Walking with lions
Lioness in a tree, Fathala
While Fathala Lodge might well have appealed to us regardless of the specific activities on offer, there was one thing in particular that really drew us here – an opportunity to walk alongside lions. We both love big cats (and also small ones, come to that!) so this was a must-do as soon as we read about it, and we had signed up as soon as we had arrived yesterday.
We were up and eating breakfast quite early as it's best to do this activity first thing in the morning if staying at the lodge; it is also offered to day trippers from other hotels (including some in Gambia) and thus walks later in the day tend to have more participants. We had booked for the first slot of the day, at 8.15 AM, and were pleased to discover that there were just the two of us on the walk.
The lodge has five lions which live in their own large fenced-off area of the reserve at some distance from the lodge. When we arrived at the reception area we were given a very thorough briefing, as you can imagine. There are a number of rules that you have to follow, which we had been warned about in advance. These include not to wear sunglasses (the lions might be spooked by seeing their own reflections), flapping clothes or animal prints (for obvious reasons!) and not to carry a bag. Of course it is more than fine to bring your camera, and actually a good idea to bring more than one, not only for back up but because a guide will take one and shoot the pictures that you cannot, from the front. This is because another rule stipulates that while walking you must always stay behind the lions, although at photo stops you will be shown where you can stand to take face-on shots, as well as to pose with them. Other rules include not shouting or running.
Sign by the gate
Having read all the rules, we were asked to sign a waiver form. It was at that point that I did start to wonder if this was such a good idea after all! But I knew that the lions have lived here since they were just three months old, when they were rescued, (they were by now, in February 2016, almost five years old) and have been used to being around people throughout that time. They know the guides and understand the signals they give with their sticks. But they are nevertheless wild animals, to some extent at least, so it was made clear that we were participating at our own risk – but also that in the three years (at that point – now six years) that they have been running this activity there have never been any problems.
My other reservations centred around how the lions were kept. As rescue cubs from (I think) South Africa, I knew that they had grown up in a somewhat unnatural environment (there are no longer any lions in Senegal), and that releasing them into the wild would not be an option. From all I had read prior to our visit I was confident that they are well cared for here, and indeed they appeared to be so. I have read one or two reviewers expressing concerns about the use of sticks, but the reserve has stated clearly that ‘The walking sticks are part of the lions’ training program since they are cubs to adultery (sic) and merely a symbol of respect, none of our lions have ever being beaten. The guides and lion handlers have the utmost love and respect for these lions and will never do anything to harm them.’ From all we saw I believe this to be the case and could see that bond between human and animal in the way the keepers and lions interacted.
Keeper showing us a lion's claw
So, to our walk … We approached the gate with our guide somewhat cautiously, especially when we saw beyond it the two lions with whom we were to walk. The five lions are taken out for a walk with guests in rotation; we were with Masai, the alpha male, and one of his three sisters. The gate was opened, we walked through with our guide and it was locked behind us – we were committed!
Masai, the alpha male
In addition to the guide who had briefed us and entered with us, there were three other keepers with the lions, all of whom came along on the walk. We followed a path clearly known to the lions, who went on ahead. We were not so much walking with lions as following them at close quarters, but that was fine with us. To see the movement of the muscles in these magnificent creatures as they stroll long gave me a strong sense of their power. Their golden fur glowed in the early morning sun, and occasionally they would look back at us as if to check we were still there. A couple of times the female wandered a little way into the trees to the side of the path, but each time soon rejoined her brother. One of the keepers had taken Chris’s spare camera and shot a great little video of us all as we walked:
When we reached a small group of trees the lions stopped. I got the impression that they had been taught to do so, although maybe they just wanted a rest.
The male lion
Lioness licking for salt
This was an opportunity for more and better photos, and the keepers showed us how we could get closer and exactly where to stand, as well as taking some photos of us with the lions. By the way, some old reviews mention being able to touch the lions but that was only when they were young cubs – it is very definitely not allowed now they are bigger!
With the lions
The lioness seemed to know that we wanted to get good photos. First she had a good stretch and scratched at one of the trees, then she climbed it and posed beautifully on a branch.
All too soon though we were given the signal to turn back to the gate, still following the lions. Our 50 minutes had gone really quickly and now we had to say goodbye to the lions, who went off to their run with their three escorts while our guide walked us back to Fathala's day centre where our jeep was waiting. What a memorable experience it had been!!
And now for the mishap!
We returned to the lodge for lunch and, with no further activities booked for today, were looking forward to a relaxing afternoon and a dip in the plunge pool. Although choices for dinner here are limited, at lunch time you can choose from a menu of lighter dishes, and both of us opted for a burger. We sat on the deck enjoying our meal and keeping an eye open for any animals who might come along to the water hole for a drink. None did, but we enjoyed watching the antics of a troop of Patas Monkeys in the trees beyond.
Halfway through our meal, however, I felt what I thought was a small piece of bone from the burger in my mouth, but it wasn’t – a large part of one of my teeth had come away as I ate!
While I didn’t feel any pain, I was concerned that I could do so if I continued to eat with it, and also that we were heading deeper into Senegal in a couple of days and would be even further from ‘civilisation’ (aka dentists!) than we were here. So I spoke to the (French) lodge manager and she called for her assistant, who was from Banjul and therefore almost local, to advise. He proved to be hugely helpful. He told us that his neighbour back in Banjul was a dentist, trained in France (which I found reassuring), and should be able to provide at least temporary treatment. I agreed that he should call his neighbour, which he did, and arranged an appointment for me the next morning – great. Now all I had to do was get to Banjul and then back to the lodge afterwards. This was where the manager herself came to my aid. She arranged a car to take us and a guide to go with us, and said we could just pay half of the usual transfer fee in order to cover their costs, which we were happy to agree to.
With all of these plans made there was nothing more that I could do today, so we resumed our original plan of a relaxing afternoon. This was enlivened by a bit of excitement from the tent next to ours. The occupants were a couple from Belgium, with whom we’d had a brief chat the previous evening along with the English mother and daughter and two older English women, friends travelling together. This afternoon on returning to our tent we saw the two Belgian guys standing outside theirs, looking concerned, and several of the lodge staff going inside as if to look for something. Had one of the snakes we’d been warned about somehow got into the tent, we wondered? But no – when we called across to ask what the problem was we were told they had a mouse visiting the tent and eating the sugar from the sachets provided for tea- and coffee-making, and had called on the staff to evict their unwanted guest.
Later that evening it became clear that the staff had been unsuccessful in their mission, as the guys had moved to another tent further down the row. Chris and I were rather amused that two grown guys had been chased out by a tiny mouse, and also were inclined to believe that a mouse could easily visit any of the tents, including ours and the one to which they had moved. And although we never did see a mouse here at Fathala, we were to be forcibly reminded of this incident, and our reaction to it, at our next lodge!
Enjoying the pool
After the minor excitement of the ‘mouse in the tent’ incident we reverted to our plan of relaxing on the deck. I had a dip in the pool (a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me enjoying the water!) and we spent some time watching for wildlife at the waterhole. And while the white rhino continued to elude us, we did see some waterbucks, various birds and a large lizard which joined us on the deck for a while.
Lizard on the decking
Our leisurely afternoon was followed by a pleasant evening – I even managed to eat some dinner, albeit very gingerly!
We went to bed still buzzing about the morning walk with the lions, but in my case at least conscious that tomorrow morning could be a lot less pleasant!