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.
Ranger duty also means volunteers get a chance to feed the larger lions, while experiencing the raw beauty of the African landscape. Volunteers hop on the back of a pick-up truck and are driven on dirt roads past mountains, large fields full of fruit and vegetables, and vast emptiness. In winter it’s not uncommon to see grass fires, which have been caused by the lack of precipitation.
After gathering a few crates of chickens and sorting the good ones from the bad, volunteers are driven to the lion enclosures where the excited animals know what’s coming.
Groups of volunteers fling the food to the beasts before getting out their cameras to get the perfect photo. During the cub days volunteers stay in the confines of the cub den bathing and feeding the little ones. In my time in the park there were three cubs: Hendrike, Leroy and Mantice, nicknamed Niko.
Inquisitive groups would often come into the enclosure and it is up to volunteers to ensure they are told everything about the cubs and have plenty of photos by the time they leave. It also allows some one-on-one time with the cubs so volunteers can really get to know them and their personalities.
Hendrike was my favourite, often climbing on top on my legs to go to sleep on those long days. I even forgave her when she thought my legs would be a nice place to go to the toilet. She was only four weeks old when I arrived, but she had plenty of personality. It’s amazing how easy it is to bond with the lions over such a short time.
Although volunteers come and go each week the staff at Ukutula are full of charm and warmth. The Jacobs family, including their sons Willi Junior and Berndt and daughter Helga, see hundreds of volunteers go through the park each year, but they still make time to get to know them.
The volunteering experience almost seems like joining a large extended family.
Volunteering isn’t for everyone. People who are afraid to get their hands dirty or those who moan about having to do dirty work probably shouldn’t apply. I’m sure some people arrive under the misapprehension that they will be playing with lions all day long, but such ideas will be short-lived.
For those who put in the effort, become friends with the staff and relish time spent with the lions, the volunteering experience at Ukutula will be one that has to be relived. See i-to-i.com for more.