Living with lions: it’s not all about cuddling cute cubs
For a holiday with a difference, a fortnight working with lions is an unforgettable experience
Jason Kennedy: ‘It’s amazing how easy it is to bond with the lions over such a short period of time’
‘If the lions want to eat you, there’s not a lot we can do to stop them.” These words should scare me, especially when there are four reasonably large lions walking only a few metres ahead. There are no fences, and the only things to entice the lions to behave are two buckets of dead chickens and a large stick.
However, I am not afraid during our walk with the lions through the South African bush. We are in the hands of our trusted guides at Ukutula Lion Park.
Eight years ago the area of land that became Ukutula was used to breed lions with the sole intention of selling them to hunters. Now, under the guidance of Willi and Gill Jacobs, the park has teamed up with universities from around South Africa to study the big cats.
From a tourist’s point of view the lion walk is one of Ukutula’s main draws, giving visitors and guests the chance to roam with the animals out in the open and away from any form of captivity. Enthusiastic rangers join guests on their walk to make it a safe and enjoyable experience.
‘Place of quiet’
Ukutula gets its name from a Zulu phrase meaning “a place of quiet”, but that’s debatable. At any time of the day or night, the quiet of the bush is often interrupted by the sounds of lion roars, bird calls and hyena laughter. Even after two weeks in one of the lodge’s chalets, the noise doesn’t lose its novelty value, even when it disturbs my sleep.
For those looking for a holiday with a difference, the volunteer scheme at the park is the way to go. My two weeks are spent cleaning enclosures, gathering chickens, painting fences, digging trenches and feeding lions, tigers and game animals. It’s a far cry from sipping cold drinks on a beach, but with a much higher satisfaction rate.
The volunteer scheme, which was booked through I-to-I Travel, attracts a broad spectrum of people from all over the world.
Among those I meet are young British people taking a once-in-a-lifetime holiday before starting college, an Australian woman in her late 60s, and a mother and daughter from Boston.
Volunteer duties are split between ranger and cub duties. When on ranger duty, volunteers are taken out with full-time rangers to paint and repair fences, and to get vegetables to feed the ostriches, antelope and giraffes.
Vegetables are brought from a local fruit market and then spread over a field. Within minutes, dozens of animals will cautiously approach before tucking in.