Three months travel in Africa created endless ‘great experience’ opportunities and one of the most memorable was a walk – in fact, two walks! After six weeks travelling through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi I arrived in Zambia with the new addiction of admiring the African wildlife in their natural habitat. And the adrenalin from seeing lions up close and personal surpassed all others.
So imagine my excitement when I arrived at Livingstone, the adventure capital of Zambia, and discovered there was more on offer than just bungee jumping and white water rafting to get your blood rushing. It was also possible to go for a walk – a walk with a cat – a walk with a big cat – in fact, a walk with TWO big cats...and these big cats were LIONS!
African lions are now on the “vulnerable list” as their population is decreasing at an alarming rate and a Rehabilitation and Release Program in Livingstone is one of a number of ALERT supported programs in Africa trying to combat this impending tragedy. To help fund the program and educate people about the lion’s plight, the centre offers a ‘Lion Encounter’ which delivers exactly what the name suggests – an encounter with a lion.
Upon arrival at the centre we received a safety briefing, watched a short ALERT presentation and then eagerly walked into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to join two ten month old cubs for their daily walk, which is one of the first steps of the program designed to get them ready for release into the wild.
I was quite excited to hear we were walking cubs and instantly had visions of cuddling cute little lions not much bigger than over-fed domestic cats. They were only ten months old, how big could they be?
Who was I kidding?!
At ten months old the cubs already reached above my knees and despite being accompanied by an armed guide, knowing these walks were a daily occurrence and not having read anything in the news about tourists being mauled alive whilst on a lion walk, I was a little nervous. My fantasy of cuddling a little lion was very short-lived.
They might be cubs but they were still lions!
I was a little amused to be given a stick to carry before we set off – yes a stick. I still suspect it was to help us move branches out of our way rather than intimidate a potentially aggressive lion cub and I’m relieved we never had the opportunity to find out what impact the stick had on an angry ten month old lion cub.
The cubs were in a playful mood and after entertaining us with some good natured wrestling (with each other, not with us) they decided they were ready for a walk. If strolling alongside them wasn’t surreal enough, we were allowed to grab hold of their surprisingly strong tales which effectively changed the scenario into one where the lion was walking us. At times the cubs decided to stop and rest, providing us with a unique photo opportunity and if whilst posing you forgot the reality of the situation you only had to turn around and look at the cub’s eyes to be reminded these were still wild animals.
It was a truly magical experience.
A month later I had the opportunity to repeat the experience – with a twist – at the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Centre near Tsitsikamma in South Africa. This time, instead of walking lion cubs, I had the opportunity to join two of the centre’s cheetahs on their daily walk.
There was no stick this time, but the cheetahs were put on a long (and strong) leash as we led them through the nearby bush. The cheetah is such a serene, beautiful creature and as I held the leash of one of them as she gracefully loped along I was so caught up in the moment I forgot where I was and imagined I was walking my parent’s dog Misha along the road. My lapse in concentration didn’t last long as the cheetah changed direction, signalling who was in charge, and reminded me that although it was surreal to be walking a cat on a leash, this particular cat could probably eat poor Misha in one mouthful!
My initial discomfort at a big cat being put on a leash was short-lived when one of the cheetahs decided it was ready for a run and simply took off – the leash was clearly nothing more than a decoration. It was a sad reality that these particular cheetahs would not survive in the wild and whilst the centre ran a Rehabilitation and Release Program, these two would see their days out in a form of comfortable captivity. It was a timely reminder how important it is that the human race protects the freedom of these magnificent creatures.
HOW TO MAKE IT YOUR EXPERIENCE
First you need to get yourself to Africa
It’s unlikely you will fly all the way to Africa just to walk with a big cat, so it’s usually part of a greater African travel adventure. Southern Africa, where I did both my big cat walks, is accessible to all types of travellers and there are a number of international airports. Whilst Johannesburg in South Africa provides the most international connections, it is possible fly directly to Livingstone for example.
Southern African countries tend to be a little more developed than their Eastern neighbours and the wider range of accommodation and transport options mean there are more options for different travel personalities. There are also better transport options which make a Southern African short holiday a viable option if you are short of time. Adding a Big Cat walk to your African itinerary is as simple as researching the Rehabilitation Centre you want to visit and making a booking. These days everything is possible over the internet but these organisations still use that old-fashioned communication called a telephone if you are not internet savvy.
If you are on an organised tour, like the overland trip I did with Intrepid Travel, you may visit somewhere like Livingstone in Zambia where the Lion Encounter is offered as an optional activity. If you are part of a tour that doesn’t offer this activity but you know the opportunity exists in an area you are visiting, ask your tour guide about it. This is how I ended up walking with cheetahs at Tenikwa.
If you are travelling independently simply contact the Rehabilitation Centre and make a booking. Many of them offer transport to and from your hotel/campsite as part of the fee.
You may need to grow
Some organisations, like the one I visited in Zambia, will only let you join the lion walk if you are taller than 5 feet. But don’t be deterred if you have children with you, there are child-friendly activities offered as well.
It was difficult to see African wildlife enclosed in a Centre after the magical sight of lions and cheetah in their natural habitat throughout my trip, and it was a sombre reminder that the future of these big cats is less than certain. Whilst these ‘walks’ provided me with two unforgettable experiences, the money I paid for the privilege is being used to run an organisation that hopes to contribute to getting the African Lion off the ‘vulnerable list’ once and for all, eliminating the need for such programs. I hope they are successful - these animals belong in the wild.