Sleeping with the Lions

The rush of noise made the the whole bed vibrate, there was no way that anyone could sleep through the roaring just metres from our heads. Steve and I were instantly awake and up, looking out of the roof hatch at the two huge male lions. Their roaring echoed around the bush, making our hearts race and any thoughts of returning to sleep impossible. Slowly our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we could make out 10 more lions relaxing in the bright moonlight.
It was our last night in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe and we were lucky enough to have a chance to sleep out at Guvalala Platform, a raised game spotting hide above a pumped waterhole. The lions stayed all night from 2 am until just before sunrise, periodically signalling to others that this was their territory with more ear-shattering roars that were started by one of the males, then taken up by the other male and several females. Soon the round of roars built up till you could almost see the air oscillating with the waves of vibrations, before it died away again. We did eventually collapse into a restless sleep, jerking awake with every new reverberation.


¬†Earlier that evening, we had watched as hundreds of elephants came down to drink. The almost full moon meant we could see almost perfectly right over the pan. Sat on the top of the truck we were amazed at how quiet 5 tonnes of thirsty pachyderm could be, even when running at full tilt, on mass. Waves and wave of elephant herds came out of the surrounding bushes, almost silently. If they came from behind us, we often wouldn’t notice them before they caught the corner of our eyes. Our senses were working in overdrive, to catch all the action. Even at the water the elephants were pretty quiet with gentle slurping, splashing and spraying. Before we went to bed at 9.30, we estimated that over 300 had come down and every time we glanced out in the night there were more. Until the lions arrived, that is.

The nighttime elephant action:

 It was our last night in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe and we were lucky enough to have a chance to sleep out at Guvalala Platform, a raised game spotting hide above a pumped waterhole. The lions stayed all night from 2 am until just before sunrise, periodically signalling to others that this was their territory with more ear-shattering roars that were started by one of the males, then taken up by the other male and several females. Soon the round of roars built up till you could almost see the air oscillating with the waves of vibrations, before it died away again. We did eventually collapse into a restless sleep, jerking awake with every new reverberation.

Before arriving in Zimbabwe we had been warned by many travellers about the number of police roadblocks in Zimbabwe. At our first, just a few kilometres from the border, the officer looked at Steve’s licence; checked around the truck including the lights; before waving us on our way. Soon after leaving Victoria Falls on the way to Hwange, we were stopped again, this time the officer wasn’t so happy. All our interactions in the last few countries have started the same delightful way:

“Good Afternoon”,

“Good Afternoon”,

“How are you today?”

“I’m very well thank you, and how are you” etc.

Once pleasantries are dealt with you can get on with whatever you need to. This policeman couldn’t wait to get the polite chitchat over with before he could scan the truck looking for some misdemeanour to fine us for. It took him a while but eventually he found one: our red and white reflective tape on the front should be just white and on the back it should be just red. He even got the rule book out to show the regulation. Yet again I was very thankful for Steve’s talent for negotiations. Still sounding calm, respectful and very polite he talked it over with them, from behind I could see his clenched jaw indicating a very different state of mind. Eventually after 20 minutes discussion we were allowed to drive off without paying any fine. We hoped that this wasn’t going to emerge as a pattern for us on Zimbabwe’s roads.

Unfortunately it was the start of a rather frustrating day with a series of small upsets: the bathroom mirror smashed when the door came away from its moorings on the rough road, Steve scraped a gash in the side of the truck (our first) on a tight gateway and when we got into the park we were told it would be unlikely that we could stay as we were too big. We were hoping to stay for 6 nights in different parts of the park, so this would be a major disappointment. The kind lady in the office at Robin’s Camp said we could stay for the night but she would have to check if we would be allowed to do anything else. Overland trucks have been banned for a number of years but as a non-commercial vehicle with just 4 seats she wasn’t sure what category we were in but wasn’t very hopeful. We were allowed on a short game drive, where we saw very little. We returned to camp grumpy and expecting the worst. Our luck changed for the better and thankfully she said she would let us stay for a couple of nights. She said we could even venture further into the park but we’d have to see about the other camps. It ended up not being a problem in the other two camps as they assumed that as we had been allowed in, someone must have authorised it.

Hwange most recently made headlines as the home of “Cecil” the lion, shot with a crossbow by a sick American dentist. Much of its fauna is bush so you have to look hard when wildlife spotting. However there are waterholes with hides scattered around where it is a lot easier as the animals have eaten most of the bushes. Elephant damage is evident in many places with stumpy pieces of chewed up trees and the ground denuded of vegetation. At the hides we could get out of the truck and watch the game interact with each other. The other lovely thing about the hides were the other visitors. It was the school holidays, and although not at all busy, there were quite a few Zimbabweans spending their holidays in the park. Where as in most parks we’ve visited so far in Africa, most people in hides ignore you or worse look in horror at the children, here people came over and pointed out what could be seen. It was far more friendly and you got to hear what people had seen and good tips of where to look out and about. We ended up spending two lovely afternoons drinking gin and tonics with Neil and Fiona, a couple from Bulawayo in different hides watching the game and chatting. They introduced us to another interesting couple from near Harare, Frank and Kat. Another friendly family had children the same age as the girls to play with, so everyone was happy.


Our second main camp Sinamatella was beautiful located on the top of a rocky hill overlooking the plains below. Someone pointed out some lions in the far distance in the plains, they had been seen that morning resting up and now as the temperature dropped they were off for the night’s hunting. The following morning we decided to head off in the direction they took, hoping to get lucky. An hour into the slow drive the presence of circling vultures in the sky alerted us to something happening, as we got closer we saw more perched in the trees. Eventually by craning our necks to look through the bushes we found the sight of the kill just 30 metres from the road. We couldn’t see much apart from a mass of noisy, arguing vultures on the ground and a hyena with a bloody muzzle lolloping away. In the Okavango our guide was able to drive off road to see things, as it was on a private concession but here in a national park, you understandably must stick to the road. We drove off after a few minutes slightly disappointed at not having seen more. Thank goodness we did as just a kilometre down the track we came across a pride of lions on the move. Walking quickly through the bushes, their round bellies showing that they were the reason for all the vulture action. The track wound through the scrub, we drove ahead of them trying to estimate where they would appear so we could sit and watch with the engine off, without disturbing them. Eventually we were rewarded when they crossed the road just in front of us revealing a pride of 16: 4 females; 8 large cubs; and, to the girl’s delight, 4 tiny little ones.

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We spent a further two nights at the Main Camp, spending our days out watching for game. The pattern has become that we start early with the girls in their nighties and duvets in the front before stopping for breakfast, then a little while later for school and lunch at hides. Before returning back to camp usually before sunset so the girls could have a run around before tea.

Although you had to work hard at the game viewing we were lucky to have four good lion sightings and at the waterholes we had amazing sightings of elephants and hippos cavorting on the water. They were usually watched by large crocodiles lazing on the banks. We also saw a few different antelope species that are not frequently seen elsewhere such as Roan and one lone Sable Antelope.image

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The three camps were relatively quiet but we were excited about the possibility of staying by ourselves out by a hide. Unfortunately we learnt that these are usually booked up 6 months or a year ahead. However, we were lucky in that Guvalala platform had water issues, so sometimes the toilet didn’t work which made it less popular, not a problem for us with our onboard loo. So we were lucky to get one night there and what a special night it was too.

3 thoughts on “Sleeping with the Lions

  1. Gilly, a special thank you for this post! It is getting more and more exciting, even from afar – I can imagine how exciting it is on the spot! Good luck, guys, looking forward to new reports and photos! Best from Sasha

  2. Hi looks like the luck is on your side!
    We too had a very close encounter with ellies in hwange. A simply fantastic place!
    We did park the LR at the bottom of the steps of a hide, went upstair to the platform and then the ellies came. Having the driver window a bit open to keep air circulating also brought the scent of oranges we had in the car. So a very “nosy” one thought he needed to get to the oranges! Only our loud shouting made him move away eventually. Learnt a lesson – never bring citrus or any fruit into a park!
    That evening my dad decide to go to bed a bit earlier and went along the path towards his rondavel – when the way forward was blogt by a elephant eating some of the shrubbs at the entrance door of the rondavel!
    My dad thought it better to have another drink and wait for the ellie to move off!

    I’m sure Africa will stay in your and specially your girls mind for ever.
    By the time they are old enough to travel with their kids – this what your doing is not possible anymore! I know our children still speak about it some 17 years later.

    Not to sure if you have in mind to go to the Zimbawe Highlands?
    Troutbeck comes to mind. If you stay near the Troutbeck Hotel (used to be a quaint olde english athmosphere with afternoon tea and scones!) you actually can go onto a number of really good walk’s up the “hill” to Worlds End for example.
    There are a number of lakes and nice shady woods. Fresh trout used to be the speciality there.
    Enjoy and hamba kahle

    T&J
    JHB

    • What a lovely story. We are heading to the Eastern highlands in a few days and I think will be in Troutbeck. It will be a bit different to what we have seen so far.

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