She stopped growling as soon as we sat down, but her eyes didn't soften. We slowly drove away - no sudden movements around a lioness that was in protector mode.
We drove a few minutes trying to find the male.
We circled and came back and then James found him under branches covered in various shades of green leaves. He was probably about 50 yards away from mom and cubs.
When he was lying flat, you couldn't see him at all. If he moved an ear or sat up, you could just see the outlines of his head.
We decided to have our breakfast boxes in the car watching him, hoping he'd get up or move position so we could actually see him.
As we dug into our breakfast, Michelle saw 2 people walking on the road getting closer to where the mama lion and the cubs were hiding.
The rangers and anti-poaching teams are always on foot at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. And we later learned that the herders also often walked from the cattle herds to the office.
The herders have some training but not the type of training that the rangers and anti-poaching teams have....at the time we thought the men were experienced rangers.
James signaled them that there was a lion in the underbrush. They had not seen her as she was very well camouflaged by the bushes.
As soon as they saw her, she saw them and the vocal message she sent them was undeniable -- GET AWAY FROM ME AND MY CUBS. The throaty sound was eerie and unnerving!
Lynne and Michelle were scared and you could hear "oh my God, Oh my God" echoing thru the car.
James kept a very watchful eye.
I was certain the men would be ok. I didn't think with their training they would be in real danger. I don't know if that was my intuition, my gut, or just denial - my mind not wanting to consider the potential of a horrific and tragic outcome.
I could hear myself saying staying impossibly calm - "They'll be ok. It's ok" as if my words could manifest a safe outcome.
The men quickly changed direction and cut into the underbrush on the other side of the road.
Any movement on our part could have triggered the lioness or the men so James stayed put ready, hyper vigilant and very calm and composed.
We lost sight of the men through the bushes and everything seemed to be fine. Until...
We heard the bushes rustle (it's truly amazing how loud things sound when you are on high alert) and she was out charging towards where we last saw them with what appeared to be blood lust in her eyes.
I can't even explain the sounds coming from her - alerting the entire pride probably hidden in the nearby bushes of the perceived threat to her cubs.
The sound so guttural and biological I'm sure all our bodies reacted the same way - with the knowledge of extreme and eminent danger.
In that same fraction of a second, James had the car racing towards the lioness.
He expertly turned the vehicle over the large dirt curb and placed the vehicle between her and the two men.
The movement was so fast and sharp, our breakfasts went flying through the cabin of the car.
We were grabbing things and moving them around in the car as fast as possible so the men could get into the vehicle and into safety.
Mama lion was PISSED. You could see it in her eyes and her stance and you could feel it in the air.
I was silently praying that she would not redirect that anger towards us and charge the car.
She stood her ground.
Once the men were safely in the car, James quickly and efficiently backed the car down the road to give the angry lioness space to calm down as well as the rest of us to gather ourselves.
After a few moments of silence the rush of voices started as often happens in high tension scenarios.
The men had never been charged by a lion before. We found out that they were herders.
They had been watching a herd of buffalo on the other side of the road and didn't see the lioness due to the heavy underbrush until we pointed her out from the car. (Buffalo are very dangerous as well and for them, that was the threat.)
We showed them where the male lion was. The cubs were now with the male. Mama at some point during the ordeal must have commanded them to go hide with him.
James explained that the growling she had done when she saw the men alerted the rest of the pride including the male.
James was quite certain the lioness would not have hurt the men but that since the male was on high alert, he may have especially if the herders continued on their path and "bumped" into him.
The rangers and anti-poaching team are trained extensively on how to handle being around dangerous and aggressive animals. However, every day they put their lives on the line and any day, they can be killed by the animals they protect or by poachers.
We were also told that the lioness was well known to be very aggressive and has sent many experienced rangers up the thorny acacia trees.
Do you believe in fate? That things happen for a reason? I usually don't...but the night before, it was raining, so James put the glass windows back in the vehicle. Usually the sides of the car were just open with no windows and just very large openings.
Had the windows been off the car, the lioness could have easily jumped into the vehicle and taken her aggression out on us. Had the windows been removed, all of us would have had a much different and much scarier experience.
After cleaning the vehicle, we had to go back through the road to get out. The mama lion and male lion were much calmer but we just drove through to give them space.
The information was quickly passed through the tourist vehicles so that the drivers would stay away from the area to give the lions a rest.
The rangers, anti-poaching teams, herders, and staff risk their lives EVERY SINGLE DAY to help ensure the safety of the wildlife, the wild places, and the clueless visitors stay safe.
Something I will never ever forget again.