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April 24, 2014

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In the Kenyan wilderness, the leader of this pride is one tough mother

The Lions of Maasai Mara

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MAASAI MARA, Kenya — They had warned us of female lions, how they are more dangerous to humans than males, and our odyssey to stare one in the face had led us to this grouchy lady.

And she was pregnant.

A pregnant female lion at nightfall resting in the Ol Kinyei Conservatory reserve was stretched out just a few feet from our open Toyota Land Cruiser. We rolled into her personal space as the sun began its descent behind the vast wilderness. We were maybe 20 feet from her, and she was not alone. Surrounding her, and us, was a small population of lions that seemed to grow as we inched our way around their tweedy encampment.

By our count, we had visited the living quarters of two males, four females and three lion cubs. Nine in all, and it is possible that we had not noticed each one, as these lions are adept at concealing themselves in the high grass.

We stared at this expectant lioness for several minutes. Our hearts were thumping for myriad reasons: We were nervous -- or maybe “freaking out” is a more fitting term -- because of the absence of distance and any sort of barrier between this giant cat and us. We also were excited, having spent most of three days winding around bone-rattling terrain that cuts into Ol Kinyei Conservatory and into the adjoining Maasai Mara Reserve in search of the big cats. Lions are to this wilderness what the T. rex is to "Jurassic Park." They are the unquestioned kings of the jungle; no other title applies, and we had to find them.

•••

A day earlier, we’d heard some audio evidence that lions were near us, and another brush-with episode on this morning. The first actual noting that a lion might be nearby was as we were marking “sundowner,” a tradition among tribesmen in this region where guests and hosts share in a glass of wine (or a Coke Light for this tourist from Las Vegas) and a snack while watching the sun ebb away.

Our traveling crew, the Moreno brothers (Stratosphere stars Frankie, Ricky and Tony) and our unofficial tour captain Peggy Armstrong were sharing a serene, African safari experience. As we looked across the horizon, a herd of wildebeest stood in the distance and gazed back at us. Then, there was a grumbling that honestly sounded like the growling of one of our stomachs.

But out tour guide, a 25-year-old staffer named Geoffrey Risa Ketere who is part of the local Maasai community, knew otherwise. His eyes flashed, and, speaking in Swahili, he rattled off a quick directive to our driver, a 34-year-old father of four by the name of Tipa Olmara.

Then Geoffrey turned back to us and said, “That growling is a lion. I suggest we rush to it!”

We folded up the sundowner party, climbed back into the Land Cruiser and bounced along the jagged surface for about 90 minutes trying to find this lion. During our pursuit, it rained for a few minutes, and we were given shawls. It was growing dark, and the temperature was dipping along with the sun. We had no clue as to the fuel level of the Land Cruiser -- and I am sold on these rigs after experiencing the beating they take along the East African surfaces.

Sitting in the front seat, Ricky noted, “How are we doing on gas? I’m just asking because I see the ‘empty’ light just came on.”

“Do not worry about it,” Geoffrey said.

“Gotcha,” Ricky said.

Twice, we were stuck, briefly, in thick, tarlike mud, and Tipa had to throw the vehicle into all-wheel drive. Twice, Tipa struggled to restart the Toyota, the clearly identifiable “Wrr-rrr-rrrr” sound from the engine an indication we were precariously low of gas in the dark of a Kenyan safari night. We never found a lion, though we did learn that two of our traveling companions, a couple from Tehran, Iran, who had booked their stay just a day earlier, did get stuck in the mud and had to be yanked free after an hour’s wait.

In all, we spent 12 hours cutting through the Ol Kinyei Conservatory and surrounding Maasia Mara. We had seen so many wild animals, it was difficult to keep track. On one stretch, we cut a corner after watching packs of buffalo, zebras and Thomson's gazelles and were met by a half-dozen giraffes standing almost in our path. It seemed giraffes had actually taken to tailing us, out of curiosity or maybe vanity. They stare right into camera lenses as if posing on a red carpet.

But the lion, the best of the beasts, is not so easy to trace. Undeterred, we set out again at 6 a.m. Thursday and drove through the conservatory, finally seeing a pair of lions -- a male and a female, likely in a mating dalliance -- walk through a cluster of acacia trees along a high embankment. That was a thrill, as we could finally feel as if we had witnessed everything the African wildlife could offer.

But later, on our last pass through the conservatory, Geoffrey led Tipa to an open era we’d visited earlier in the day. We lurched toward a swatch of grass next to a couple of small bushes, and there was a female staring right at our vehicle. It had been explained to us (by Geoffrey, naturally) that we would be safe in the presence of any of these wild animals if we remained seated in the touring Land Cruisers.

Though we have ventured into their terrain and domain, we would be fine while seated because the animals recognize the all-terrain vehicles as a single entity, and one with which they are familiar. But for a human to climb out of the seats and separate from the vehicle makes these animals a little edgy.

Making a lion edgy when you are visiting its home is sort of a bad idea.

We found another male lion nearby, a male who was sleeping several feet away from this female. Lions sleep about 20 hours a day. This big one had been in a scuffle just before flopping to the dirt, his face showing a fresh, red gash on the left side of his face.

“He was likely wounded in a fight with another male, over a female,” Geoffrey said.

“That’d be my guess,” I responded.

We made a small loop and found another male just rising from a nap. He was joined by a cub, in a fleeting moment, who brushed against his leg. The big cat yawned three or four times, exposing that famously gaping mouth and lengthy fangs. He rose and alternately scratched at the dirt with his hind legs, then swaggered toward our Land Cruiser.

Never has the adage “never wake a sleeping lion” made more sense than at this moment.

The person closest to this approaching beast was Tony Moreno, who is an ice-water-in-his-veins sort of guy. I’ve never known him to be anything but cool, even-keeled, wholly composed.

Tony’s response to the advancing lion?

“Oh my effing God!” he managed to both shout and whisper. “Oh, no! Please stop! Please stop!”

The male did turn afield and walk in the direction of the nearest lady. A lover, not a fighter, this one.

Our crew bubbling with nervous energy, we rounded another corner and passed, over quite a distance, a partially concealed female and three cubs. We made another turn and awaiting us was our fourth face-to-face encounter with a female lion.

“This one, she is pregnant,” Geoffrey said. She didn’t seem to be “showing” just yet, but I didn’t bother asking. It turns out Geoffrey pretty much knows everything.

Tipa again killed the engine, and we stared at this lady lion, who tolerated our excited chitchat and taking of photos and video for several minutes. But suddenly, and as if speaking for this entire surrounding pride of lions, she cut loose with a roar that sent chills through all of us.

Everyone looked around to see if this was just her way of blowing off steam or if it was a kind of call-to-claws.

“I suggest, now, that we leave,” Geoffrey said. He smiled as he said that, but we took him seriously. The adult cats nearby grumbled, growled and roared, as if to say, “Everyone out of the pool!” or even, “Last call! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”

We were being told to get gone, no doubt about it, by the kings and queens of the jungle. As Tipa swung us around and led us out of this lion habitat, there was a sound emanating from our Land Cruiser that you hardly ever hear in an African wilderness:

Applause. There was nothing more to say.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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