As I have said before, one of the huge perks to being in the military is getting the opportunity to travel to countries around the world and work with partner nations military forces. Not only does this provide the opportunity to meet exceptional people, but it also gives a chance to see and experience new cultures in areas that I never imagined. My introduction to Africa was during a military exercise in Dakar, Senegal and one evening after work we were able to visit a local reserve and go for a walkabout with two lions through their natural habitat.
The Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal consists of approximately 6000 hectares of protected forest and is located near Toubacouta by the southern border with The Gambia. The reserve provides guests with the opportunity to visit an original stretch of the African wilderness and observe the local wildlife through several different activities ranging from guided game drives to fishing in the Mangroves. The name Fathala is a Mandinka word which literally means “Do Not Touch,” indicative of their strong stance on preserving the land and protecting the wildlife.
Although several of the tours they offered sounded extremely cool, I opted for a lion walk where we got to spend about 45 min walking around a back trail with two young adult lions (and their trainers). The trainers gave a short safety brief and a summary of the lions that they kept at the reserve as well as discussing their training before the lions came strolling around a bend with one of the trainers. We kept over an arms length distance and walked a bit behind them, but it was incredible to be wandering down a path beside Simba and Nala! Anytime that the lions lost interest and started climbing the trees or tussling with each other, we gave a few more feet of standoff until they were eventually ready to move on or the trainers enticed them down with chunks of meat.
It was a little unreal to be so close to the big cats especially when they are kept so carefully contained at zoos in the States. I was grinning from ear to ear the entire time while casually strolling around with them and could not help myself from humming Hakuna Matata throughout the walk.
The wildlife reserve was a fantastic opportunities to see some of Africa's biggest cats up close and learn a bit more about the history of the area. While going on safari is an incredible experience for the variety of animals you can see, getting to kick it with the king of the jungle was really an unparalleled afternoon.