Getting up close and personal with Africa’s big cats
Getting close to lions and cheetahs is something you as a tourist can only do in a handful of places in Africa, and it’s one of the most intense and unforgettable things we’ve ever done. Watch the video the people at Mukuni Big Five Safaris made for us, and read more about this breathtaking experience below.
Ever since we saw our first lion on safari years ago, we’ve had a special love for the biggest members of the cat family. Usually we’re quite happy to be safe inside a safari car when visiting the King on his own turf, so getting close enough to actually touch one was not something we’d ever imagined would happen. But in Malawi we met a couple from Holland who were driving around Africa in their own car, and they showed us pictures of themselves, sitting on the ground right next to two lions. Contrary to what we thought it was not in some kind of dreadful zoo, but in a wildlife sanctuary.
So, when we stumbled upon an opportunity to do the same, in Livingstone, Zambia, we just couldn’t resist. Mukuni Big Five is a sanctuary for lions and cheetahs, among other creatures, and one of a few places where it’s possible to get close to the animals. It isn’t cheap, but the tourism brings much needed funding to help the sanctuary’s efforts towards the conservation of these vulnerable species. After signing a legal document, we met one of the guides for a quick course in lion etiquette, like avoiding eye contact and not touching their ears or paws, and into the bush we went.
The African lion is one of the fiercest of wild predators, who’s roar at night had had made our neck hair stand on end on several occasions on safari – and here we were sitting next to them, patting them like pets.
Just walking towards two lions in the bush was an unexpected rush, and to say we weren’t nervous as we sat down next to the large cats, would be a lie. But as we ran our fingers through their thick fur they responded with obvious content and started grooming each other, and we soon became comfortable. We couldn’t take our eyes off them. This is one of the fiercest of wild predators, who’s roar at night had made our neck hair stand on edge on several occasions on safari – and here we were sitting next to them, patting them like pets.
The whole thing was surreal. We felt their coarse fur, studied their shape and movements, their big claws and teeth with awe. After a while the guides called on the lions to go for a walk. We set out into the bush, and the lions happily showed the way. We walked next to them, sometimes stroking their sides or holding their tails, while the guides shared their knowledge about the animals and the work they do at the sanctuary. It was a weird and amazing feeling, and we just couldn’t stop grinning all the way back to camp.
At the other end of the compound lay two Cheetahs cooling off in the shade of a tree. We sat down and started stroking them, and they immediately began purring just like a domestic cat, only much deeper. The Cheetah cannot roar but is the only big cat that purrs, and it was quite something to feel their bodies vibrate with contentment as we groomed them. As with the lions we had to try to avoid eye contact. But suddenly the cat Asle sat next to turned its head and looked straight at him, giving him a slight jolt as he suddenly met the piercing gaze of the curious, but thankfully friendly cheetah.
After a while we grew more comfortable with each other, and the cheetahs started licking our hands and arms. Like domestic cats their tongues have backward-facing barbs, only much larger. It felt like being polished with coarse, wet sandpaper, but how could we not love this wonderful display of acceptance. When it was time for a walk the Cheetahs had to wear leashes, which was strange because it felt a bit like walking a dog, except the creature on the other end of the leash was a huge, beautiful, but lethal cat. They seemed to love every minute of it all the same, and we most certainly did.
Back in camp a couple of tiny lion cubs came running out onto the field where we stood. We watched them play for a while as we soaked up the last few moments of this incredible experience. Spotting big cats had always been a highlight of any safari for us, but this close encounter has definitely increased our appreciation and love for these gorgeous animals, as well as our sadness at their predicament in Africa.