Stories from the Wild
This is a story detailing the moments in which I was surrounded by 4 lions, while I stood on the roof of my 4x4 Land Rover, with nothing more than two cameras and a camera bag.
By Jon Friedman
On a recent photo safari to Botswana, I took some time before going to work with clients to take a side trip of my own. I don't often get as much time as I'd like to photograph alone with wildlife, so I jumped at the chance to visit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in central Botswana. It covers a land mass larger than Denmark or Switzerland, with fewer than a handful of people, and herds of wild animals as far as the eye can see.
After flying in to Maun (pronounced "Mah-Oon"), Botswana from Jo'Burg, South Africa, about ten days before I was to guide a group of photographers into the safari lodges of the Okavango Delta in the northwestern part of the country, I rented a fully safari-rigged Land Rover from a reputable agency/friend in Maun. I stocked up on supplies for a multi-day solo adventure into the Kalahari Desert, one of the most famously inhospitable places in the world. I told the agent that the iron-clad vehicle he brought me, complete with roof platform, armored bumpers, and enough ground clearance that a small child could walk underneath it (without stooping), was "over-kill" for the 3-day camping trip. He assured me it was "the exact right rig" for the job. Perhaps this was a warning of things to come.
The drive to the Kalahari started out as uneventful; a series of easy and virtually empty highways running east out of Maun, passing through Rakops, and leading to the Matswere Gate park entrance. The 90 mile sand road running along the perimeter of the park had a government run agricultural check-point, which I had been warned about, set up to stop the north-south spread of foot and mouth disease in the nation's cattle industry. Back in Maun something was mentioned to me about bribery, guns, and unusual tactics to get through the less than straightforward checkpoint. Many of the border crossings I've made in my personal travels (of course not while guiding!) have required less than normal "actions" to pass. I have become accustomed to these unusual methods of "making things happen" in third world countries, where things rarely operate with the straightforwardness (and often, the legality) of their American counterparts.
An armed government agent stood guard at the gate, accompanied by a woman whose role was not entirely clear, but she was the one who came to my car window and inquired as to whether I had with me any meats. As instructed by my friends in Maun, I told them "only one item", which they promptly confiscated, apologizing that it was necessary to prevent animal diseases from spreading. My frozen vacuum-sealed steak hardly seemed to match the risk of a live animal transport, but I decided not to argue with them. I was an American, alone, in the middle of nowhere, Botswana, with two armed people demanding I fork over some packaged meat. That's just what I did.
She assured me that this was legit and offered to cook the meat right there on the spot, to prove her point. I said that wouldn't be necessary, smiled, and they decided to let me pass, sans one steak. As I put the Rover into gear and slowly began to roll, I saw the woman call over in her native tongue to the nearby villagers and they came running…running for the packaged meat that I had carried. In the end, I was happy to donate to the village, though would have preferred to be asked more straightforwardly than with a trumped up bribe, implied threats, and visible guns.
Driving on sand is a thoroughly dynamic experience, requiring a subtle touch on the accelerator and steering wheel, with a good sense of momentum and gravity. Drive too slow and you get bogged up to your axles. Drive too fast and you end up in a roadside tree, or worse, tangled in barbed wire and fence posts on the opposite side of the road, a hundred miles from anything resembling a town with services.
That is my kind of challenge and adventure! I was loving and savoring every minute of it. I couldn't have been happier.
I reached the entrance gate at Matswere after half a day of driving, which was staffed by just one park ranger. A brief discussion of where to camp and a review of the map ensued and she offered a warning to me that there would be no one to rescue me if I got into trouble. No one. It seemed an ominous thing to say to a traveler and I was glad to have the wakeup call.
The road from there on deteriorated at an alarming rate, due mostly to the affects of the end of the rainy season and lack of funding for road repairs. Suddenly, my tank-like 4 wheel-drive Land Rover started to make sense. I had heard stories of Land Rovers in the Kalahari sinking into mud holes so deep that they were never heard from again. The chocolate brown mud holes were everywhere on the road, despite being in a "desert". One benefit of going into the Kalahari in the springtime, at the end of rainy season, is that the vegetation is lush and verdant, an environmental condition that I prefer. Some say it obscures the animals and makes them hard to find in the tall grasses. The animals are also more widely dispersed, because water is abundant on the "pans" (natural depressions in the ground containing water, mud , or salts.) As the water evaporates from the pans as the summer progresses, the animals congregate at the limited remaining watering holes. I did not have that experience and found thousands of animals in short order.
Eight hours of hard-core 4x4 driving later, through mud splashes that covered the entire vehicle to obscurity, I was making headway on getting to my campsite before dusk (no vehicle traffic is allowed after dark in the game preserve to protect the animals.) A few times, even with all the windows and vents closed, the penetrating desert mud blasted through the loosened screw holes in the floor with the force of Old Faithful, splashing me in the face and splattering the ceiling. I was driving like a mad man to get to my site before dark and to see as much of the gigantic park as I could in my short stay. I stopped only for animal sightings and to grab a few reference shots of the region.
After a quick frying pan dinner at the campsite in total darkness, during which I nervously scanned the area with a flashlight for approaching hyenas (their eye shine would be a sure give away to their presence), I collapsed into the back of the Rover. I was completely exhausted from the rough road, the anxiety and stress of executing this expedition into the unknown (not to mention having flown from my office to Seattle to Paris to Jo'Burg to Maun in the span of 2 or 3 days), and the anticipation of the amazing animals I would see in the next 2 days of pure wildlife photography time – a man with a camera and an abundance of wild African animals. My head was spinning from the moments.
Dawn arrived just a few hours later and I couldn't wait to start shooting. I had set my alarm for 5 am, about an hour before sunrise. I was in the driver's seat a short time later and cranked the engine as I saw the first glimmer of daylight surfacing. I got back on the rough road, this time with the intention of traveling slowly to see as many animals as I could find.
Within the very first hour, I saw a single lion sitting out in the grass, about 100 feet off the right side of the road. I was shocked! I could not believe I was seeing a lion so quickly and so easily accessible. Quickly, I shut off the engine, got out of the safety of my Rover, and began hurriedly tossing gear up on the roof top platform, normally used for camping, but making an ideal shooting platform, a la Ansel Adams.
Cameras, a 400mm f/2.8 lens, a carbon-fiber tripod, a laptop in hard case, a camera bag with hard drives, cables, and lenses, water bottles, chair, towel for sun protection and as a screen viewing darkcloth flew. I had no idea how long I would be up there as this lion was slowly, gracefully, and deliberately approaching. I scampered up the tiny ladder at the back of the Rover and tried to assemble my tripod with giant lens/camera setup as smoothly and rapidly as I could, despite my pounding heartbeats and beading droplets of sweat. It was like something akin to the scene in Jaws where shark-captain Quint was shouting at first-mate Hooper to hurry up and tie the barrel onto the tether of his harpoon so he could shoot the shark-beast as it swam by. Hooper called out, "SHOOT" the very instant the knot was tied. That is exactly how it felt when I got everything assembled and began making photographs of this approaching lion, now some 50 feet from my Rover. "SHOOT!"
His piercing eyes stared right into my lens and his face filled the frame. I was overcome with the excitement of knowing viscerally that I was about the get the greatest photographs of my lifetime. I didn't want to blow it.
Like any moment in the career of a photojournalist, the "magic moment" is what it is all about. You battle the excitement of the moment to carefully execute the technical requirements of a great photograph, all the while trying to capture the essence of the subject. That's when you know it is for real and it is happening as you have dreamed it so many times before.
I often tell my clients that it is hard enough to simply get to "see" the animal, yet alone get into a good position to photograph it decently. I was after more. I wanted an "award-winning" shot. That is what separates a good photographer from a great photographer; the ability to make a great shot, in tough conditions, in rotten lighting, and against all odds. At least that is my goal. That is what I train for and that is what my craft has taught me to practice and prepare for. And this was the moment. After 25 years of shooting professionally, the moment was upon me - the magic moment.
As I made these photographs of the approaching lion, my heart pounding, my head was in the clouds. Voices inside my head were calling out shutter speeds, apertures, film speeds (digital ISOs, actually), numbers of images left on my 4gb card, and the like. All the errors that could possibly happen were flooding through my memory banks, all in the effort to avoid a repeat performance. Things we going great as this lion sauntered my way, now some 20 feet from my vehicle. I quickly grabbed my second camera with a shorter lens on it, my 80-200mm, 2.8. The moment was going great! I was getting the greatest shots ever. Then I looked up and scanned around at my surroundings.
Unbeknownst to me, 3 more male lions had started to follow the single one I had been so entranced by in the process of making my shots. The moment was changing. Rapidly.
The 3 additional lions sauntered my way with equal smoothness and grace as their point man. And their eyes were just as piercing. They reached my vehicle in unison and began to surround me.
With two at the back of the Rover, one at the hood, and the first one still off to the right side, I was fascinated by what was happening. I was alone in the Kalahari Desert, surrounded by a pride of lions. The moment was sublime. After 25 years of photographing animals from around the world, this was the sweetest of all.
I switched to the second camera with the smaller lens and began shooting alternative angles of the lions. Shots with the multiple lions together, shots with the lions sitting, walking, and staring. They had gotten too close for me to use my 400mm anymore.
As I photographed the lion at the front of the vehicle, I noticed that it was so large, that it could easily rest his chin on the hood of my high-clearance vehicle. From there, it could be an even easier jump to the roof, where I stood completely unprotected. My mind began to envision the quick housecat-like jumps it would take to reach me and imagined the feeling of seeing the lion's massive jaws clamp down on my arm. Its head was at least twice the size of a human's; probably closer to 3 times. I imagined jumping off the back of the roof to the relative safety of the rear door. However, the two lions guarded that route most deftly. I remembered the photos in National Geographic of the massive lions sprawled on the hood of someone's Rover, sleeping, while the humans waited patiently inside to drive on.
A sudden gut feeling rushed over me that I might have just made a huge mistake and was about to be eaten by lions.
I have been face to face with many dangerous animals in the course of my career and in just a handful of times have I had that feeling that I put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time and this was one of those times. This was the most precarious circumstance in which I had found myself. It would have been absolutely nothing for the lions to take me, if they wanted.
"If they wanted" was the ultimate question. I was banking on the notion that cats are inquisitive by nature. And, I was remembering what the friend who rented me the Rover said; "...as long as you're on the roof, they won't get you". He also said that the roof-top platform was meant for sleeping in the hot climate in the built-in tent that "keeps the hyenas and lions from pulling you out of your ground level tent as they hunt at night." These thoughts comforted me against what my eyes and gut were telling me.
On a previous expedition in Alaska, I was similarly exposed out on the tundra in Denali National Park, photographing Grizzly Bears on a huge gravel bar of the Toklat River. A large grizzly was running towards me from the next valley over, after being chased away by a second larger grizzly. I photographed it as it approached. The only thing was, it was running right at me (or was it "for" me?). I didn't know which. So, left with no escape, I began making photographs of the overall scenario, just in case it didn't end well.
The same thoughts ran through my mind. "What if they found my vehicle, a camera, and a foot?" are the thoughts that kept coursing through my synapses. The only person who knew approximately where I had gone was the rental agent/friend back in Maun, and I was in an area the size of Switzerland.
Ever so gingerly, I kneeled down to reach my super-wide lens out of the camera bag at my feet, moving at a snail's pace, so as not to alarm the 4 lions that I was moving at all. I was concerned that any sudden moves could signal aggression or a "statement" against them in their minds.
After changing lenses to the super-wide, I decided to try and get an "in situ" shot showing the lion, the Rover and me. Again, just in case. That is where the shot you see on this page came from – from that moment I was certain I was about to be eaten and chose to record the scene for the rescuers, so they could explain to my family what had happened on that remote road in the far off land of the Kalahari Desert…when they found a camera, a Rover and a foot.
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