A lion cub tugs at the edge of my sweater while another grabs my daughter’s pant leg. Gambit, the giraffe, swings his crane-like neck toward us, unfurls his nearly foot-long, purple tongue to grab the food pellets from our hands. Standing on the raised platform, we’re head to head with him, near enough to admire his big eyes rimmed with the longest lashes we’ve ever seen.
Not yet on safari, we take advantage of our overnight in Johannesburg, South Africa, for some close encounters with the animals at Lion Park. The wildlife facility is located in the outskirts of Johannesburg, about 45-minutes from the Westcliff, our hotel.
About 40% of lion cubs in the wild, our guide informs us, do not survive the first six months of life because of rejection by their mothers or starvation. Lion Park rescues the cubs from the wild, bottle-feeds them, then habituates them to Cub World, where at selected times, visitors interact with them. When older, the cats move to nature reserves. Now, these curious, fat cats, playful as kittens, pull on our shoelaces and swat at our camera bags when not lolling in the grass or climbing the rocks in their enclosure.
Lions and giraffes aren’t the only critters. On the guided game drive through the property’s bush land, we see zebras, antelopes, hyenas and cheetahs as well as travel through four lion enclosures, one of which houses a pride of white lions.The facility is the biggest breeder of rare, white–not albino—lions in South Africa. They are beautiful. As we approach their compound, the male, Letsatsi, meaning “Sun” in the local Sotho language, leaves his five females and saunters over to the fence to check us out.
Visitors can also go on evening game drives when the animals are more active, as well as fall asleep to the sound of roaring lions by staying overnight in one of the park’s inexpensive platform tents. These basic accommodations come with beds and electricity plus nearby communal bath facilities. Often reserved by groups, these facilities need to be booked well in advance.
For plush lodging, stay at the Westcliff, an Orient-Express property terraced into a hillside in a Johannesburg suburb. A popular hotel for pre and post safari layovers, the Westcliff features plush rooms, most with balconies. The property also offers a gym, a restaurant and a pool plus massages, a welcome treat after a long flight. The Westcliff can arrange outings to Lion Park as well as to the area’s art galleries.
Header photos: Alissa Kempler