Jumping out of bed at 6.25am in our Zimbabwe hostel, I realised my alarm had failed to wake me, leaving Emma and I just five minutes to get ready and grab my belongings for the morning ahead.
We sat and waited on a brick wall outside, looking up at any sound of an engine. 45 minutes later (we had forgotten about the relaxed African way), we finally saw a bus entering the grounds. After picking up a few more sleepy travellers, our host introduced himself and began to tell us about what lay ahead.
Driving through the Zimbabwe wilderness, we soon arrived at a small building off a dirt path. We had arrived at Lion Encounter.
Lion Encounter is a conservation initiative, part of the Lion Rehabilitation and Release programme, that acts to reintroduce captive-bred lion cubs back into the wild. There has been discussions into the direction of Lion Encounter as it has not yet successfully relocated lions back into a totally natural environment but it has released prides into large enclosures which contain wildlife for hunting and have no human interference. The reason stated on their website as to why they have not achieved the last stage of their programme is because the lions have not yet reached an age where they are ready to go back into the wild, however it is also due to a lack of government funding.
After being adopted from captivity, the lion cubs are taken on walks in the bush to introduce them to their natural surroundings. As they grow, they learn to hunt on these walks, eventually having no human contact. They are not drugged like some animal initiatives (tigers in Thailand for one example), and are not trained like a pet. They are most definitely wild animals.
After receiving a safety briefing (don’t touch the lions unless told that you can… don’t walk in front of the lions… distract them with your stick), we excitedly walked out into the bush. To say I felt nervous is an understatement.
Sitting across from us on a rock were two ten month old cubs, a brother and sister. It felt unnatural and bizarre to be so close to them without any fences, a sad fact. I can only describe the feeling as euphoric.
We took it in turns to walk up behind them and slowly stroke their backs. I grasped my stick firmly as I approached them, ready to distract them if they turned to look at me Just like a kitten with a piece of string, I told myself.
They lay stretching, flicking their tails in and out of the ever stronger African sun, occasionally looking at the strangers who took their picture.
There were a few nerve-racking moments where one would whip their head around at me, sending me back a few steps, but I felt more at ease with the trusting guide and handlers by my side.
The handlers confidence was inspiring, they had gotten to know the lions and obviously had a bond that meant a lot to them. I could only imagine how sad they must feel as the cubs they watch grow for so long wander off into the African bush for the last time.
We then took it in turns to walk with the lions, standing behind them and occasionally patting their back to make them aware of our presence. It felt truly surreal walking through the dry grass with the cubs. For a split second I would forget the creature before me, mistaking it for the familiar feeling of my family dog at home, before looking down and seeing that sassy tail flickering upwards.
After a little while we waved goodbye to the young cubs, leaving them with another group of walkers. We crossed a stream where our guide saw some elephant dung. He proceeded to tell us how you could tell if it was a female or bull from the taste of its faeces, and I kid you not… he stuck his finger it and licked it. Yep. Gross.
He was a fascinating man. Full of facts and stories about the lions and the wild animals that roamed the land.
Across the stream we met two thirteen month cubs. They were much bigger than their friends before, seeming more independent and ‘wild’ so to speak. I was even more cautious kneeling behind them, quickly posing with a smile before staggering back to a safer distance.
A little while later we were told it was time to go, as both species needed feeding. As we wandered back to the hut for breakfast, the lions slinked away into the tall grass, the start of their morning hunt.
We enjoyed a well needed full English breakfast, surprisingly well cooked for a remote location. Gathering in the shade we got ready to watch a quickly put together movie of our walk with the lions, a fantastic memoir of footage created by one of the handlers.
It all of a sudden felt like a dream, had I really just walked with wild lions? I’ve got the pictures and video to prove it, but it didn’t seem possible.
Looking back I’m so glad that I visited Lion Encounter. It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that was worth the potential danger. After reading up on the programme and experiencing it first hand, I have no doubts in the authenticity of the initiative. It might be taking them longer to reach their end goal, but as I’ve learnt from my time in Africa, don’t most things?