Wonder where the lions are?

In ADVENTURE, AFRICA by Janice and George43 Comments

lions on safari

The lions are bullet-fast.

Hang on!” yells our safari guide, Pierre Mouton. Veering off-road, we crash after them through the bush.

Just moments before, the pride had been sauntering slowly across a grassy plain – out for a stroll, we thought.

But no, these lions on safari were hunting

And now, as we screech to a halt in front of them, we see that, in an instant, they have already taken down their kill.

Sitting fanned out like spokes in a wheel – their furry faces smeared with blood – the lions tear at the impala.

One lion rips off the antelope’s head, complete with lyre-shaped horns, and wanders off to savor its prize alone.

lions on safari

This lion wanders off with part of a freshly-killed impala

It’s a macabre scene, a spectacle of nature at its wildest.

That the lions are unfazed by our presence – and we can safely witness it from ten feet away, seated in an open Land Cruiser without high sides or roof – makes it even more surreal. “But if you get out of the vehicle, things would end very badly for you,” warns Pierre.

No doubt.

lions on safari

These lions stalk impala in the distance – photo Pierre Mouton

Safari at Sabi Sand Game Reserve

The Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which dates back to the late 1920s, pioneered wildlife viewing by game drives in South Africa.

The animals are habituated to the engine sounds and people seated (but not standing up) in open game-viewing vehicles, and they go about their business undisturbed.

A baby elephant chows down on thorn bushes

A baby elephant chows down on thorn bushes

Today, the 153,000-acre sanctuary, which shares a 31-mile unfenced border with Kruger National Park, is famous for its up-close game viewing of the “Big Five” – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino.

Leopards, in particular, are a big draw.

Sabi Sand has the highest concentration of leopards in the world.

lions on safari - leopard

Beautiful snarling leopard – photo Pierre Mouton

Watching lions on safari (and the rest of the “Big Five”)

During our three-night safari at Simbambili Game Lodge in Sabi Sand, we saw lions on safari and other members of the “Big Five.” We also saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, cheetahs and thousands of graceful, leaping impala.

But no hyenas.

Those we spotted in Thornybush Game Reserve, another private reserve adjoining Kruger. And after oohing and aahing over hyena pups suckling on their mother, we think hyenas are kinda cute – well, at least the babies.

Hyena pup - photo Pierre Mouton

Hyena pup – photo Pierre Mouton

lions on safari - wildebeest

Wildebeest, one of the largest species of antelope, are one of the “Big Five”

A group of cheetahs in Sabi Sand Game Reserve - credit James Temple

A group of cheetahs in Sabi Sand Game Reserve – photo James Temple

Hello! It's nice to meet you...

Hello! It’s nice to meet you… photo Pierre Mouton

Days began at 5:30 a.m. with a knock on our door. After scarfing down a quick coffee and muffin, we’d climb into our assigned Land Cruiser.

We were visiting in South Africa’s cooler winter months (May to September) – best game viewing – so we were grateful for the hot water bottles and blankets provided to ward off the morning chill.

Heading out on a game drive from Simbambili Game Lodge - credit Pierre Mouton

Heading out on a game drive from Simbambili Game Lodge – photo Pierre Mouton

Then we were off, bouncing along on seriously bumpy dirt tracks criss-crossing the dry bushveld.

It always amazed us how the tracker – perched precariously over the front grille without a seatbelt – never fell off. His was also the worst seat when we encountered the horny white rhino (pun intended!).

Rhino encounter

lions on safari - rhino

This ornery rhino came a little too close to us for comfort!

Driving slowly, we’d been watching this fella, as red-billed oxpeckers picked insects off his back and he snuffled about the low grasses with his flat snout. But then he started spraying urine on the dirt road in front of us, stomping and snorting as he got closer. We backed up.

The rhino charged forward – and thrust his horn almost onto our poor tracker’s lap.

He smells a female’s scent on the ground,” explained Pierre. “Unfortunately, we’re right on it.” Pierre cupped his hands around his mouth and blew, making “rhino talk” for “Go away!

Fortunately it worked – the rhino grunted his way around us, then ambled on.

Quiet moments and sundowners

Not all our game drives were so adrenalin-fueled. Once we just sat quietly gazing at a grazing herd of Cape buffalo.

This Cape buffalo spies us warily - will he charge, or will he slowly move around us?

This Cape buffalo spies us warily – will he charge, or will he slowly move around us?

Another time, we leisurely observed a leopard drag an impala carcass higher up a tree, while her cub slept on a branch, feet dangling.

And we always stopped for sundowners on afternoon drives.

Whoever invented this safari sunset ritual was a genius.

Our guide and tracker would whip out limes, liquor and ice cubes from a cooler, plus traditional South African snacks like biltong (spiced dried meat). We’d drink gin-and-tonics while stretching our legs atop a knoll, watch the sky turn pink then inky violet – and wonder how the next day could possibly be any better.

lions on safari - sundowners

Making gin-and-tonics for sundowners on the grille that pops up at the front of our game vehicle

lions on safari - sundowners in the bush

Sundowners in the bush

Impala and kudu roam Sabi Sand at sunset - photo Pierre Mouton

Impala and kudu roam Sabi Sand at sunset – photo Pierre Mouton

Spotting lions on night game drives

There was also an hour of night driving on the return to the lodge. Everything felt different in the dark, as the bush seemed to close in on the vehicle.

The tracker would shine a bright spotlight back and forth, looking for the reflecting eyes of smaller nocturnal critters, like cat-like civets and fierce honey badgers. We saw lions on safari again too (lions usually hunt at night).

lions on safari - lion at night

A lion hunts at night – photo Simbambili Game Lodge

Luxury safari lodges

Back at camp, warm vanilla-scented facecloths and a glass of creamy Amarula eased the transition from wilderness to civilization. Our safari lodges (Simbambili and Thornybush Game Lodge) had electricity, air-conditioning and even in-room phones and free WiFi.

But as they were unfenced and animals wandered about, we had to be escorted to dinner from our bungalow or room. And a guide had a rifle handy when we dined in the bush or outdoor boma (gathering place).

In the boma, warmed by a blazing fire, we tasted African specialties like barbecued impala and pap (a cornmeal staple flavored with fresh tomato sauce).

lions on safari - luxury lodges

Simbambili Game Lodge has nine couples-only bungalows, each with a private pool and outdoor daybed

Cupcakes for dessert at lunch at Simbambili Game Lodge

Cupcakes for dessert at lunch at Simbambili Game Lodge

Our safari quickly took on its own rhythm. Game drive, breakfast, bush walk (with an armed ranger-guide) to learn about animal tracks and towering termite mounds, lunch, siesta, sometimes afternoon tea, game drive, dinner.

And at night, deep in the wild, we’d occasionally fall asleep to the heart-thumping roars of nearby lions.

lions on safari - roaring lion

Falling asleep to the sound of roaring lions at night? Priceless – photo Simbambili Game Lodge

lions on safari

How to see lions on safari

  • We flew from North America direct to Johannesburg on South African Airways – see our review of SAA in our post SAA: Direct flights get you to the lions’ dens.
  • For safety reasons, you should pre-book airport-hotel transfers in Johannesburg with a reputable local company like JMT Tours.
  • Flying time from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit airstrip (for both Thornybush and Sabi Sand game reserves) is about 60 minutes.
  • Anti-malarial tablets should be taken (as Sabi Sand is in a malarial area).
  • We loved both the honeymoon-worthy Simbambili Game Lodge (in Sabi Sand Game Reserve) and family-friendly Thornybush Game Lodge (in Thornybush Game Reserve).

Our magazine article

This story was first published in print in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine (Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue) as “Wonder Where the Lions Are” (PDF). And many, many thanks to our safari guide Pierre Mouton for allowing us to share his fabulous wildlife photos here.

Have you seen lions in the wild?

Janice and George Signature


  1. Try Uganda next. Visitors fall in love with Uganda’s breathtaking Rift Valley scenery, lush countryside and incredible biodiversity. Track our closest relatives, the Mountain Gorillas and chimpanzees, venture on safari to see the Elephants, Big Cats and incredible 1,066 species of birds, or just lie by the poolside overlooking the fabulous River Nile. Ugandans love to meet and greet new people – the country’s crafts, dance and community tourism intrigue and delight the visitor.

  2. Although I was at the Kapama Reserve, it sounds like we had very similar safari experiences.
    I don’t think there’s anything quite as awe-inspiring as watching lions tear apart their kill; crazy stuff that has a way of reminding me, that in spite of our insulated lives, we are still part of the food chain (especially if, like you said, we would have been dumb enough to get out of that jeep!).
    Loved all the photos (yours and the others you credited).

    1. Author

      The more animals we see in the wild, the more we realize how truly “wild” and unpredictable they are, no matter how “tame” they may appear (e.g., for elephant riding) or how cute they are when young. They deserve a healthy respect from us.

    1. Author

      We couldn’t believe it either! How lucky did we get! And, we were told, it’s not uncommon for guests to see a lion kill. Sabi Sand Game Reserve is definitely the place to go on safari for the best chances of seeing these kinds of animal encounters.

  3. Hi Janice and George. I’m planning to go mountain biking in Ethiopia next year and I’ll have five days or so spare. Do you have any recommendations for a five day safari? Wouldn’t mind a bit of luxury because i’ll be roughing it for two weeks on the mountain bike trip. Love the photos.

    1. Author

      Ethiopia? You really are one adventurous girl! We actually had to fly through Addis Ababa after our Zambia safari (which followed our South Africa safari) to get to Zanzibar, but that’s another story. But from Ethiopia you can fly south to Lusaka, Zambia and do a river-based safari there. We stayed at Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro Camp in Lower Zambezi National Park – and cannot say enough wonderful things about these camps (which are related). See http://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/canoeing-zambezi/. If you need any more info, please feel free to shoot us more questions :-).

  4. Great article and photos.

    My wife Tamara and I are in the early stages of planning a safari. We haven’t picked a country yet from those on offer, but you seem to have seen a lot of animals.

    How did you research it all, and what decided you on this particular safari? And who did you book through etc. ?

    1. Author

      Glad you like the story! We put this trip together ourselves. But unless you don’t mind spending a lot of time planning, it’s a lot easier/more convenient to book through a tour operator. As newbie safari-goers, we were very happy with visiting South Africa first (Sabi Sand Game Reserve) – where chances of seeing the “Big 5” are very high and close-up game viewing is excellent. Plus most of the lodges are all of a really high quality with all the mod cons, and more. Having visually gorged ourselves on lions and leopards, we loved our subsequent Zambia river-based safari experience (wilder, more remote, river life focus, e.g, elephants, hippos, crocs). See: http://www.sandinmysuitcase.com/canoeing-zambezi/ How to choose? If you have say 2 weeks, limit yourself to South Africa and Victoria Falls, or Zambia, or Kenya/Tanzania. Decide if you want to do night drives and go off-road (some countries/parks don’t allow this). Different countries have different game viewing vehicles too (in Tanzania, you stand with your head poking up through the top of the vehicle). Good luck! You’re bound to have a great trip whatever you decide…

  5. Oh wow! The picture of the lion is what made me click on this post – they are by far my favorite animal, they are just so beautiful. Great pictures :)

    What a wonderful adventure you two are on!

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment… Witnessing the lion kill was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for us! And lions are such magnificent creatures, aren’t they…

  6. We’ve been feeling the call back to Africa lately. I stumbled upon your post and was immediately drawn back to our last trip to SA. Time to start planning…we miss our sundowners!

    1. Author

      They say that once you visit Africa, your heart never leaves it – and you’re drawn back time and time again. In Zambia, we met a couple who must have done over 50 safaris to different African countries in their lifetime so far. We too miss our sundowners, and hope to return one day…

  7. There need to be more travel blog posts that quote Bruce Cockburn. What an epic article on an amazing African safari adventure. I love the idea of chilling with a cocktail or two and watching the sun go down then driving at night for more safari.

    1. Author

      We never tired of going on game drives to look for wild animals – be it early morning, late afternoon or after the sun set… And we look forward to reading a blog post from you with a Bruce Cockburn quote :-).

  8. How very cool! Going on a safari in Africa has been high on my list for a long time. But it’s so prohibitively expensive.

    1. Author

      True – flying there, and then going on safari, makes it one of the most expensive trips you can do (along with an expedition cruise to Antarctica). One tip: use credit card or airline points for the flights. And the rest? Well, it’s a trip of a lifetime that you won’t regret…

  9. Amazing photographs ! Felt like I was reading a National Geographic article, that first one with the lion eating the antelope head is quite a shot. Wow. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Author

      We thought we were extremely lucky to watch this lion kill (and up close!). But then we found out that safari-goers here are often this lucky. Quite amazing…

    1. Author

      Thanks so much! And, yes, put an African safari on your “must-do” list :-). Now we want to return to the African continent and visit Botswana, Namibia, Kenya… The problem is that one African visit isn’t enough – sigh…

  10. What awesome shots and what beautiful, powerful beasts of the wild! you make me wanna pack my bags and just go ! :D

    1. Janice, loved the way you put this article together! Had so much fun taking you around! Hope to see you back at Simbambili soon! Keep an eye on my Pierre Mouton Out ‘n Wild facebook page for my “best of 2013” albums! Let me know what u think, would love it if you could share my page here too someday! Hope you are all well! Pierre Mouton

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