Lions are one of the most sought-after sightings on a safari. The excitement of seeing them is somehow connected to our primal fascination with them. Thanks to their reassuringly feline name – Panthera leo – we know we are technically dealing with ‘cats’ but lions are startlingly huge, almost bear-sized. Their muscular, barrel-chested bodies and arrogantly jutting chins let everyone know who the boss is – and it’s not the 2-legged creatures wearing sunglasses!
Lions are Africa’s top predator and go for big animals such as zebra, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and even young elephants. If you catch lionesses on the hunt, it’s heart-in-mouth stuff and their retinue of hyenas, jackals and vultures always makes a fascinating sideshow.
Kruger National Park - South Africa
Home to most of the country’s wild lions, the Kruger National Park has always been South Africa’s premier destination for a lion safari. But Kruger is the size of Wales, and the distribution of its 2 000 lions is at the mercy of geography and climate. Areas of richer, grassier soils and higher rainfall support more animals to prey on and so lion densities there are higher. Hot and dry northern Kruger is home to around five to six lions per 100km², but the wetter and greener southern Kruger has over twice that number. If you’re planning a Kruger lion safari – go south and central.
How to do it: take the guesswork out of where to go in the Kruger for a lion safari and head to the private reserves and concessions on its fence-less borders. Rich soils, permanent water and abundant game make the Sabi Sands Private Reserve year-round lion country. The 5-day Singita Ebony and Sweni Luxury Safari pairs two exquisite lodges in the Sabi Sands and the Lebombo Concession, an exclusive-use area in the southern Kruger.
Okavango Delta – Botswana
Everyone knows that cats don’t like water but the lions of Duba Plains in the northern Okavango Delta have learnt to thrive in it for good reason: nutritious grasses and permanent water make the area perfect habitat for buffalo. And lions just love buffalo.
But 2 000lbs of hoof and horn doesn’t go down without a fight, and the lions of Duba Plains have evolved into quite extraordinary beasts. Thanks to the constant workout they get running through shallow water and wrestling with enraged buffaloes, the lions here are around 15 percent larger than normal. They’ve also adapted to hunting during the day (usually prides hunt at night and sleep during the day) when the buffalo herds are grazing on the exposed floodplains, which translates into epic game viewing for safari travellers.
How to do it: The 6-tent Duba Plains Camp sits at the epicentre of it all and prides itself on treating guests to dramatic lion and buffalo encounters – and you'll enjoy the more serence water-based activities to balance out the action, too. The 7-day Iconic Selinda and Duba Plains safari combines this eco-camp with a similar camp in the private Selinda Concession whose lions have a hard-earned reputation as hippo hunters.
South Luangwa National Park – Zambia
It was here that walking safaris were pioneered and many lodges offer anything from a morning walk to a multi-day hiking adventure. But during the May to October dry season you’ll be high and dry in a 4X4 when you patrol the banks of the Luangwa River. Animals crowd the banks and oxbow lakes, becoming easy targets for Luangwa’s lions.
How to do it: the Unique Southern African Adventure lives up to its name: balanced by a stay at Victoria Falls, this tour combines Zambia’s South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks with a sumptuous camp in the private Sabi Sands reserve. And if you can’t decide between Botswana and Zambia for a lion safari, the Authentic Botswana and Zambia Adventure pretty much says it all: Selinda and Duba Plains plus the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi – that should cover it!
Ruaha National Park - Tanzania
Which makes Ruaha one of Africa's hidden treasures. Its wildly beautiful scenery and impressive bio-diversity is home to 10% of the world’s remaining lion population - in fact, it’s second only to the Serengeti in terms of absolute numbers.
How to do it: go in the May to October dry season: the longer you leave it, the hotter and drier the conditions but the more ‘oh-my-goodness’ the game viewing becomes. Animals are shoulder-to-shoulder on the permanent Great Ruaha River, and that kind of density means the lions are having a field day. Keeping in step with Ruaha’s changing dynamics, Kwihala Camp alternates between two sites to ensure guests enjoy front-row seats to the action.
Serengeti – Masai Mara complex – Tanzania & Kenya
Look at it from a lion’s perspective: if your survival depends on the availability of suitable food, how does a million wildebeest sound? Joined by tens of thousands of zebra and gazelles, that’s how many wildebeest grunt and gallop their way around the Serengeti and Masai Mara, a circular migration so magnificent it spans two countries and takes most of the year to complete.
Little wonder that this region holds Africa’s greatest numbers of lions. Singita Grumeti in the western Serengeti recently recorded 92 lion sightings in a month, including one day when an astonishing 60 individual lions were seen. Namiri Plains Camp in the eastern Serengeti reported 100 different lion sightings in the space of eight days. And across the border in Kenya’s Masai Mara, the lions are so prolific that they once had their own BBC show, Big Cat Diary.
How to do it: timing your visit to coincide with the Great Migration just about guarantees lion sightings but such is the wealth of wildlife here that you could arrive at any time of year and enjoy big cat sightings. Namiri Plains Camp is famous for its lions while the Masai Mara’s Porini Lion Camp sits in an enclave where prides with three generations of cubs are not unusual. And if you’ve seen the BBC show, the Marsh Pride make their home just a short drive from Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp and Bateleur Camp. If you want the ultimate in Serengeti lion safaris, try the Sensational Singita Grumeti Safari – best enjoyed in Migration season.
A word about white lions
Timbavati, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Unlike their tawny-coated, amber-eyed brethren, white lions have snowy fur and beautiful blue eyes, making them incredibly photogenic. Their paleness is not albinism but rather due to a harmless genetic quirk known as leucism. Because they occur naturally in the Timbavati Game Reserve, which is located to the north of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve on the western edge of Kruger National Park, their Latin name is Panthera leo krugeri. Timbavati is actually an anglicization of the traditional name 'Tsimba Vati', which means 'Place where the star lions fell to earth'.
Pumba, Eastern Cape, South Africa
The Eastern Cape is fast-gaining a good reputation for easy, no-hassle Big 5 safaris because the area is temperate (no extremes of cold, heat or rain), malaria-free and child-friendly. A spell at Pumba Game Reserve is a great way to end a Garden Route self-drive vacation or a holiday to Addo Elephant National Park - with the added bonus of perhaps spotting some white lions. Cubs were born in 2011 and 2015, adding to the fewer than 500 white lions currently found on Earth.
How to do it: Check into either Pumba Water Lodge near Lake Kariega or Msenge Bush Lodge. Because Pumba is a private and not a national reserve, you are able to undertake night drives and walking safaris, both of which will increase the odds of you spotting one of Pumba's rare white lions.
Sanbona, Western Cape, South Africa
If safaris to the Eastern Cape are straight-forward, then those to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve are even easier. Lying in the Little Karoo between the quaint towns of Barrydale and Montagu, Sanbona is a perfect detour on a Garden Route self-drive tour or a great stop-over if you're driving scenic Route 62. About three hours after leaving Cape Town, you'll be pulling up at Sanbona where the White Lion Project has already yielded cubs. The reserve is also home to the extremely endangered and little-seen riverine rabbit.
How to do it: There are two spectacular places to stay in Sanbona: Gondwana Lodge or Dwyka Tented Lodge. Once again, you're in a malaria-free zone and the Little Karoo has a special, arid beauty of of its own with excellent star gazing thanks to clear skies and minimal light pollution as well as ancient rock art sites to explore. In addition to game drives, you can also enjoy nature walks and boat rides, once again boosting increasing your chances of seeing Sanbona's free-roaming white lions.
The same colour as the savannah they live on, lions are as much part of the African landscape as its flat-topped acacia trees and red, crumbly earth. Regal in stature, disdainful of our presence, hearing their booming roars ring out at dusk as they gather to hunt is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Their calls are also a spine-tingling reminder that the wilderness still belongs to them.