A leap of faith from the Boschgift lioness
By Nick Mannion

Before lockdown, we were fortunate to host a lovely British family at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, and like most visitors to South Africa, they wanted to see lions. Andy (our tracker) and I had been finding it quite difficult to track and find these big cats. Every day there were signs of lions, fresh tracks and antelope alarm calls, but each time we would follow these signs it would result in no lion sighting.

On their final afternoon game drive, in a last-ditch effort to find lions, we headed east to look for the Boschgift Pride – they had not been seen in days! It was coming to late afternoon and we had been quite lucky in finding rhinos and a large elephant bull that had kept us entertained while still on the lookout for signs of the pride.

Over time, as a ranger, you begin to learn the body language of your tracker. Body language that might mean that something has caught his eye, and in this case Andy was glancing down the road. Andy has spotted the tracks of what seemed to be 1 big male, 2 sub-adult lions and a single lioness.

We set off immediately to follow the tracks which soon showed the group was diverging. We decided to keep following the tracks of the other 3 members rather than the single lioness. Not too long after that Andy shouted in excitement “lions!” We managed to find the big male and his sons of the Boschgift Pride. They were sleeping, catching the last heat of the afternoon sun. We watched these lions for some time, the big male lifting his head occasionally to show us his impressive dark mane. Those 3 eventually settled completely and we decided to move on towards a lookout point to celebrate with an evening sundowner.

As we approached the lookout point along the river, Andy spotted the tracks of the lioness who had earlier split from the big male and his sons. While looking at these tracks we heard faint baboon alarm calls coming from further along the river towards one of the bridges we use to cross the river, the same direction these lioness tracks were heading. We chatted to our guests and we all decided to go and see what these baboons were alarm calling at. The prospect of seeing the lioness outweighed a gin and tonic, a decision not to be taken lightly.

We headed to the bridge and stopped at a vantage point just a dozen or so meter short of the bridge which had a good vantage point. The baboons had gone quiet, using our binoculars we noticed that most of them were staring towards the river. The river was slightly low and was exposing a small island, which surprisingly had a herd of waterbuck standing on it. The waterbuck seemed very nervous. It could be that they just swam across to get to the island and were taking a break before taking the plunge into the next section of river to get to the other side, or there was something more sinister afoot here.

We went and stopped on the bridge and waited for these waterbuck to cross the river, it is always special seeing any animal cross the Great Fish River. This particular section of the river was quite steep and close to our position was an almost vertical cliff where the river had worn away the bank over countless years. Below the cliff, a deep vast section of water could be seen.

The waterbuck all jumped in and made it across safe and sound, so it seemed as the last one disappeared up the embankment and into the acacia thicket. Suddenly, a few of them leaped back down towards the river and began frantically jumping and splashing through the river. A waterbuck leapt off that sheer cliff followed closely by a lioness. She did not hesitate to make the leap and was in full stretch, still reaching for the waterbuck. Time slowed as the incredible sight of an adult lioness completely airborne above the chasm of the river filled our vision.

Before hitting the river, the lionesses outstretch claws sunk into the back of the terrified waterbuck and both plunged into the fast, deep water. After what felt like an age of silence, the waterbuck came up gasping for air followed by the lioness who had since lost her grip on the waterbuck. The waterbuck managed to scramble to the other side and regroup with the rest of herd before all fleeing. The lioness swam for the island where she slowly climbed out of the water, shook herself off and then sat on the island licking herself. She turned and locked eyes with us, still in shock from what we just witnessed. Nobody moved or said a thing as she turned and swam across the river again, disappearing into the thickets.

Excitement engulfed us as we could not stop talking about what just happened, except Andy, he was deathly quiet. Andy then turned to all of us and said what we just saw is a once in a lifetime sighting. He had not witnessed anything like that in his 18 years of being a tracker. Indeed, not many are likely to see a cliff diving lioness!