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BRYONY’S BLOG - October 2011

Bryony with Christine

On a misty morning in England, I go back to what feels like only a moment ago, when I shared some precious time with the beautiful Born Free Big Cats at Shamwari.  I gaze into their eyes on my computer screen, trying to remember how I felt when I was close enough to see and hear them breathe.  

I have one day.  One day to see as many of them as I can.  Christine comes to collect me from my lodge, arrives at my tent with a smile.  It’s wonderful to see her again, as if we last met only yesterday.  She has made time for me despite being under huge pressure studying for exams.  What a gem of a friend she is.

First we go to the Jean Byrd centre, where my beloved adopted Shada lives.  We start with ‘The Two Js’, Jools and Jerry.  They are no less camera-shy than they were last year!  Jerry is sitting under a bush, Jools is tucked behind him.  For a brief second I think I am seeing one lion, until she shifts a little, lifts her head, and sinks down again.  I get one good shot of Jerry.  Quite a feat!

Two lions
Double Take – Jerry with Jules lying behind him!

Brutus, who was up close and personal last year, is likewise hiding in the shade of a bush.  He spies us spying him, lifts his nose in a dismissive sort of way.  Marina, his companion, is less elusive.  She is a very sociable, curious lioness; runs out to greet us, seemingly keen for company.  I kneel down and fleetingly catch her eye.  A special moment.

The lioness marina
Marina

Shada, like last year, is being her usual shady lady self.  She sits shrouded by a shrub, barely taking notice when Headman calls her name.   She was fed yesterday, and is not expecting any more food till tomorrow.  Suddenly she lifts her head, ears alert.  She’s seen something in the distance which has caught her interest.  But nothing so interesting as to distract her from the delights of a good snooze; she relaxes again and closes her long-lashed eyes.

lioness Born Free
Shada on Alert

Kuma, who was nowhere to be seen earlier, is up and about.  We drive near to his enclosure, and on our arrival he pauses, mid-prowl, still as a statue.  He holds this pose for at least a couple of minutes, and for a moment I wonder whether he’s real.  In the end his nostrils give the game away, sniffing us out.

Kuma pauses mid-prowl
Eventually he relaxes and sits down.

I wonder if Kuma will growl and run off like he did last year.  He stays where he is.  I am honoured indeed.  Then a snarl, a hiss, a baring of teeth ... he’s getting too hot, and we leave him to his privacy.

Christine and I decide to share the picnic my lodge prepared for our lunch with Headman.  Much as I love my food, I find I have very little appetite.  I’m too wrapped up in Big Cats.  It’s that feeling you get when you’re in love, when you are so filled up you have no room for food.  I feel completely at home with these two lovely people, as only kindred spirits can be.  It is wonderful to see Headman again.  He is such a dedicated and gentle human being, and so obviously proud of the Big Cats in his care.

Afterwards we head for the Julie Ward Centre.  First we go to visit the three leopard triplets.  Nimira is sitting in the shade of a bush (by now you must have gathered it’s HOT!) enjoying a good cleaning session.   Having an affinity with cats as I do, it’s hard not to make comparisons with my own cats, albeit on a far larger scale.  The licking of paws, eyes closing with pleasure; the grooming of fur, the sheer dedication towards the meticulous business of cleaning that only a cat – of any size - can lay claim to.

leopard triplet
Nimira

A little further along Sami and Alam are nestled together under another bush.  Forgive the pun, but it is hard to ‘spot’ the difference!  Suddenly they decide to have a play fight, and one of them produces the most extraordinary noise, which I can only liken to the sound we make when gargling!  I giggle as he leaps off his brother in a huff, walks off and marks his territory just for good measure.

Born Free rescued big cat leopard
Alam (or is it Sami?!)

We find the beautiful Achee at the top of another enclosure.  She was the one who touched my heart last year.  She is pacing up and down, pushing her nose into the fence.  For a moment we wonder whether she is distressed, but Glen explains later that she must have wondered if we had brought food.  The fact that Ma Juah was nowhere in sight further convinces me.  She always watches over Achee, so if she had sensed anything was wrong, she would have been there like a shot.

It has to be said, the highlight of my visit to the Julie Ward Centre was seeing Sinbad.  I had caught a mere glimpse of his tail last year, and had been disappointed not to have seen this much-loved little lion.  When we arrive at his enclosure he strides up to the fence.  Christine says he is always like that after he’s been fed, “holding his head up high, like he did this amazing kill!”  He sits opposite us, his front paws neatly placed one in front of the other.  He looks so unbelievably cute!

Sinbad

He is all mane.  It stretches all the way around his tiny body, and is the most gorgeous mixture of chestnut and auburn.  Utterly adorable!

little lion
Sinbad

Gradually he starts to fall asleep on his feet (sorry, paws) with his tongue sticking out.  Christine says when he sticks his tongue out it shows how relaxed he is.  Eventually he sinks down to the ground, where he carries on snoozing.  After a while he yawns, and I notice his lack of teeth.  I feel sad for a moment, but he seems so content I’m not sad for long.  Then he gets up and wanders into the shade.  What a lovely lasting picture to carry with me when we say goodbye.

lion with big mane
Sinbad in the Shade

Later I thank Christine for taking the time to give me so many special sightings.  I leave happy and uplifted, and think to myself, “Till next year then.”  Little did I know I would see Shada again a couple of days later!

Thanks to the curiosity of one of my fellow game drive companions, at their request I am treated to another visit to the Jean Byrd centre.  This time Shada is sitting right by the fence.   Shada, usually very antisocial and shy, sometimes gets nervous when people are around.  Today she is completely unfazed by our presence.  I’d like to think she sensed her adoptive mum was there, but who am I kidding?  Don’t worry, I’m not under any delusions of grandeur!  But she is so relaxed, having a good scratch, preen, yawn, and all things cats love to do.  And I am utterly thrilled when Martin manages to take a photo of me with Shada in the near background.  

Bryony with Shada

A word about Martin too – what a genuinely lovely man he is.  He is so good with the guests, and knows so much about all the Big Cats in his care.  Special thanks to him for showing us around.

When we decide to leave Shada in peace, we find Marina up at the fence, once again as if she is seeking company.  Like the other day, she is curious and seemingly happy to have people around her.  And when we leave she looks a little disappointed ... but again, I really mustn’t try to translate animal thoughts into human!Finally we have another incredible encounter with Kuma, who was so elusive last year.  We watch as he marks his territory, before sitting down with a rumble and a grunt.  He doesn’t seem bothered as I film him, capturing every single breath and tilt of the head, not to mention yawn!

When we decide to leave Shada in peace, we find Marina up at the fence, once again as if she is seeking company.  Like the other day, she is curious and seemingly happy to have people around her.  And when we leave she looks a little disappointed ... but again, I really mustn’t try to translate animal thoughts into human!

Finally we have another incredible encounter with Kuma, who was so elusive last year.  We watch as he marks his territory, before sitting down with a rumble and a grunt.  He doesn’t seem bothered as I film him, capturing every single breath and tilt of the head, not to mention yawn!

He is such an unusual looking leopard, with his big strong head and shoulders.   I could almost believe he has a hint of jaguar in his genes, with his very distinctive and dark markings.  What a sight he is to behold.

Kuma yawning

When we leave I wonder – and hope – whether these beautiful creatures have touched others’ hearts as they have mine?  Each and every person who visits the Born Free centres could be a new member – a new adoptive parent.  But people can be as private as the Big Cats.  It is none of my business.  Although on the way back to the lodge I do my best to explain a bit more about Born Free’s ongoing mission, and how vital it is that people support this in whatever way they can.

So that is it for this year.  I may be thousands of miles away from Shamwari as I write, but I am still there in spirit.  I can’t wait till I’m there in person again.  Till then, the eyes of all those beautiful cats burn constantly in my heart.

The Wise Eyes of Sinbad

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

 Henry Beston (from “The Outermost House”)

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