There are a few things they tell you when you’re about to walk with lions.
There is a place in Zimbabwe where you can actually do this. No, seriously. I went there last fall.
The story of the place can be boiled down to this: A rich Zimbabwean found some abandoned lions, started raising them and realized they started to display hunting instincts, such as stalking birds. He eventually started a preserve on his land dedicated to the notion that a careful breeding program could produce lions capable of surviving in the wild.
You still have to be careful around the lions raised around people because, well, the guy who started the place has only one arm, for lion-related reasons.
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To keep that from happening again, one of the preserve’s guides gives you these nuggets of advice before you walk with lions: “You must walk up to them slowly from behind, so they will not view you as a threat. … You may pet them, but you must not touch behind their ears. … You must not have things like jewelry dangling from your clothes, because young lions are playful and they will think it is a toy and they will swipe at it.”
As he said the last point, he looked at me. I had a pouch with my insulin kit dangling from the front of my belt. The guide’s eyes suggested: You must not let them swipe you there.
Thus began my walk with lions.
I have friends living in Johannesburg, South Africa. They have a spare room, so I decided to visit.
Joburg is the site of some of the most important events of the 20th century. The country is, understandably, still working out the social aftermath following the fall of apartheid. Aside from the Apartheid Museum and Soweto — the epicenter of the end-apartheid movement — there’s not much about Johannesburg for tourists, at least compared to all the other things the world has to offer travelers.
Like, for instance, a safari.
You can do one cheaply. Mr. Google found me an 11-day trip. Joburg to Victoria Falls. The travel company walks you through the preparations. You drive from a First World(ish) city in a developed nation out through the villages of one of the world’s poorest countries.
There were two dozen of us. More than half were 20-something Australians who had come in two separate groups. (Guys, take note: Most were single, attractive women.)
The rest of us were refugees from the island of misfit toys: an American woman in her early 60s and her 20-something daughter, retracing the path the grandparents had once traveled; an early-30s Irish couple; a 20-something Aussie couple who run their own farm; an Aussie woman in her 60s; a pair of Dutch women; one of those impossibly nice, impossibly attractive Spanish couples; a Kentucky university professor and her Ghanaian husband; and Moshi, a 50-something Israeli electrician and former military technician, who was my roommate for the trip.
Accommodations? We stayed in tents.
It’s not so bad. The parks we stayed at were the equivalent of upper-end American campsites, most with electricity and showers and other groups on safari. Things will go wrong on safari.
Your rolling fortress of a bus will be pulled over randomly in Zimbabwe. You just have to roll with it. The hardest part is waking up at 5 each morning to hit the road to get to the next place.
We played cards on the bus. There are a surprising amount of Western-style shopping malls and other places to buy Western snacks and drinks along the way. Just about everyone gained weight during the trip.
And we saw a lot. From various distances, we spied giraffes and wildebeests and sweeping vistas that gave way to impossibly wide skies. We also saw dung beetles and elephants and the spot where an ancient king drank his beer.
Later, there was the spot where that king executed his enemies, and another nearby where we discovered the monkeys that are looking at you are merely waiting to steal the chips off your plate. After that, we were on to see zebras and hippos and rhinos and crocodiles and a waterfall that crashes with the force of a thunderbolt.
Wait. You want to skip to the lions, don’t you?
Meeting the cats
Baby lions are adorable.
No, really. It’s kind of like they took a kitten and crossed it with a savage animal too naive to realize it will one day be able to maul you and feast on your carcass. Actually, it’s exactly like that. When you pet them, the skin feels rubbery; unlike us, the skin is not tightly moored to the flesh beneath. It’s a defense mechanism (if something gets its claws or horns into a lion, it’s less likely to rip the lion open). It also means you pet lions with surprisingly hard strokes.
Teenage lions are impressive.
It’s the teenagers you walk with at Antelope Park. A group of you sets out from the campground after sunrise or before sunset, when the lions apparently want to wander. Soon enough one of the guides comes up, tapping his walking stick along the ground to attract the attention of the two prowling lions to (sort of) guide them.
They’re not quite full-grown, but they came up to about my hip. The guide assured us that things would be fine. If memory serves, these lions were about 15 months old. It would be a good three months before the biological mechanism kicks in that makes them want to feast on a human’s guts.
There are not words to properly describe how a lion moves, how the muscles ripple with easy grace. We all followed them across a gently rolling landscape, on which they periodically laid down and, a couple times, rolled over tummy-up. We petted them. We took pictures with them. I held their tails.
At one point Sean, one of the Irish folks with us, was taking pictures, backed up and stumbled. One of the lions got excited and came at him, and the guide had to furiously tap the ground with his stick to distract the lion long enough for Sean’s wife to pull him out of the way.
Feeding time is fun. Antelope Park folks lay out some carcasses, then let the lions in. Picture four of them charging, a cloud of dust kicked up in their wake, then skidding to a halt and fighting one another, sinking teeth and claws into the carcasses and carrying them off and ripping at them.
One of those lions stuck around by the fence. The movies don’t capture his voice. It sounded like there was a motor revving inside his throat. He pressed his nose against the chain-link fence. It gave, a little.
Chris, one of the Aussies, sat just on the other side. A lot of us gathered around. Chris is retired military. He does not scare easily, from what I could tell.
The lion roared into his ear.
His eyes went wide. Wider than I have ever seen. They stayed that way for a while.
I asked Chris how he felt.
“Alive,” he said. “Really, really alive.”