We saw him on our first game drive. We had left the camp at about 4 PM and it was shortly after that. The vehicle stopped by a clearing between some small trees and Alfie, the ranger, said, “Lion.” We couldn’t see him.
“Where?” Camouflage and jetlag together can be blinding.
Alfie pointed again. “There.”
Then we saw him. He was right there, fifteen feet from us, lying flat on his left side, feet toward us, the rangy edges of a mane further on. We had arrived at Londolozi, in the Sabi Sands game reserve, 65,000 hectares (160,550 acres) adjacent to Kruger National Park in the northeast of South Africa, only an hour earlier from Paris.
Bennett, the tracker, who sat on a seat protruding over the front left of the jeep—he called it his “office”—hopped casually off his perch and climbed into the vehicle with us, so that it would have no visual irregularities that might look unusual to the lion. The jeep is completely open, no roof, exposed on all four sides. There is a rifle perched across the dashboard, but Alfie says he has never had to use it. After decades of seeing Land Rovers, with little, chattering, camera-snapping, hat-wearing humans sitting inside, the animals—lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, hyenas—not only appear entirely unthreatened but hardly seem to notice us at all. Just don’t get out of the jeep and don’t stand up in the jeep. Then you’re meat. There are a few deaths every year in Kruger, Alfie says: someone taking that all- important, final close-up.
The lion’s sandy color matched perfectly the rubble-studded dirt on which he was lying. But once you saw him, you saw nothing else, and immediately felt the joy of safari: one’s shrunken significance, one’s thin shadow. Five hundred pounds, a great mound of lion muscle, napping. He didn’t flick a whisker at the vehicle driving up and stopping. But when Alfie started the motor again he lifted his heavy head slowly and looked our way with drowsy disdain. A mammoth weary warrior, his whole body ticked with scars, his mane many mottled shades from blond to black, punk and jagged on his head. His right nostril appeared bigger and blacker than the left, an old wound. He closed his eyes again, and laid his great head back down. We had been dismissed.
One cannot really see animals in a zoo. The safety provided by the cages and enclosures completely distorts perception. Only in the wild, where the animals are free and man is the curious visitor, caged in his jeep, can one feel the power of their dangerous beauty, the enormity of their dignity, and the frailty—and occasional idiocy—of humans. As with the American we saw in another vehicle photographing, with his twelve-inch lens, a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.