My wife, Brenda, and I were staying with new friends in South Africa, near the edge of Kruger National Park, and it was 5:00 a.m., time to get up.
We grabbed our cameras and bundled into the Land Rover. It was cold enough to freeze fire, and the extra blankets in the open vehicle felt snuggly and wonderful.
“One lion’s roar today means that the brothers may be back,” our driver rattled on as he bounced toward the distant sound. “Three years ago three young lion brothers came into this area. They were a powerful team and quickly killed or chased off the other male lions, taking the territory for themselves. They come and go as they choose, of course. But, sometimes when they come, they all three come! I hope today will be like that.”
We drank our hot chocolate and snuggled deeper into the warm blankets, trying not to bounce out of the Rover as our driver headed through the brush and arroyos.
“Stop!” he said, pressing the brake pedal through the floor.
Silence surrounded us, making the predawn air feel even colder.
Then came the roar. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five. A terrible sound that shook the Rover and the ground around us.
“Closer,” he said.
Brenda suggested that this was a good time to return home for breakfast. I rechecked my cameras and waited, hoping I would be calm enough to keep the beast in focus.
The Rover was creeping now, almost silently slipping around an acacia tree so we could see the huge lion who was lying in the grass and calling up the sunrise.
The Rover stopped, and the engine died. I cradled my telephoto lens against the back of a seat and pointed it toward the beast in the grass.
Brother 1 roared again, this time his voice matched by the hum of the motor drive on my camera.
It was still dark, and so cold that each roar brought a vast cloud of white vapor from the lion’s lips. Brenda tried hard to keep from shivering so the camera wouldn’t be bounced out of focus. I blew my breath out slowly, hoping at least one frame would be a perfect portrait of Brother 1.
He looked over at us now, his mane glowing red in the early-morning sun, his breath an active volcano.
“Look east,” our driver said. “Brother 2.”
The second lion seemed even larger than his brother, glowing orange in the sun and sashaying through the brush as if he owned the world. Brother 1 stopped roaring and looked over at his pal. They were like kittens preparing to pounce on each other in the grass.
Instead of pouncing, Brother 2 leaned in and hugged the first lion. Everything about the reunion spoke of “best friends and brothers.”
“Look north,” the driver whispered. “Brother 3.”
There he came, even more regal than the other two, prancing on his tiptoes toward the sunrise reunion.
“I have never seen this, not in all my years living in the bush,” said our friend. “Usually the big males kill each other and take over, but these three are still best friends. Never have I seen this!”
I had traded my long telephoto lens for a shorter one, and was using up batteries and storage space as I continued to record the love-in. Three lions, rolling and playing together like giant tawny kittens in the icy morning light.
A few minutes later Brother 3 growled, stood, and slowly walked toward our Land Rover.
“Don’t move,” our driver said quietly.
We didn’t so much as shiver.
He walked right toward my Brenda, slowed and looked up slightly, then padded on toward the dry riverbed beyond. A moment later the two other brothers followed, passing silently, as if we didn’t even exist.
Brenda breathed again. Her first breath since the lion had walked toward her. A breath of fear and relief, all mixed together with the sheer joy of adventure.
“They didn’t eat us!” she whispered with relief.
That broke the tension of the moment. We all breathed, laughed, and praised God for this glimpse of heaven, in the bush of wild Africa.
In the distance a lion roared.
* * *
“Daniel!” King Darius called down into the depths of the lion’s den. “Are you OK? Has your God protected you?”
“Yes, my king,” Daniel answered, his hands digging deeply into the black mane of a giant lion. “My God has sent His angel and closed the lions’ mouths.”
“Ah, yes. I thought that would be so,” smiled the king. “The Creator God is like that. Turning a night of terror into a night of brotherly love with the Great Lion.”
Dick Duerksen, a pastor and storyteller living in Portland, Oregon, United States, is known around the world as “an itinerant pollinator of grace.”