Eye to eye
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.”
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.