The lion sleeps the night (South Africa)

By Hannah Silverman 

“Would you like to keep an eye on the lion cubs in your room overnight?” Was the question awaiting an obvious answer.

Babysit a four-week-old lion cub? Me? Well, I don’t remember how many different ways (and decibels) I said yes.

I was in Brits, in South Africa’s North-West province to live and work with lion cubs in January, 2012. It was part of a volunteer program at Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge organised through i-to-i volunteering.

Well, I tried...
Well, I tried…

The idea was to assist the park with the management of the 260ha property, and most enticingly to help raise the cubs during a two-week placement.

Mary-Louise and Dakota were born before I arrived, but when the time came to separate them from their mother it was our job to keep them under delightful surveillance.

The adorable Harri and Koa.
The adorable Harri and Koa.

At four-weeks young, the cubs needed to be bathed, bottle-fed and entertained 24/7 – and babysitting never looked so good.

When it was my turn to have the cubs in our chalet, the little cubs roamed playfully around the room, gently gnawing at my fingers and toes and possessively indulging in their nightly bottle feed.

As the cubs were prohibited from sleeping on the beds, I set up camp on the floor and set my alarm clock at two-hourly intervals to make the most out of the once in a life time experience. Meanwhile the soulful lullaby of one or more of the parks 100 lions roared in wildness beyond.

The older cubs, who did not need overnight security, ranged between 8 weeks and 12 months.

Lunch time.
Lunch time.

They were equally as adorable, but had more bite and vigour than their tiny siblings. It was a truly unique experience to watch them chasing towels, water bottles and brooms with the energy and temperament of a boisterous puppy. And if you’re wondering if lion cubs bite, the answer is yes… hard, but that’s just a perk of the job.

Ukutula also homes tigers, cheetah’s, hyenas (one who thought it was a lion in fact, as you do) while free roaming zebras and giraffes provide a warm African welcome along the properties long, meandering driveway.

Now for the disclaimer. For the volunteers of the park it’s not all cubs and cuddles, in fact the labour is not only intensive (think hurling rocks onto a ute) but at times stomach-churningly repulsive (chicken carcus run anyone?).

The program gives its participants a taste of how it’s really done in Africa – the good, the bad, and the frisky.

Cuddle time.
Cuddle time.

Volunteers pay for the experience, but the money includes all meals and accommodation and the site is well equipped with a cocktail bar and swimming pool.

Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge is within an hours drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria and is near the famed Pilanesberg National Park, so it’s easy to schedule safari time into your itinerary if you’ve only got a few of weeks.

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Leaving Ukutula you might smell of some kind of eau de Savannah, but this is a backstage ticket to the wildlife and National Geographic will never look the same again.

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