My trip of a lifetime; Living with lions in South Africa

For many people, the end of university means one of two things; walking into your dream job, settling down into the financially stable career that you’ve been working towards for years OR a c

For many people, the end of university means one of two things; walking into your dream job, settling down into the financially stable career that you’ve been working towards for years OR a continuation of the last three years of aimless floating, this time without the structure of the occasional lecture allowing you to distinguish one day from the next.

For me, it was largely the latter. Don’t get me wrong, since graduating 5 months ago, I’ve held two jobs and undertaken two internships, so it’s not all Jezza Kyle. I have mixed feelings towards this. On the one hand, I’m gutted that I’ve not yet made it as a super-duper travel journalist. Conde Nast Traveller have not snapped me up as I had dreamed they would. I’m not yet travelling the world at somebody else’s expense.   But the one thing I have got that my pen-pushing, desk-chained (money-earning) friends do not have, is freedom.

And so it was that I found myself alone, on a plane, on the trip of a lifetime – my reward for the last few months spent living in the university library, devouring linguistics textbooks and existing on overpriced espresso shots. My final destination? The Lion Park, South Africa, where I was to spend two weeks volunteering with lion cubs.

Fast forward a few hours and by some miracle, myself and my luggage had both made it to Johannesburg intact. My first, sleep-deprived impressions of South Africa were mixed; the airport itself was intimidating, and I soon learned to keep walking and look like I knew where I was going to avoid being approached by the countless taxi drivers offering various services to unsuspecting tourists. The weather was also chilly, much more so than anticipated, and my optimistic summer wardrobe in my suitcase was looking rather inadequate.

Arriving at the Lion Park, an hour’s drive from OR Tambo Airport, really felt like arriving in Africa; our route down a dusty track was briefly brought to a halt by a giraffe in the road (a regular occurrence, I later learned), the sun had come out, although it was still chilly, and I was shown to the tent I would call home for the next fortnight.

The first few days, I felt a bit lost as I got to know my duties around the park. It was the first time I’d travelled alone, and I was beginning to wonder what I’d let myself in for. However, the staff and volunteers from all over the world were all very helpful and extremely friendly, and the days all began to roll into one. The volunteer work was straightforward enough; cleaning out animal enclosures, preparing animal food, taking customer tickets as they entered the various areas of the park. The highlight, naturally, was the free time when we were able to play with the lion cubs. Aged 3-6 months, they were absolute cuties, with a penchant for shoe laces, and claws that could take out an eyeball or two. Needless to say, I took ample photos during my experience, and have bored everyone back home with them since returning.  As well as lions, we got the chance to interact with cheetahs and giraffes at the park.

The highlights

Pilanesburg National Park Safari

As awe-inspiring as it is to work up close with wild animals, it’s also rewarding to see them in their natural habitat. Our morning safari in Pilanesburg National Park allowed us to see rhinos, hippos, elephants, lions, giraffes, wildebeest, crocodiles and zebras roaming free.   Sadly no buffalo or leopard to complete the “big five” checklist, but you can’t have it all.


The painstakingly beautiful and achingly trendy Montecasino is a sprawling entertainment complex just outside of Johannesburg. If the intricate exterior, moulded on an Italian castle, takes your breath away, then the interior will seduce you entirely; a maze of cobbled Italian “streets” filled with cafes, restaurants, shops, bars, a theatre, and of course the eponymous casino.


A divine, African themed restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square, Lekgotla offers some rather unusual cuisine, including the delicious crocodile curry. With traditional decor, face-painting and post-meal entertainment, it’s the perfect introduction to African culture.

Glen Afric elephant walk

Filming location for “Wild at Heart”, Glen Afric lodge is a lush, tropical paradise compared to the dusty tracks surrounding it. Although it is home to many animals, we went on an elephant walk, allowing us to interact with a 25-year old female elephant and her two daughters.

Chameleon Craft Market

One of the most intimidating experiences of my life was the hour I spent shopping in the Chameleon craft market. Contrary to the laid back African lifestyle, the stallholders surrounded us the second we entered the market and continued to pester us until we’d left, begging us to view their wares, thrusting items into our palms for closer inspection, all the while promising “I make you good deal”.

Overall, the trip was an eye-opening experience, a great way to get close to the animals and culture of South Africa, whilst feeling like I was making a difference, and meeting people from all over the world. Would I do it again? No, probably not, but hear me out; there are many other trips that I would like to make, and places that I would like to see, so next year I will spend my money and time trying something new. That’s what travel’s all about, right?