“There are 300 lions in the Kalahari.” So says the poster at the Matswere Gate of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Dirty, wind-blown and bemused, I read this as my husband Steve was signing us out of the park.
We’d been bombing around the Kalahari in a Toyota Hilux for three days and our tally of lions seen was precisely… zero. For the rest of the trip, when people inevitably (often immediately) asked, “So, you’ve seen lions?”
I couldn’t tell what baffled them more: that we hadn’t, or the smile, shrug, and cheerful “nope” with which we responded.
“Ah, too bad. Cheetahs, though?” Eyebrows raised.
“Nope; no cheetahs.”
“Leopards? Surely you’ve seen a leopard?” At this point the inquirer’s voice would rise, willing us to answer in the affirmative.
“No leopards, either. We did see an ‘‘African wild cat!” Somehow, our cheery report of a sighting of the smallest of the African cats never measured up to expectations.
Towards the end of our self-drive – two weeks, two countries, 2100km – we ran into our tour organiser in Maun. While we were sitting in a thatch-roofed, dimly lit bar that opened onto the Okavango Delta, the conversation turned to cats. When he, too, learned that after two weeks in some of the most remote places on earth we hadn’t seen lions, he threw his hands up and ran his fingers through his hair.
In a last-ditch effort, he leaned forward and muttered hopefully, “You’ve heard them, then?”
And, although the guidebooks, tour itineraries, and locals had assured us that we could expect to be thrilled by the roar of prides in the Kalahari dusk, we admitted that we hadn’t heard a single, solitary lion. He slumped back in his chair. “Well, you’ll have to come back to Africa.”
We will come back. We can’t wait to, in fact. But, not because we haven’t seen lions.
I understood the question, and the disappointment. Locals were interested in highlighting the best their countries had to offer. The tour organiser was invested in ensuring that we had the trip of our dreams. Family and friends were anxious for dispatches from the Africa of movies, picture books, and postcards.
On our part, we’d spent weeks poring over our itinerary and the small booklet of common wildlife we would likely encounter. We would randomly interrupt normal conversations to quiz each other: “Quick, name the top five animals you hope to see.” Lions were on both of our lists. Friends sent us photos and videos of other overlanders – cats perched on roofs or hoods, peering in windows, blocking the roads. It seemed inconceivable that we would spend two weeks in the truck, in the wild, and not see lions. But still…