Tampa Bay Buccaneers

On Safari

Derrick Brooks is used to Lions - just not of this variety

impala.jpg

Brooks' Bunch quickly found out that the Motswari Game Reserve was 'not a zoo'

(contributed by Charlie Nobles)

MOTSWARI GAME RESERVE, S. Africa - Driving on a winding, wildly bumpy dirt road late Friday afternoon deep into the bush, the tour guide made one thing clear: "This is not a zoo. The lions in here, believe me, are very wild."

The elephants, too, some in Brooks' Bunch were to find out.

In its seventh day in this country, finally the time had come for Brooks' Bunch, a group including 20 deserving teenagers and sponsored by Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, to experience one of the trip's highlights: a real life safari.

After a midday flight from Johannesburg and a late lunch at Motswari's open-air restaurant overlooking a river, the travelers were broken into small groups for the trek into the bush in elevated, no-top, all-terrain vehicles.

One of the first things you noticed was a rifle on the vehicle's dashboard, not the most calming of sights.

The first lions sighting took less than 30 minutes, the result of savvy studying of lion footprints on the road by the African spotters riding in chairs at the front of each vehicle. There, lying in a clearing about 15 yards off the road, were two lionesses and three cubs.

Lions in the wild, at last!

The adults were sprawled on their sides with bloated stomachs - still basking in the success of a recent giraffe kill, the guide said. The cubs were busy playfully knocking each other around.

The adult lions initially ignored the motorized vehicle easing to within 20 feet of their resting spot. "They've eaten well," Steve, the guide, said. "They're not interested in us. When their ears are back and their tail is flicking, that's when you know they're ready to be aggressive."

Steve shut off his motor as his group began photographing the occasion. Nearly 10 minutes later, though, he began thinking that the group might be overstaying its welcome. By then, with nightfall not far away, one of the lions was sitting up and had begun to unwaveringly eyeball the group.

"She's getting quite anxious," Steve said. "I think it's time to give her a little space."

As the vehicle pulled away, Nick Johnson, a 14-year-old at Tampa King High, said he never felt scared.

"But I was excited - fascinated, really," he said. "Just to be a few feet away from such a vicious animal. And to photograph it, too."

That would turn out to be the highlight of the "game drive" for Johnson's group, which included three other youngsters from the Ybor City Boys & Girls Club -- Otis Cooper, 14; and two 13-year-olds, Felteena Williams and Takia Russell.

It did later see one of the lionesses drinking at a pond, with only the vehicle's spotlight eerily giving illumination to a pitch-black night. But that was mild compared to a group that included two 15-year-olds from Tampa - Natasha Spencer of Bay High, and LaZandra Young, of Blake High.

On three occasions they saw a pair of adult lions, including one set that was mating. They also saw about 20 elephants.

One of the elephants wasn't so hospitable, either, Young noted. As the group was trailing a lion, the elephant seemed to take exception to something. It knocked over a tree and tucked back its ears, a sign that it wasn't very happy. The group moved away quickly.

"This is absolutely too much," Spencer was to say when the drive was over. "I've got to come back at least one more time. I owe it to myself."

Artis Ponds, 14, of Tampa Greco Middle School, said his group spotted a lion stalking an impala, its most common meal. In fact one of the guides joked that the dark stripes on an impala's hind quarters are shaped like an M - fitting because it is the lions' version of McDonald's.

Ponds said his group began following the lion to see what it would do next. Soon another lion approached the group from behind, eventually walking on by the vehicle.

Two more safari drives are scheduled for Saturday. Besides the lions and elephants and plenty of impalas, other animals seen on this first outing:

  • Several jenets, small, noctural cats that are black and white striped, with big tails. * An African wildcat. * A porcupine, an animal known to be able to kill a lion with its quills. * A mother and child Steenbuck, a tiny member of the antelope family known to be faithful to its mate for life.

Brooks, the heart and soul behind this educational trip, has high hopes of being able to see nature's fury at work on this trip -- a kill in progress. But one of the veteran guides said he shouldn't expect it to happen.

"You have to be extremely fortunate," the guide said. "I've been in the bush a long time and I've only seen maybe 6 or 7 of them - the actual takedown and kill."

That won't stop Brooks and his fellow travelers from looking for something unusual. They'll try again at daybreak on Saturday.

*

Snapshots: -- Johan Fritz, the Brooks' Bunch security person who actually retrieved the backpack stolen by a baboon from Silas Taylor on Monday, Friday wasn't feeling like such a hero. He had to scale a steep mountain and fight through numerous thorn bushes in pursuit of the backpack. "You learn from your mistakes," he said with a smile. "And that definitely was a mistake. I've got cuts all over my legs."

-- Before Thursday's varied dining experience at Lesedi, where African culture was emphasized, three in Brooks' Bunch thought the man describing one item on the menu said "mice" when he really said "maize," and understandably were reluctant to try it, said chaperone Martha Ford.

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