The group got within a few feet of these frisky lion cubs
(contributed by Charlie Nobles)
MOTSWARI GAME RESERVE, S. Africa - As everyone loaded up for the final safari "game drive" at daybreak Sunday morning, one of the security personnel traveling with Brooks' Bunch thought he'd try a little humor. "I'm bringing some raw meat," he announced, "to add a little excitement."
The raw meat wasn't necessary to attract a number of lions, it turned out.
Less than two minutes into the bush, a lion, lioness and three frisky cubs became visible from the bumpy dirt road. And within the next five minutes, another three adults popped into view. Almost before the group realized it, it was virtually surrounded by lions.
Sitting in a topless Land Rover was maybe the last place Takia Russell wanted to be at the time.
The 13-year-old at Tampa Booker T. Washington Middle School wasn't quite ready for such a rush, especially with one lion looming less than five feet away. She found it more disconcerting when the person next to her, 13-year-old Felteena Williams, of Tampa Middleton Middle School, cringed, in the process nudging her a little closer to the lion.
Takia kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead. And they never wavered. Fifteen minutes later, the group was still there, marveling at the cubs rough-housing with each other on the base of a fallen tree. Finally, she asked the guide, "Can we go?"
Chaperone Stephanie Maza, a Tampa Bay Bucs employee, chimed in, "You OK, Takia?"
"No," she blurted.
Soon, the group moved on. "Maybe she's scared today," the reserve manager, Steve Bergs, was to say later. "But by the time she gets home, she will have absorbed everything and realized what a wonderful experience she's had."
Most in Brooks' Bunch, a group of 20 deserving teenagers -- most from the Tampa Bay area - sponsored by Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, didn't want the safari drives to end.
The scary highlight for Ronterryeous Stewart, 13, from Orlando's Meadowbrook Middle School, came when his group was watching one lion walk ahead of it and, presto, another lion appeared from behind out of the bush.
"We didn't see him until he got to the truck," said Stewart, who the day before had won the big Spades tournament with chaperone/teammate Rob Bennermon. "He walked right by us. That was a little scary, to say the least."
As the only boy from Orlando, it took Stewart several days to make some new friends. But by the time the safari appeared on the schedule, he was running with Artis Ponds, 14, of Tampa Greco Middle School, and Otis Cooper, 14, of Tampa's Harvest Christian Academy.
"This is fun," Stewart said, "and this is exciting. I wish we could stay a little longer."
The Motswari Game Reserve is noted for being populated by the so-called Big Five - the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros considered the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
Most in Brooks' Bunch were able to see all but the rhino. There was one rhino sighting, but it was some 500 feet away.
Sunday, many of the sightings came easy. Less than 200 yards past the lions came an elephant feeding on a tree's bark. He soon turned and faced the group, trumpheting to show his dominance in the area.
"It seems like an amusement park here, although we all know it isn't," said Gary Rothstein, a photographer hired by Brooks to record the trip. "This is almost too easy."
Later, there was a leopard sighting. A tipoff that she was nearby came from a dead impala hanging ominously from a tree.
"He normally takes his kill up a tree to keep other predators from eating it," said Bergs, the manager/guide.
Soon, there she was, a smallish leopard resting in the tall grass. The impala clearly weighed nearly twice as much as she did, yet she somehow was able to pull it to a spot some 15 feet in the air.
Leopard sightings are considered unusual, Bergs said, because the animal is such a solitary, secretive hunter.
Water buffaloes can be hard to find, too, but not for a group that included Bobby Wilds, an assistant to the president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, and group videographer Bob Hansen.
They found themselves surrounded by some 250 of them, and it wasn't the most comforting of positions, Wilds said. "I started taking a peek back to see what they were doing," he said.
Bucs Coach Tony Dungy and his wife Lauren got into a different sort of jackpot Saturday night. Their Land Rover was rendered unworkable by a broken fuel pump, and it came far away from the camp and just five minutes after a bull elephant had made a fake rush at them.
Yet their two guides appeared calm about the predicament, and that calmed everyone else. An hour later the pump was fixed and they were on their way.
"I equate that to football," Lauren Dungy said. "You don't want anyone to panic when you're down 20-0 at halftime, either. Those guys didn't panic and it had a a nice calming effect on everybody else."
By 11 a.m., Brooks' Bunch was heading out of Motswari, watching the baboons playfully running on the unpaved air-stripe nearby. A 7-hour bus ride later it was in another country - Swaziland, where it will spend the next two days.
But one thing appears certain: memories of this safari will linger in the minds of Brooks' Bunch for some to come