Lions are powerful beasts that are awesome to watch. They also can be rather dangerous to humans. So, when I was offered a chance to take a nature walk with a group of lions running free around me (on foot), I paused. Then I said, “Yes!”
About midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa lies the Ukutula Lion Reserve. They claim that they are about an hour from Johannesburg, but traffic can be brutal near the city.
Ukutula focuses on white lions. They raise them and study them. But we went there to be daredevils and walk among lions.
Before the one hour walk began, instructions were given to the ten or so of us who took this adventure. We were to stay together, become a herd, as it were. Lions focus on those who separate from the herd as weak and vulnerable. Also, we were not to attempt to touch or pet the lions. If a lion bumped us or brushed past us, we were to let let him go. Most of us were bumped during the walk. We all obeyed the ruled.
At the lion’s enclosure we were told to be still as they released the eight teenage cats to join out stroll. Out bounded these masses of muscle and teeth! They ran down the path a bit ahead of us and then came back. They played lion games with each other that would have left any of us calling for a medic! They seemed happy!
We had two guides for our walk: a man and a woman. The man appeared to be a local who was very seasoned with the cats. The woman was a twenty something wisp of a woman. Looks can deceive. Each knew exactly what was going on. They also carried the food. Each carried a bucket filled with small dead chickens… feathers and all. Apparently, lions like chicken. Our two guides keep our playmates in line with the food.
The lions ran past us and back to us all along the path. The guides hid chicken in trees to encourage the lions to climb up. They did. Every time a lion got too close to one of us, that wonderful chicken proved to be distraction enough!
Along that path we walked with the lions circling around us to and fro. All the while they played rather rough games with each other. Then we came to the water hole. It was too small to be a lake, perhaps it is best called a pond.
Have you ever seen lions swim?
I mean swim so close that when they come out and shake off the excess water, you get wet?
The lions played in the water. They dived for the chicken when our guides threw it into the pond. But all the time, I was sure that they were watching us.
Then the walk back took the same path until the lions spotted a couple of zebra off in the distance! Like a shot they took off! Instinct took over! I remember thinking how I wouldn’t want to be the guide who had to explain how he (or she) lost the lions. But, clearly, this was not the first time. The guides began calling the lions back as one would call a pet dog! And the lions came!!! Slowly at first, for sure. But they returned to the calls from our guide.
And off we all walked back to their enclosure.
Of course, these lions have been used to humans since birth, but still…! I was told that after a while, as they age, they are taken off the walks as nature takes over and the danger to the walkers could increase.
But just to be so close to these creatures was a thrill of a lifetime.