During my travel through Zimbabwe, I was looking forward to creating memories that would last a lifetime – that said, everything here was life changing alright, but you know what I mean, right? The best memories of travel do not come from five-star treatments or helicopter rides, but something more earthy – something that touches your heart like nothing else. For me, those memories are always about animal encounters. In the past, I have had the good fortune of getting up close with different wild animals, elephants, giraffe, tigers, Gorillas, Komodo dragons…but when I saw “Lion Encounter” on my itinerary, I was taken over the moon.
What could I expect? Would I face a lion through a grille? Or would I stand right next to the King of the Jungle as fearlessly as the picture presented on the wall? The whole idea seemed fantastic, but I, like the rest of the group twiddling their hands excitedly, was very curious.
I was in the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe ready to face the King.
Who can ignore the flutter of excitement building up in the heart – not me! Finally we arrived at the centre, ready to experience this. Our dream was about to come true.
So, what is Lion Encounter all about
In simple words – lion encounter is your chance to walk with the lions. No leash, no collar – just you walking along the lion cubs – free as the winds blowing in the African bush.
Let me admit – many times in my life (especially in spirited dreams), I have envisioned myself walking with the king of the jungle, whistling my version of The Lions Sleep Tonight. Hey, I even have a dog named Simba, if you will! I have loved every lion-themed movie (namely Lion King) and my family will tell you that when I was very little I always insisted on telling a story with a lion in it. (I didn’t make that up, I swear). So you get an idea where I am coming from! So, pardon my exuberance – I do feel like a lion already! Or Lioness, if I must be gender-perfect.
It was late afternoon, the weather was pleasant and there was a light breeze. We were about to experience magic in the wild. But of course, like everything magical, it came with a preface. A lengthy “lecture” about the lions and their habits, the do’s and don’ts and of course the final – “Let’s go meet the king” which sent cheers all around.
What a magical moment it was! We grabbed long sticks and swung them around like trophies, and slowly plodded through the bush towards the lions! Each group consisted of 10 members and four rangers (to avoid rushing the beasts). We had been warned against talking too loudly, whistling, running or better still screaming – I swear they looked me when they said this.
We reached a small clearing at last – there they were – two cubs, a male and a female, pawing each other playfully, swishing their cub-tails nonchalantly waiting for their presence to subdue us into silence.
We formed a semi-circle. The ranger went first. he knelt down beside Paya and spoke to her in whispers – then demonstrated how to handle the cub.
1. Keep the stick handy.
2. Only pat their rump
3. Do not stare them in the face
4. Do not touch their belly
5. Do not attempt to kiss them, no matter how much you are tempted to
6. The male is frisky – so avoid spending too much time patting him.
Finally it was my turn.
Imagine my joy! Imagine the moment I was going to “cuddle” a cub – literally. I was going to touch them, right there, in their habitat! With my bare hands!!!
I hoped fervently that someone was taking my pictures – you never know!
I inched closer (against my inner desire of running straight to them and scooping them up in my arms) and gently lowered myself into the ground beside the cub – just so happened that it was the male as the female wandered away). I reached out to the touch the cub, resisting the urge to break into a song. I felt him – he was a little rough (nothing like your stuffed wooly toy) and despite his very young age (he was under three years of age and still carried baby spots), he was strong! At my touch, he turned his head towards me, and yawned. As advised, I thrust the stick into his open mouth for him to chew on. That seemed to hold him for a bit. I whispered and I smiled (it comes naturally I tell you) and somehow he seemed to understand. Then he stood up and walked into me…
The rangers rushed in. One of them looked at me as if to say, “I knew it had to be you! This guy likes you. I wonder why.”
Soon, it was time to walk with them! The cubs full of the beans and vitality didn’t believe in following a straight path – and wandered off on their own into the bush and appeared at will (or when called by their handlers). The group fell behind and it took some effort to get every one a chance to walk with the cubs – but in the end, everyone got their chance.
I got mine too. I did wish this encounter lasted longer, but well, like all good things, it had to end too.
Is it safe?
The obvious question – is it safe? But of course it is! It is perfectly safe – because there are handlers who are very well trained to handle the frisky and playful animals and the only way you will get harmed is if you ignore the rules of the game. Just follow the rules and resist any urge to get too friendly.
What a memorable walk that was too. Something I’d put on the list of MUST DO BEFORE YOU DIE.
Lion Encounter is a conservation program aimed at restoring the much-reduced lion population to Zimbabwe. The lion encounter that last an hour is not cheap (USD 150), but you leave with a lot of information about lions as well.
A note for the animal rights activists
The lion cubs are a in great shape, are healthy, not abused, fed well and upon reaching 3 years of age, are released into the wild. There is no cause for alarm here. We visitors walk with the lions carrying a stick – that is not meant to beat them. It is something we give the cubs to play with then they get frisky. We also follow all the do’s and don’ts to the T – because, we care too!