Lions in long grass are like ghosts. One minute you see them the next minute they are invisible behind millions of shimmering stalks blowing in the wind.
This last trip we came across a number of big cats in long grass, so as a change from the usual blah blah I thought I would try to show how well camouflaged they are in these environments. Of course the biggest challenge was photographing them, especially when the wind was blowing, because the camera autofocus constantly jumped between grass and cats, meaning a lot of potentially fantastic shots that looked good in the camera turned out to be not sharp.
Nothing more stimulates the mystique of lions in long grass than the Michael Douglas movie The Ghost in the Darkness. It’s one of those timeless classic Africa movies that you have to watch. It’s a gripping tale, based on fact, about the man eating Lions of Tsavo, Kenya and the problems they caused a railroad crew building a railway line across the Tsavo plains in the late 1800’s. The tall grasses were perfect for hiding the lions in plain sight while they stalked their chosen worker dinner for the day. Hundreds of workers were killed before the lions were finally hunted down by the character played by Michael Douglas. Its one of those gripping movies you never forget. Like Jaws was to sharks, The Ghost and the Darkness is to Lions!
Our first Lion sighting was when we turned to go into a side road and heard Impala snorting warning signals. Retracing our steps we came accross a small group of them in long grass nervously looking accross the road where we were. Turning we were surprised to see a small pride of females and young about 5m away in the grass. From the sounds of it, they had just killed an Impala and they were busily tearing into it. Despite being very close to where we had stopped it was almost impossible to see the lions because of the long grass and it was only when they looked up we were able to get some shots of them.
One of our best sightings of our trip was a lioness and her two cubs. The lioness crossed the road, but the cubs, still very small were too frightened to follow. The grass in this case was not very tall, but still high enough to hide the two pairs of eyes nervously peering over the top. After we backed off a bit the two scampered across is response to the mothers call and the three then quickly disappeared into the long grass on the other side.
However, our best big cat in the grass sighting had to be that of a Leopard who was sitting in the shade of a small bush when we arrived. It was a pleasant surprise to come accross in leopard open grassland and it was not long before he walked off through the long grass. Then inexplicably he turned and walked directly towards us. It’s very difficult to describe how well camouflaged such animals are in long grass and for long moments he dissapeared completely. If we had not known where he was there would have been no way to keep track of him. I can’t thank him enough for walking towards me as it provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to get some nice shots of him in such an unusual environment.
If lions and leopards in grass are something to see, sighting a Cheetah in this environment is doubly pleasing. They are famed for their preference for open grassy environments but as anyone will tell you, unless they take advantage of a high point they are almost impossible to spot. And if they are lying down, even in short grass they become invisible. But one thing is for sure, they are truly wonderful predators to see in the wild and any sighting of them is always a special moment.
So, next time you are travelling through open grassland and it appears there is nothing to see, don’t be fooled. The big cat ghosts of the grasslands are there, maybe even right in front of your nose. The trick is to be able to spot them!!