Lions

Johannesburg is a sprawling city, spread out over highveld in Gauteng (place of gold) province. This weekend, a South African, two Australians, and I drove out of the city, which seemed to go on and on – downtown giving way to endless suburbs. Finally outside of the city, the rolling hills seemed as infinite as the shopping centres had been. Africa feels overwhelmingly expansive, the sky somehow bigger, the horizon farther. Less than an hour outside of the city, we reached what is known as the “Cradle of Humankind,” an area famous for its density of early hominids’ fossilized remains in limestone caves. Covering about 1,600 hectares of this historic area is the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve. For a little less than twenty US dollars, we were able to drive through the reserve. A mother warthog and her babies ran by the car. Hoofed animals were more skittish, but we still saw zebra, black wildebeest, and blesbok. Rounding a corner, we found two male lions walking down the rough dirt road. They didn’t mind our stopped car and continued swaggering toward us. We rolled up the windows as they brushed past our doors. Though we were safe inside and the lions were obviously so accustomed to people they seemed almost tame, their size and proximity was still unsettling. A slight thrill. Later we watched the rare white lions being fed. The South African told us that the white lions are too weak to live in the wild and now only exist in captivity. In a parade of cars, we followed a pickup truck as it stopped at different sites where a worker in back hacked off parts of a dead horse to feed a group of lions then a group of cheetahs. While knowing how simulated and touristy the whole spectacle was, I still pressed my face against the glass to see the big cats tear apart the meat. At the end of the tour, we went into a small cage to play with baby lions and a baby jaguar. The line of tourists and the small enclosure also made me uncomfortable. Several times in Zimbabwe I had visited an animal orphanage, where the owner told me about the horrors of places similar to this. “Ride the Elephants!” “Walk with the Lions!” She took in babies “defective” because of inbreeding and abandoned by zoo-like game parks. There seems to always be a tension between preserving nature and allowing the masses access to it. While I like to think that I lean toward preservation, I still made sure I got my picture with the jaguar cub.

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