As part of a long weekend visiting friends in Livingstone, Zambia, they suggest we go on a walk with lions and cheetahs. "No way", we say feebly, "far too dangerous". They persuade us and insist it is the most wonderful experience. And so we find ourselves at the Mukuni Big 5 reserve just outside town - not quite prepared for what we are about to experience!
After a briefing and background on the lion and cheetah breeding projects, we find two enormous lions, one white and one tawny, lazily eyening us as we approach rather gingerly. Ranger Ian Ngwenya introduces us to them, and two experienced handlers are to walk with us too. They are clearly much loved by the 14-month old lions and are considered to be 'part of the pride'. Or as Ian, who hand reared them from cubs, proudly puts it, 'I am their mother!'
The magnificent animals are part of a carefully monitored program to re-introduce lions into areas where they used to occur in Zambia but where their numbers have dwindled by up to shocking 80%. By the time the cubs that form the first stages of the program reach the age of about three they are released in a large holding area where they start fending for themselves without human help - although they are closely monitored. Their offspring are totally wild and grow up being taught life's skills by their parents. These are the ones that are eventually reintroduced into the planned 80000 ha Mukuni Game Reserve reserve just north of Livingstone as well as other areas in Zambia.
Simba is one of two white lions at Mukuni, and only one of about 300 white lions in southern Africa. He and his sister Luba are originally from the Timbavati, where most of the white lions come from. They joined the Mukuni lion project as three month old adorable white woolly balls of fluff and settled in happily with mummy Ian and his handlers.
A white lion carries a rare colour mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion (Panthera leo krugeri). They are mostly bred in captivity, many in zoos around the world. The earliest recorded sighting in the Timbavati region was 1938.
Contrary to popular belief white lions are not albinos. They vary from blonde through near-white, sometimes brown and sometimes with blue eyes (Simba's eyes are a very light blue) and are often born as part of a litter from tawny parents.
Tchungu, the tawny lion on our walk, has had to have her name changed from Nelson when she surprised everyone by being very much a female. Lions, like cats, are very difficult to sex when they are young.
After our introductions Simba and Tchungu get up slowly from their comfortable resting place, stretch languidly and amble off with our small group into the bush. We have been given nothing other than a stick to distract them, in case they get a touch over-enthusiastic. They gambol alongside us, climbing into trees, pushing each other and playing, sinking their impressive incisors into each others fur. We follow them, astounded at what we are actually seeing. The closest we have been to lions in the wild is from the lofty security of a sturdy vehicle.
When the lions flop down for a little rest we are encouraged to touch them, always approaching from behind. After the first hesitant pat we relax into being 'part of the pride'. We are even allowed to scratch Tchungu's tummy, soft, wobbly and covered with downy hair. But they don't like their paws tickled we are told, so we wisely stay away from those. Meanwhile our cameras click and whirr, bursting with unbelievable photos, often taken by the handlers who are as skilled with cameras as they are with the young lions.
Upon our return to base we bid our new best friends a fond goodbye, only to find three eager cheetahs waiting for their turn for walkies. As opposed to the lions they wear a collar and we are given turns to walk with them. We are told to let the cheetahs lead us, not the other way around. Graceful, purring loudly and without battering their beautiful eyelashes they show us the way.
The three are part of the Mukuni Big 5 Cheetah Breeding Program, aimed at breeding captive cheetahs and for their young to be released into appropriate National Parks and conservancies around Zambia where cheetahs once roamed freely - but are now at a point of near extinction.
Like the lions, the cheetahs are released into management areas where will be able to breed without human interference and raise their own cubs till they are old enough to be safely relocated into suitable habitats.
Lisa, who with Suzie is one of the two females taking us for a walk, is rather partial to the menfolk among us and makes no bones about it that she doesn't like fellow females of whatever species. The handsome McGuyster on the other hand, fierce and proud, is very happy to have a hapless female hanging on to his lead and steps up the pace when he feels like it. He poses beautifully with us and I am lucky to get a raspy kiss on my cheek! I am smitten.
My partner dutifully follows Lisa in her wake and when I edge up to make a snide remark about his devotion to another female he hisses: "Don't get too close. Lisa won't like that!"
By now really sad to see more of our new furry friends off into their enclosure, and after a brief visit to the caraculs (bad tempered but beautiful Tamara and the chubby Edgar who is continuously snubbed by Tamara) we make our way back to our base at Kayube River Estate.
We are staying at the quaintly named 'Mama Out of Africa', a romantic self-catering hideaway right on the Zambezi about 25km out of town. An old-shaped bus, now in its resting place under a huge sloping thatch roof, has been converted into accommodation for four. It has an interesting history: the bus was driven down from Munich in Germany in the 1970's by Peter Kermer and it became a familiar sight around Livingstone, known as the 'Okavango Mama'. It traveled many miles all over Africa and once served as the dressing room on the set of the famous movie 'Out of Africa'.
Peter has now covered the former bus with thatch and added an outside bathroom, seating area and game viewing platform. The old 'Mama' name still stuck and she was affectionately renamed "Mama Out of Africa' in view of her illustrious connections.
Well, if Meryl and Robert could do it, so can we! We settle down happily with a sun downer on the deck, literally meters away from the swirling waters of the Zambezi, to muse about our day's unforgettable experiences. And unforgettable it is.
As the sun sets we hear a fish eagle near us and hippos grunt contentedly just down the river.
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