How to Have a 'Lion King' African Safari

Fans across the world love the animated Lion King movies, which tell the story of a family of lions and their various escapades in Africa, along with their sidekicks. Simba, Scar, Nala, Mufasa and other lions must survive with Pumbaa the warthog, Timon the meerkat, Zazu the hornbill, Rafiki the mandrill and hyenas Kamari, Shenzi and Azizi all adding to the fun and drama.

If you and your children would love to see lions in the wild for real, this is how to do it.

Head for Kenya for Lions

Scenes for the first movie were inspired by Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. It is a fairly small park with limited accommodation in Nakuru near Lake Naivasha. Its evocative name is derived from a break in the cliffs that make up a part of the Great African Rift Valley.

If it’s not possible to do a safari in Hell’s Gate, then plenty of other places have the same wide-open sky, never-ending horizons, red sunsets and iconic acacia trees. The Masai Mara National Reserve is the foremost choice, especially since the sheer density of plains game here attracts major lion prides. You’re also likely to see warthogs, hornbills and hyenas here (but no mandrills or meerkats).

A very alert lioness near Chyulu Hills.

 

Another good choice is Samburu National Reserve, which is more arid than the Mara. It is famous for a lioness who routinely ‘adopts’ orphaned or abandoned antelope, especially oryx calves. She is thought to be infertile and has been seen ‘caring for’ at least six such calves over the years.

Then Add the Beach

A safari can be tough going for kids. First, there’s the long-haul flight to Africa. Then there are the early wake-up calls for dawn game drives as well as substantial time in the heat of the bush. To return home truly rested and refreshed, we suggest adding a few days at the beach or on an island to your safari.

If you’re in Kenya, then head to the tropical southern coast to Diani Beach for warm water, late mornings and plenty of fun in the sun.

Head to the Kalahari for Timon

You won’t find meerkats in Kenya as they thrive in the soft semi-desert sands of the Kalahari, which spans southern Botswana and north-western South Africa. They live in communal burrows and are very inquisitive. Meerkats are easily habituated to humans’ presence and in some camps are even known to use our superior height as a lookout point, scurrying up people’s bodies and sitting on their heads!

A colony of meerkats at San Camp.

 

The good news is that the Kalahari is also an excellent location to see hyena and black-maned Kalahari lions. The landscape, however, is very different to that in the films although if you travel in low season (about November to April) the rains may provide lush grazing.

Dad and son at Tswalu Kalahari.

 

It’s easy to combine the Kalahari with other desirable and child-friendly destinations like Cape Town, the Kruger National Park, the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls. If you want to add on a beach portion for some R&R, look no further than Mauritius or even Sun City, Africa’s biggest resort complex with a sandy beach built right in the middle of the bush.

Head to Congo for Rafiki

Mandrills are the world’s largest monkey species and are found only in the endangered equatorial forests of Central Africa. You definitely won’t spot them in the Masai Mara or Kalahari! Your best chance is to head to Congo, a fantastic destination renowned for some of the easiest gorilla trekking in the world thanks to the flat terrain and lack of altitude. Spending an hour with a family of western lowland gorillas is highlight for anyone but it only allowed for those 15 and older.

Other gorilla-trekking destinations are Rwanda and Uganda but the hiking is tougher here because of the steeper terrain.

Important Tips for Parents

If it's your first safari or the first time you are bringing your children along, then please read the following advice:

  • Wild animals are not like those in documentaries or animated movies. Documentaries take months – even years – of footage and piece it together to make an exciting chain of events that seem like they happened over the course of a few minutes. Lions, especially, are very quiet during the day because they usually hunt at night. Most often, you’ll find a pride sleeping off a big meal or resting in the shade. Children may complain that this is ‘boring’ so set the scene long before you arrive on safari and explain what you’re likely to see.
  • If you are lucky enough to see a kill, remember that it involves real blood (which may have a strong smell) and intense stress and pain for the prey until it takes its last breath. Antelope may call out, you may hear bones being crushed, those running away could break their legs, a lion might get its jaw broken from a mighty kick… there is no mercy in the pursuit of food or in doing all it takes to escape a predator.

Mom protecting her cubs in South Africa.

 

  • Juvenile, older, slower and weaker animals are generally killed. A chase is exciting but might be extremely stressful for children and even parents, especially if the quarry does not manage to outrun its pursuer. You may cheer for the underdog only to see it being devoured in the unchanging law of nature.
  • A pride of lions may be surrounded by their ‘leftovers’ – well-fed lions may not eat the entire carcass and its not usual to come across random lower limbs or heads because they’ve eaten the soft belly and ignored the rest. This can be quite smelly and upsetting, and flies, jackals and vultures are usually lurking close by to start cleaning up in their essential role as nature’s caretakers.
  • Hyenas are more active during the day than lions. They’re often found in proximity to one another because they try and steal each other’s kills – it’s a myth that hyenas survive by scavenging. It only seems this way because they steal lions’ prey or take back their own! Spotted hyenas (the ones from the movie) are more common than brown hyenas.

Lions and hyenas at Ol Donyo in Kenya.

 

  • Lions do not have a breeding season so there is no time of year when you’re guaranteed of seeing cubs. Mothers den their cubs for at least six weeks so the chances of you seeing absolute new-borns are very slim.
  • There is no place in Africa where you can see all the Lion King characters in the wild. A mandrill monkey could never survive on the savannah and a meerkat would have a very hard time in a rainforest! Gorilla trekking is not permitted for under-15s.
  • If you are travelling with young children who are doing their first safari, try to arrange a private vehicle and a safari villa. This will give you far more flexibility and privacy. If the kids are tired, you can go back to the lodge without consulting the other guests on the game-drive vehicle. You can also have meals in private if you prefer.
  • Some guides may not take very young children near predators. Lions have very sensitive hearing and high pitches can irritate them. So ensure that you bring as many pairs of binoculars with you as possible especially smaller ones for children. Don’t rely on being able to use the guide’s binos.
  • For young children, consider malaria-free destinations if you are concerned about them taking medications. These include Pilanesberg, Addo Elephant, Etosha and Madikwe.

Lions resting in the Masai Mara.

Please click here to read more about lion-cub petting and ethical animal encounters.

Every safari helps conservation. Your safari dollars go a long way to help preserve wild spaces and the animals that thrive in them. Please don’t hesitate to chat to your personal Safari Expert about what to expect and how to give your family a safari that is fun, affordable, ethical and sustainable! It will be one of the best decisions of your life and one you will never regret.