Eye to eye

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Yes, that lioness is just a leap away – five me­tres from pho­tog­ra­pher Greg du Toit, who was sit­ting in the muddy wa­ter­hole. With cam­era and head above the wa­ter’s sur­face, Greg was try­ing not to shake with fear as he eyed the thirsty lioness through his Nikon 80-400mm zoom. Nearly ten years af­ter tak­ing this photo, he re­marks: “Had I been stand­ing, my knees would have been knock­ing!”

So how did he get him­self into this un­ortho­dox po­si­tion, and why?

This pho­to­graph was the cul­mi­na­tion of 16 months of per­se­ver­ance as Greg sought to pho­to­graph the lo­cal wildlife at wa­ter level: herds of ze­bra, a troop of ba­boons, com­i­cal Egyptian geese, warthogs, im­pala, wa­ter­buck and bush­buck. But his longed-for sub­ject, wild no­madic li­ons, failed to show. Tracks around the wa­ter’s edge proved they had vis­ited, but only un­der dark­ness. Greg’s de­ci­sion to sit in the wa­ter was a fi­nal dras­tic step af­ter months of lan­guish­ing in the heat of a dome hide he called “a ny­lon sauna”. “All that pro­truded above the wa­ter were my head, hands and cam­era,” says Greg. “I never used a re­mote trig­ger be­cause I wanted both ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal shots.”

It was late on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, af­ter a week of 40°C heat, that two li­ons fi­nally made an ap­pear­ance. “I re­call notic­ing their pierc­ing yel­low eyes and their bulging mus­cles, which seemed to tower above me.” Greg’s adrenal glands had been pump­ing adren­a­line into his body, which re­sulted in his hands shak­ing vig­or­ously. “Even my vi­bra­tion re­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy would have been ren­dered use­less!”

Even­tu­ally, he brought his hands un­der con­trol and re­calls the next 27 frames as “a blur in my mem­ory.” But he needed to switch to ver­ti­cal for­mat to get the shot he wanted. “Slowly tilt­ing my cam­era ver­ti­cally, my right el­bow be­gan to pro­trude from the wa­ter. Both lionesses stopped drink­ing and fixed their gaze on me! I paused just long enough to say ‘our Fa­ther’ and pressed my shut­ter re­lease twice, more del­i­cately than ever be­fore.”

The re­ac­tion

Greg man­aged to ex­tract him­self from the wa­ter­hole and run to his ve­hi­cle with­out the li­ons giv­ing chase. In all, he spent 270 hours in the fetid wa­ter­hole and con­tracted bil­harzia, malaria and a host of other trop­i­cal par­a­sites, many of which were in­tro­duced to the wa­ter through ba­boon urine and fae­ces. So was it worth it?

Greg has no doubt: “This im­age of a no­madic free-roam­ing lion drink­ing is well worth the 16 months it took me to get it. It serves as ev­i­dence that there is still a place left in the world where big cats are not yet re­stricted to of­fi­cial parks. Th­ese li­ons are pre­dicted to be­come ex­tinct within the next ten years. It is my hope that this project will help to raise aware­ness of their plight.” The images formed a sig­nif­i­cant part of Greg’s first book, African Wildlife Ex­posed, pub­lished in 2013, the same year he was named Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year.

Keith Wil­son

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