morning drive, and predicted that he would rouse just before sunset to begin his patrol. We found him in a deep and peaceful slumber. For most animals, sleep is a dangerous exercise. Some part of the creature remains awake, acutely conscious of the dangers that surround her. The lion is king. He fears little in dreaming, and has the luxury of spending a great deal of his time submitting to the exhaustion wrought by a life of dominating, wandering and fighting. Watching his belly rise and fall, it was hard to believe that this beast would ever stir. We left him to explore the surrounding bush, distracting ourselves with a lone elephant crossing the Savuti Channel. As the sun neared the end of its journey to the bottom of the horizon, we returned to the lion to be rewarded for our patience. His head snapped up at our approach and we were greeted with the face of Africa’s strongest predator.
When I have not seen a lion for a few weeks or months, I am easily stunned by its astonishing size. A lion walks on huge paws that one can easily imagine swiping at unlucky prey, with a massive mane and deep eyes that I’ve heard can pierce the heart with a single glance. There was just enough light left to photograph him, and within a few minutes I was ensconced in an effort to secure the perfect shot. With a camera at your side an encounter like this can seem worthless without the pictures to show the world that you were there. Of course, his poise was not what had drawn us to his side that day; we had come to hear him roar.
It started with a low groan. The call grew louder and louder until we could feel the strength of its echo on the ground. I remember hearing the lion’s call as a child on my very first safari. My terror was such that I cried under the covers, certain that he was about to tear apart the canvas door and charge inside. My fears had faded with time, but the call was no less powerful. The light was fading fast and my photographs were hazy and blurred along the edges. As I covered my lens I saw the flash of cameras struggling to capture every inch of remaining light. What did it matter now that his voice was so totally illuminated?
I wondered at how incredible it was that so much life could be contained in a single roar. Tonight he was calling for a female who was hiding from him. As long as she evaded his calls, her cubs, the offspring of another lion who lay to the East, would remain with her. Once discovered, her young boys would be chased away in an effort to establish dominance over her and the land she calls home. It may seem sad to us, but the survival of the species depends on this rite of passage. All male lions face banishment once they enter adulthood. They must become nomads, wandering alone until they are mature enough to attempt to win new territory. They will face the wrath of competing males eager to fight their advances. Each fight holds the promise of land, of females and a chance to father young of their own. The prize may be a few years as head of one or several lion prides, with females to hunt for them and cubs to carry their legacy. A dominant male will sleep with a full belly and the awareness that his rule is under constant threat from a lion with greater strength than he.
The only certainty in a lion’s life is that one day it will end. He may die at the hands of a greater opponent. He may survive the fight only to run in the knowledge that he has lost to new blood. He may not fight at all, instead choosing to accept his fate as the weaker cat and take his place amongst the nomads. The story will always close with his death, alone and unwanted. The winner will kill his cubs and mate with his females, while his tired body returns to dust. His time on this earth is short, but it is undoubtedly filled with more fight and determination than most of us can imagine exercising during our own lifetimes. It is this indomitable spirit that reaches us when we hear him call in the darkness.
It’s true that images have the capacity to preserve countless pieces of our existence. We create them to remember fleeting moments of joy and sadness, and to extract a speck of permanence from the constant movement of life that we can return to again and again. A few days after my evening with the lion, I examined the photos and looked into his eyes. I saw a stoic and proud beast and smiled, remembering all the nights I heard the lion call and felt blessed to be in the presence of such power and beauty. I sensed too that the call of this particular lion had awakened something else within me. The lion calls to tell all around him, “here I am.” Some will flee in his wake, and others will answer him with a challenge that may end his life. With each call he risks his survival, because he can achieve no victory in silence. If we listen carefully, we may find our own fleeting courage renewed.