he African lion (Panthera leo) was once described in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as “the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four footed beasts”. This definitely rings true with these magnificent felines! It is quite clear that lions are fascinating creatures, and here we get to know them a bit better by looking at 15 facts about them:
1. African lions are the largest of the African cats (second largest in the family Felidae, with the tiger being the largest). Males can reach a shoulder height of around 1.2 metres and weigh around 150 – 225 kg (av. 189kg). Females are around 1 metre in shoulder height, and weigh between 110-152kg (av. 126kg).
2. African lions have a wide habitat, and can live almost everywhere – from open woodlands, thick bush, scrub and grass complexes, even penetrating deep into deserts along watercourses – though don’t expect to find them in rainforests. Globally, lions exist in Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, though history shows that a long time ago lions also inhabited parts of southwest Asia and north Africa. Read about the best places to see wild lions in Africa.
3. The colour of a lion’s coat varies from region to region, and within populations. However, it is found that lions that live in areas where it is either cooler or have higher humidity levels tend to have darker fur – such as the desert-adapted lions in Namibia and the black-maned lions of the Kalahari. You also get white lions, but these are not true albinos but are rather genetic variants with strongly reduced pigmentation.
4. Speaking of desert-adapted lions. These lions are known for their majestic size and ability to survive the harsh desert environment. They have longer legs and leaner bodies than ‘regular’ lions, and are built for endurance. Because prey is sparse in the desert regions, lions have to search far and wide for food, and live off smaller prey, such as antelope, mice and birds. The lions have a stronger resistance to thirst and can go for up to two weeks without drinking water (they rely on their prey’s blood for moisture). Have a look at a stunning photo gallery of the iconic desert lions of Namibia.
5. When it comes to claws, lions have four on their back feet, but five on the front where the dew claw is found. The dew claw does not show in their spoor (foot print), and acts like a thumb that is used to hold down prey.
An African safari is something that everyone should experience at least once. It offers the chance to let go of the pressures of everyday life and embrace instead the primal call of the wild. It’s a chance to see unique flora and fauna in its natural habitat, and to find yourself uplifted by the breathtaking scenery of the African savannah. It is a popular myth that African safaris are only available to the wealthy – but the truth is, with a little careful planning, there’s no reason why this once-in-a-lifetime experience has to cost more than any other form of international travel.
The first step to booking an affordable African safari is to choose the destination that best suits your budget. East Africa’s most famous safari destinations are synonymous with luxury safari lodges and sky-high park fees; and as such, safaris to countries like Kenya and Tanzania are often better suited to those with cash to burn. Botswana and Zambia can also be problematic due to the sheer remoteness of their most famous reserves. The Okavango Delta, for example, is best accessed via charter plane – which inevitably increases your expenses.
The most budget-friendly safari destinations are those that are accessible, have plenty of choice in terms of game reserves and operators, and charge fees in local currencies rather than US dollars. South Africa and Namibia are both well suited to the budget traveler, with great infrastructure for self-drive safaris, camping safaris and overland tours. Zimbabwe is another excellent option, thanks to the low cost of accommodation, food and transport. When choosing your destination, consider the cost of getting to the best reserves, the exchange rate, the cost of park fees and game drives.
Destinations that don’t require visas or vaccinations also help to keep prices low.
No matter where you go, local tour guides, safari companies and accommodation options typically offer better rates than international companies. In particular, choosing a local operator can be a great way to keep costs reasonable for those that have their heart set on East African destinations like the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara. In addition to the lower cost, the pros of booking locally include an increased chance of last-minute availability (great if you meet fellow travelers on the road and decide to embark on a spontaneous Caprivi road trip or a quick detour to Kruger National Park).
On the other hand, many companies can only be contacted upon arrival, which makes advance booking difficult.
Group safaris come in all shapes and sizes, from minibus tours tailored to mature travelers to social backpacker excursions with well-known overland companies like Nomad Africa Adventure Tours. Group safaris are a great option for two reasons. Firstly, they’re cheaper than private tours, allowing you to split the cost of accommodation and transport while also granting access to group rates for park fees and guides. Secondly, they can be a wonderful way to meet other travelers and make lifelong friends.
This social aspect can become a problem if you don’t get on well with your group, however, while some may find the fixed itinerary of a group tour restricting.
Those that prefer a little more freedom should consider a self-drive safari, whereby you rent a vehicle and drive independently to (and around) your chosen game reserves. The pros are manifold – you can tailor your itinerary to suit your interests, and change it whenever you like. You decide when to stop for photos, which routes to take within the reserve, and where to stay at night. Many self-drive vehicles come with a rooftop tent, keeping the cost of accommodation to a minimum as well. Drawbacks include the lack of an expert local guide.
You also need to choose a destination with safe roads and safari parks that allow self-drive vehicles – both of which abound in South Africa and Namibia.
No matter what kind of safari you choose, compromising on accommodation can help to reduce costs dramatically. Most of the National Parks in Southern Africa have public camping facilities, ranging from full-service camps complete with waterholes, restaurants and electricity to wilderness sites with little more than a cleared space to pitch your tent. These are not luxurious, but they’re incredibly affordable. They also offer the romance of spending a night under canvas in the African bush. Some of the more popular sites (like Sesriem Camp in Namibia’s Sossusvlei dune sea) fill up quickly and must be booked months in advance.
If the comfort of a roof and four solid walls is more your style, avoid the luxury lodges located inside the reserves. Instead, look for a budget hotel near the park gates and arrange day trips into the reserve instead. The major drawback of this option is that you won’t be able to participate in pre-dawn game drives or night drives.
In Africa, the low season usually coincides with the rainy season, when prices for safari tours and accommodation fall dramatically. Low prices aren’t the only incentive for traveling during this time, however. The rains bring with them lush landscapes and fewer crowds and often coincide with baby season for many of Africa’s famous herbivores, as well as the year’s best birding. The downside is that with ample food and water everywhere, animals disperse and can be harder to spot, especially in areas with thick undergrowth.
Some camps and lodges close for the rainy season, and roads can be difficult to navigate if flooding occurs.
Many people visit several different game reserves in order to see the widest range of habitats and wildlife possible during their time in Africa. However, choosing just one park and spending your entire vacation there is a great way to cut down costs on domestic flights, vehicle rental or transfers. Make your decision based on what you most want to see. If your priority is catching the annual Great Migration, for example, focus your efforts on the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara. If ticking off the Big Five is important to you, opt for a major reserve like the Kruger or Hwange National Park.