The Rock Star Lion – As he nears Timbavati Obie Oberholzer ponders on a long-ago legend. That the white lions only appeared after an apocalyptic light streaked across the bushveld skies and crashed to Earth…
Once upon a time, in the wide-open bushveld of Southern Africa, a time that lay even before ‘long ago’, Queen Numbi lived with her Shangaan tribe. In the folklore of the Tsonga and Sepedi cultures, a great light was once seen streaking across the sky.
The people gazed upwards as the star travelled closer and closer and the animals in the bushveld started stampeding away with great noise. People shouted, ‘Timbi le vaati!’ (It has come down to the ground). And so Timbavati was born, a reserve on the western edge of Kruger and now incorporated into the Greater Kruger National Park. Was this a passing meteorite that hit the area some 400 years ago, an asteroid, or just a fable passed down through time? Who will ever know?
According to African folklore – specifically from the legendary Zulu shaman Credo Mutwa – not long after this apocalyptic light, the golden lions of Timbavati began giving birth to pure white cubs. African tribal elders call the white lions the ‘Sons of the Sun God’ and they are revered as sacred animals.
The title ‘White Lion’ immediately brings forth wonder and awe, for indeed they are of the most magnificent animals on Earth. On the other hand there is some scepticism about their exclusivity and the need to conserve them. But no one doubts that they walk on the edge of extinction, prized by trophy hunters especially in the canned hunting industry, the claws of unscrupulous zoo executives and the high-income animal trade. Currently, there is no international law that protects the white lions from being wiped off Earth.
It’s some 400 years after the white lions came down from a passing star over today’s Phalaborwa, that I am driving a dusty bushveld road along the fence of the Timbavati Private Nature and Game Reserve en route to the white-lion heritage lands (now a protected area called Tsau! Conservancy. Tsau! is a Khoisan word meaning Star Lion).
I am neither a scientist nor an investigative journalist but, just like everyone else, a photographer. I am off to shoot a sculpture called The Rock Star Lion. A sudden force slowly wills me off the road and I pull my old bakkie to a stop. After wiping the sweaty Lowveld dust off my brow, I grab my iPhone and google ‘Scientific definition of White Lion’. Like the status of these lions, my phone hovers on one bar. Close to extinction. Slowly, I get the answer, ‘White lions are not albinos, but a genetic rarity unique to one endemic region on the globe: the Greater Timbavati/Kruger Park Region. Certain tawny coloured lions in the region carry the unique white-lion gene, and white cubs occur in numerous prides in the region. The genetic marker that determines the unique coloration was finally identified in October 2013, after a seven-year study led by the Global White Lion Trust which partners seven different countries’.
From the entrance gate of the Tsau! Conservancy I am taken deep into the wilderness to the cosy, private Tsau Research Lodge. I have photographed many top-line African lodges for various magazines but this small lodge is different; it has a serene ambience, yet an energy coupled with a spiritual age – like the urn of magic potions, the mixture of fact and fable, the legends of the past and the research of the present.
Late that afternoon I am taken to the isolated site of Andries Botha’s sculpture. I am, at first, overwhelmed by the size of The Rock Star Lion; the creature evokes a massive force of inward power, almost spring-loaded for a killer lunge. I have known Andries Botha for 39 years. Damn well, I must add. He is a remarkable, unique character, an internationally renowned sculptor and a man blessed with a wonderful intellect.
I, on the other hand, have a fairly good eye, a tripod, a camera and a powerful hunting torch. So, alone in the bush, I set to work to capture something of the twilight and an artwork glorifying one of Earth’s most beautiful creations. The giant lion poses on a mound and the sculpture itself measures 3.10m from nose to rear and 1.40m across the shoulders.
Botha placed this first incarnation of The Rock Star Lion, a galvanized-steel frame filled with king quartz crystal, on the Nilotic Meridian (31° East) that courses through the white lion ancestral lands, the heart-line facing north through Great Zimbabwe, the Rift Valley, the Nile River to the Pyramids of Giza and the massive Sphinx. Filled with quartz crystal (mined nearby), the sculpture weighs in excess of two tons.
In early spring, before the summer thunderstorms, the twilight landscape had a harsh edge to it, seething in wait, brittle in its winter bleach. Just the ranger watches over me as I make a small fire that, after a while, dabbles a dance of firelight on the quartz lion, the Simba, the Leo, the Lion King of all beasts. The white ones descended from the light of stars are somewhere around me in the waning light, roaming free and safe.
Later that evening around the fire, I join sculptor Andries Botha, Linda Tucker and her partner Jason Turner, a lion ecologist and researcher. All are famed in their specialities, so much so that explanations would take pages and leave me floundering in their wake of high academic dialogue. Linda is CEO of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, an organisation she founded in 2002 after gaining access to the large track of conservancy area in Timbavati that is now called Tsau! Conservancy.
Linda has lectured worldwide and has been featured in many articles and documentaries. She has also written two best-selling books on the white lions. She studied at Cambridge and started off on a career in fashion and advertising in London. On her return to South Africa and a visit to Timbavati, she began her research into the white lion mysteries, following a rescue from lions in 1991, by Maria Khosa, a Shangaan sangoma (or African shaman). Maria became her teacher and, through her and other lion shamans, Linda became a ‘Keeper of the White Lions’, an ancient shamanic title.
As this is an alcohol-free lodge, I look down at the ice blocks in my glass of water and watch the refracted image of the fire dancing in each cube. I have been stretched pictorially by my quest to arrest and re-direct the sculptural into the photographic. So, in a state of heightened sobriety, I start imagining cosmic occurrences reduced to minuteness in the drop of water running down the side of my glass.
Conversation-wise, between Andries and Jason and lovely Linda, I am out of my depth and clutching at dry bushveld branches beneath a galaxy of stars that I know very little about.
I take a blurred picture of the fire through my glass of ice and water and the GPS coordinates of my camera show that I am sitting at exactly 31° 8’ 7.3414” E and 24° 22’ 42.006” S. I am sitting on the heart-line meridian that connects us here with the origins of man at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, and up north to the largest lion sculpture ever made.
Jason Tucker raises his hand in a gesture of silence. In the distance of night, we all hear the deep guttural sounds of a white-lion kill. Then, towards the north-east, a bright meteorite flashes across the sky. ‘Timbi le vaati!’ says the lady of the lions, softly. It has come down to the ground.