The game drive had stopped on an open grassy plain for a sundown drink and the game ranger invited everyone to step out and stretch their legs. He turned to me, an 18-year-old volunteer who was assisting him on the drive, and asked me to keep an eye out while he entertained the guests. I peered for a while into the fading light, but seeing no immediate threat, I turned to the drinks table and poured myself a Coke. After two minutes of idle chatter with one of the guests I returned to my duty, once more scanning the surrounding area for danger, and there, silhouetted against the darkening horizon, two enormous shapes, like massive round boulders, jutted out above the flat plain. I quickly alerted the game ranger of our uninvited guests.
He ushered the guests back into the vehicle before firing up the spotlight. The beam swung round, eventually illuminating two magnificent white rhinos not forty meters away from where we having our drinks, and slowly ambling ever closer. Having established the identity of our intruders, the ranger sent the roving spotlight beam across the plain to check if there were any more rhinos wandering in. As the beam swept across the grass in a wide arc, it suddenly stopped and turned back, doing a double take. And there in the centre of the spotlight, just meters from the rhinos and barely visible in the dry yellow-brown grass, was a golden head; ears laid flat, eyes focused. Without warning the lioness exploded from the grass towards the unsuspecting rhinos. Its compatriot, previously unseen behind a termite mound, broke cover at the same time and attacked from the other flank. In a flurry of snarls, snorts and swirling dust, one of the lionesses managed to spring onto the back of the smaller of the rhinos, digging its claws into its thick hide. But the rhino spun around violently, dislodging the offending feline and sending her sprawling to the ground.
This bought the rhinos enough time to adopt a defensive position, back to back, facing the feline onslaught head on. At this point we noticed three lion cubs sitting passively a few meters away from the action, enjoying the spectacle that their mothers were putting on. The lionesses charged and dodged, ever wary of the threat of being impaled on one of those sharp, prehistoric horns. Eventually the lionesses’ persistence paid off as one of the rhinos broke ranks and made a dash for freedom. In the blink of an eye a lioness was on its back, but the rhino was equal to the attack and once again managed to fling the lion away. The rhinos were about to assume their defensive position again when suddenly the scene was plunged into darkness.
The battery of the vehicle, which had been running the spotlight, had run flat. We sat in the darkness, in awe of the terrifying cacophony of grunts, growls and thunderous footfalls that met our ears. But as the raging battle moved steadily away from us, the volume gradually decreased. The game ranger decided that this spectacle was too good to miss, and deemed it safe for myself and a couple of the more daring guests to jump out of the vehicle and give us a push start so that we could catch up to the action. Probably not the safest thing to have done given that two of Africa’s big five were engaged in combat not too far away, but at that point we had the rush of the hunt in our blood, and we paid little regard to our own safety. We simply needed to lay eyes on the battle once more.
We put our combined strength behind the old Landie, pushing her for about twenty meters before she coughed and spluttered to life once more, and as the engine roared into action the battle was again miraculously illuminated. We drove closer to the action and saw that the battle was following a predictable pattern of minor skirmishes. The rhinos would adopt the defensive position for a few minutes while the lions charged and dodged the deadly horns. When the pressure got too great to bare, the rhinos would once again make a dash for it, giving the lions an opportunity to spring on their backs. The rhinos were far too powerful for just two lionesses however, and the rhinos thwarted each attempted attack by spinning and throwing the lions off, then resuming the defensive arrangement once more. All the while, the curious cubs followed at a safe distance.
In all the excitement, the ranger forgot that the battery was on its last legs, and turned the Landie off, once more plunging us into darkness. By that stage the lions were tiring, and the battle had almost played itself out. We listened in silence to the final few grunts and snarls, and then, everything went deathly silent. We sat with bated breath in the heavy blackness, our every sense on highest alert, until out of the darkness came the sound of the dull thud of padded paws as the great cats moved into the night in search of less virulent quarry.