When our daughter and son-in-law moved to South Africa, one of the first places their co-workers turned them on to was a wildlife area called Colin’s Horseback Africa (https://www.horsebackafrica.com/). For us, the point of visiting wasn’t to ride horses (although you can) but to interact with lions. For real!
Under strict regulation from the South African government, Colin’s raises lions that go to educational game preserves and other conservation organizations. They also raise servals and meerkats, which provide fun interactions for visitors, along with lessons on the animals’ behaviors and favorite foods.
Contrary to the myth many of us grew up with, wild animals, especially lions, do not become tame as they acclimate to people. Lions are always and will always be wild animals. Colin and his crew raise them with that understanding, with cubs taken from their mothers after a few weeks. The youngest are raised together in a pen, where they interact with their pride humans and visitors, and they graduate from milk to chicken.
The littlest lions interact with visitors, acting much like house cats.
After about three months, the cubs are allowed on “hunting walks” with a couple of members of the staff (their pride), as well as occasional visitors.
We walked with Lily and Knox, a pair of six-month-old cubs who acted exactly like Nala and Simba in The Lion King. She was definitely the more active, aggressive, and mischievous of the two.
Charmaine, our guide, is studying wildlife biology at university, and couldn’t be more thrilled to be working in the field. One thing she warned us about on the walk was one of the cubs getting a “McDonald’s look” – like smacking their lips and thinking “yum yum,” and then going after us. Sure enough, Lily thought Bob’s leg looked like it might make a good snack. Just as he noticed the “McDonald’s look,” Charmaine did, too. She quickly intervened, reminding Lily who was in charge of the pride.
Later, when a wild giraffe wandered by (this is South Africa, and these things do happen), Lily thought a hunt was in order. She encouraged Knox to come along with her, and it took Charmaine and other staff members some convincing to turn them around. (A giraffe can kill an adult lion with one kick, much less a cub.)
Part of being in the pride includes grooming (pulling off ticks—ew!) and lots of belly rubs. Lions are cats, after all! Playing with and petting them was fun, but it was clear that in another month or two, Lily and Knox would no longer be interacting with the guests.
After the walk, the cubs are rewarded with big chunks of meat, which they readily and happily consume. The whole pride experience sort of falls apart after that, as the food is the only thing the cubs care about at that point, and none of us were going to mess with their meal!
We spent some time in an enclosure with a group of young servals, who acted like slightly overgrown house cats, rubbing up against our legs, pouncing on anything that moved (cat toys), and loving ear scratched and belly rubs. Ellie, an older woman on the staff at Colin’s, was absolutely “mama” to those cubs, and they listened to her!
With the older servals, we were treated to a hunting exhibition, where their chicken dinner was put on a pole, and they jumped about three meters into the air. Except Blair. She’s lazy and climbed into a tree and then jumped for her food from there.
We also got to play with meerkats, which barked loudly for treats, and visit outside the enclosures of the adult lions as they were fed. We were happy for all the wire between us and them at that point!
Tours of Colin’s come with lunch, and we had ours after the excursions. As we ate our oven-fired pizza (which included choices of vegetarian, crocodile, wildebeest, warthog sausage, and kudu), we visited with Colin. He told us the story of acquiring the land — which took 10 years of waiting since it wasn’t for sale — and how he became a lion breeder. He and his staff are passionate about the animals, persistent, hard-working, and fun.
Colin’s Horseback Africa is 45 minutes away from Pretoria, a quick and easy drive. They have overnight accommodations (remember, the Night Belongs to the Lions!) for the adventurous, along with horseback safaris, and other quests. We highly recommend a visit!