During a twenty six year period, motivated by undeniable passion and determination to gain insight into the lion prides of the Kalahari, Professor Fritz Eloff spent months on end camping under desert skies, tracking these creatures, absorbing every detail about them as individuals and as prides. There is something exceptional about the desert lions in that they are forced to turn to stealing, scavenging and cannibalism in times of desperation, yet they retain their status as animal kingdom royalty. At times, the sheer throb of the sun and the scorch of the sand proved too much for members of these powerful prides; droughts drained the earth of moisture and stole the shady leaves from the branches of skeletal trees. Life in the Kalahari is unforgiving and frequently gets the better of even desert-adapted species, including these dark-maned Dune Kings and their Queens.
Between 1970 and 1995, Eloff and his mercifully dedicated team; including Ooi, a Bushman of the Kalahari, tracked, marked and studied a number of these lions. This is an account of how Eloff’s sheer passion and desire for knowledge and understanding brought him dangerously close to these aggressive desert rulers, and how, over time, he identified particular individuals, coalitions and alliances. Depicted with emotion, admiration and pride; the lions are introduced to his readers and their tales told, eliciting responses as sincere as Eloff himself would have had. The story of the Dune Kings deserves retelling, beginning here, with the first of the arresting beasts to have caught Eloff’s attention; Kromvoet of Gharagab.
It is the innate skill of the desert-dwelling Bushmen that makes them invaluable to safari guides and game rangers, who spend their days following animal tracks and basking in the astonishment displayed by their guests as, lo and behold, the footprints in the sand lead to the beast in the flesh! Ooi, Eloff’s Bushman tracker, and his incomparable ability to interpret tracks in the firey, red sand, is what identified Kromvoet, or “crooked foot”, early on in this treacherous escapade. In the south of the Kalahari, where Namibia, South Africa and Botswana vie for tripartite ownership of the desert, stands a lone windmill, tirelessly turning to pump water into Gharagab; one of the only viable watering holes in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. It is here that two large-pawed lions had padded through the sand, leaving a revealing trail of their whereabouts, and also details of physical appearance that, immediately, was picked up by Ooi’s diligent eye. A proud duet, male and female, were roaming the area, possessing the waterhole with a maliciousness that was so often evident in the Kalahari lions’ behaviour. Possibly, this Dune King had a reason to be spiteful, as Ooi quickly pointed out that the large male left a deformed footprint. Instantly recognisable, this lion was dubbed Kromvoet of Gharagab.
At first sight, it was clear that this magnificent male was not eager to be tracked, followed, or studied. An iridescent, golden mane, neatly framed this handsome face, enhancing his yellow eyes that unblinkingly warned the unwanted onlookers. Baring his teeth and his breath rasping in his throat, one quick movement sent Kromvoet charging at the intrusive vehicle, which was instinctively ready to make a getaway. In a flourish of sand-arcs spun out by the wheels and deep holes bored into the desert’s soft sand, Kromvoet retreated in fury. His raw reaction to the vehicle and pure aggressiveness gained him a respected reputation, yet made him all the more intriguing to Eloff and his brave comrades. Why was this duo alone, just a King and his mate? And where did they roam?
After this unnerving first encounter, Kromvoet’s admirers were a little more wary, but persevered with goal in mind. The following five days were spent cautiously following Kromvoet’s crooked trail, and what was found was that this unusual pair did not rely on each other as lions often rely on the strength of a team. Husband and wife would separate to roam the red dunes alone, reuniting to hunt or to sleep in companionship. It was discovered that they left nothing untouched; they stalked their territory and commanded their reign with uncompromising aggression. On one occasion a brown hyena was bound to his underground den, desperately hungry, as Kromvoet and his mate reclined on the cool night sand outside, defending the hyena’s kill without having the slightest interest in eating it. This belligerent enactment of power became characteristic of Kromvoet, and a definition of his nature; however, the spells of hostility and malevolence were countered by the tenderness with which he treated his mate.
Six months after the initial introduction, Eloff and his lion warriors returned to Gharagab in search of their brutal Dune King, but found the smooth sand clean of tracks and the night air occupied by the “hu hu hu” of the giant eagle owl. Yet, the presence of one nocturnal being meant the absence of another; Kromvoet was nowhere to be found. A further six months down the line, the gloriously golden lion had returned to his territory, much to the excitement of the team who were so looking forward observing his movements. In an attempt to mark him, a tranquilised dart was shot with accuracy, unleashing a reaction of rage unanticipated even by the experts. Kromvoet launched himself at the vehicle, and deterred from his human target by a swinging spade, aimed for the back tyre, which he proceeded to savage in frustrated fury before succumbing to tranquil unconsciousness.
On inspection, his crooked foot seemed to have been injured in a fight, which begged the question; was that why he was a lone ranger? Soured by defeat and shunned from his pride, Kromvoet had fended for himself and commanded respect as an individual. He had his loyal mate, and he dominated his territory – it was only natural that he detested the presence of Eloff and his trackers. A level of respect and admiration gained, the team bade farewell to this Kalahari lion; the last vision of him being flopped atop a tall sand dune, overlooking his kingdom, alone and content with his solitary existence. It was with sadness that the end of Kromvoet’s story was unveiled to be a tragic one. On return to Gharagab, the lack of the King’s presence was met with concern, yet with the hope for return; however, it was learned that Kromvoet’s bold defense of his territory had exposed him to a hunter whose unwarranted bullet tragically killed this renowned King of the Kalahari dunes.
The Central Kalahari and Kgalagadi are the best places to view the black-maned Dune Kings. Accommodation options include Haina Kalahari Lodge, Rooiputs, Unions End and Polentswa. If you require further information about these wild areas, please contact us.