African sunsets happen in a flash. Within a matter of minutes, the sky turns from bright blue to red-gold, before fading out into a deep violet. From there, it soon turns into night. There were four of us in the jeep, including Wilson, our Masai tracker from Eagle View Camp. As the surrounding bush turned pitch black, and visibility was reduced to the cone of our jeep’s headlights, I wondered why I wasn’t back at camp, enjoying a sundowner by the fire. Instead, I was out in the endless African bush on a safari night drive, hoping to catch sight of lions from the famous prides that live in the area.
Trying to Spot Wildlife on a Night Drive
Occasionally, we would hear the rustle of leaves and see the hazy silhouette of an eland or some other antelope a few feet ahead, but nothing more. Beyond that, all we could make out were the dark shadows of acacia trees against a starlit sky. We’d been looking for lions all day, under bright sunlight when visibility was good, yet we hadn’t found any. What were the chances of finding one now?
The drive dragged on as we traversed the bushy landscape of the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in the dead of night. Mara Naboisho, adjacent to the Masai Mara, is said to have the highest density of lions in the world. For two days, we’d set out to find members of the large prides that roamed its plains, only to return home empty handed. Now, that we could barely see into the bushy landscape, what were our chances?
A Local Masai Guide was Essential to the Night Drive
But Wilson, being a Masai, was confident. He expertly guided us off the main road into a large thicket. Off-road, the driving became challenging, and I marvelled at our guide, Joseph Mbotte’s, handling of the car. I had long lost track of where we were in the park and was content to marvel at the otherworldly shadows of the surrounding bush.
At some point we made a turning and found ourselves on a small road crossing a clearing. I was looking intently out my window when the car came to a slow stop.
“Lions.” Wilson whispered, “With cubs.” I could not believe my ears. My eyes scanned the dark landscape outside the window of the passenger seat, wondering where they were. “You’re looking the wrong way, they are on the road. Right there, in front of us.” The Masai directed.
I turned my head and my heart leapt at the sight in front of me. In the spotlight of the jeep were three cubs, rough-housing with each other. They seemed to have scampered out of the night, like magical beasts from another world. They were so close to us I could see their mischievous expressions from where I was sitting.
The Masai have a word for such moments. “Enjoolata” describes a sensation of awe, of the joy of the unexpected. It was the perfect word for this moment.
The cubs continued to play, only vaguely aware of us. The light from the jeep didn’t seem to bother them, although I thought they were squinting a little bit when our headlights found them.
The Best Time to Observe Lions
I was astonished at how active the cubs were, and it was then I understood the point of a night game drive, especially in Mara Naboisho. This was when lions ‘started the day’, after hours sleeping under the searing savannah sun.
The cubs played with each other, walked around in the bush and climbed the trunk of a small acacia tree. They took cues from one another and stayed close, even though each had an independent spirit and did whatever it wanted. Be it sharpening its little claws on the trunk of an acacia tree or stalking small prey among the tall grasses.
We stayed with them until their mother retreated into some bushes. Hungry, the cubs followed suit. From the distance, we could see they were beginning to settle down to feed on their mother’s milk. We soon decide to leave these beautiful animals be, unwillingly saying our goodbyes and hoping to be able to find them again come dawn.