“Francis,” I whispered across the hillside. At least I think I whispered.
He was standing five yards away, over by the vans parked in the shade of an umbrella tree, listening quietly to the stories of the other drivers.
Francis must have seen something on my face as I stood on the edge of the cliff; he left his colleagues and hurried towards me. Above us in the sky, the orange ball of sun rose higher in the Kenyan morning trying to escape its own reflection which floated serenely in the flat waters of Lake Nakuru. The sky, if I remember correctly, was tangerine in colour, but it held hints of citrus fruits and candy peel, children's toys and nursery walls. Single, confetti-coloured clouds drafted along the horizon, the world looking like it had just been born.
Way down on the valley floor the lake was shining like God's mirror; it edges fringed with a bloom of pink; reminiscent of the loose cherry blossoms which flutter down and coat the garden pond in Spring. But these pink blooms were flamingos, "up to two million of them", Francis had said; "they feed on the rich nutrients of the volcanic lake, on tiny algae which flourish in these rare waters where nothing else will grow." Francis knew these things.
On the plain below great herds of buffalo were breaking cover in single file. One by one they emerged from the thick stands of acacia trees and out towards the flatness of the lake's margins in a ritual as old as time. Giraffe ambled, picking their steps carefully, stopping from time to time to browse from the lowest branches. The chocolate-brown blur of a fish eagle rose screaming from the long-dead skeleton of a lake-side tree, its efforts laboured with strobing dark and light wing-beats. And from nearby, a woman's excited voice declared a hyrax on the rock-face; bathing its thick fur in the early morning sunshine, like a large tailless cat, to which as a joke, God had attached a pointed but smiling rodent's face. Along the cliff top a battery of human eyes scanned the morning in the hope that lions may show.
“What do you see my friend?” It was Francis' turn to whisper.
“Look there,” I said pointing low, not wanting to be seen. Covetous of what I imagined I saw.
Francis removed his dark glasses. “Where?” he hushed as a laughing couple passed.
“There, by that yellow rock. Do you see the pied crows in the bush?”
He said he did. “But they are just crows man" he put a friendly hand on my shoulder, "very common in Kenya.”
“No," I said. "Beneath the bush on the left, I think it's....” I was almost afraid to say the word, afraid that if I said it the moment would abscond, “...a lioness.”
I had been wrong many times before that morning; every broken branch in every tree had become the hanging tail of a leopard. Every termite mound and hummock on the morning plains had been a cheetah surveying its kingdom. And each time, Francis had stopped the van and peered through his binoculars. “It is so difficult to tell in the morning light,” he said kindly and shook his head. “But you are spotting well, you saw that secretary bird kill the snake. That was really something man, really something.”
But this time the look on his face told me I was right. “It is a lioness. It is,” he whispered urgently. With a broad grin on his face he slapped my back and looked along the line of people. “I cannot believe it, all of these people and they have not seen her.” I had wished for a moment like this all of my life.
I took my photographs quietly and savoured the sight of the solitary lioness. “You can tell the others now,” I said.
We drove away to the sound of a hundred clicking cameras. Francis smiling his big beaming smile; tapping the steering wheel to the beat of a song playing in his head, his white teeth shining brighter than the risen sun. For the longest time he said nothing, even choosing to ignore a pair of tiny camouflaged dik-dik that sat motionless in the roadside bush. As we rounded the bend of the road and swung the van towards camp, Francis turned to me and shook his head, “that was really something man,” he laughed, “that was really something.”