Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa

An Early Morning Stare Down With An African Lion

Derek South Africa 45 Comments

Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa

In previous posts, I’ve already written about the hippopotamuses and about the crocodiles that I ‘ran into‘ during my visit to South Africa back in December, and I’ve already posted photos of the zebras and the penguins of Boulder’s Beach as well. Now they’re all nice animals and everything but there were also quite a few other creatures that played a large role in keeping my mouth wide open in complete awe every single time I jumped onto a safari vehicle and entered the bush.

In fact, the most memorable experience I had during a safari was on the last day of the trip, early in the morning, as we drove around the impressive Phinda Game Reserve. We were on a mission to find lions, although us passengers merely had to sit back and try not to nod off (it was 6am after all) while our safari guide and wildlife tracker did all the work.

And a lion, a massive male lion, they did find.

Lion in South Africa

Okay, so I saw a lion. That’s cool. The lion actually walked right past our vehicle, just a few meters away, and even though I thought I saw the lion give me an evil stare for a moment, I was able to quickly laugh off that moment of fear once the lion moved on.

Our guide then started up the vehicle, but instead of heading off to look for more wildlife, he decided to circle around and get ahead of the same lion so that we could catch one more glimpse of this cat.

And sure enough, the lion approached once again, this time walking only three meters away from me as I was in the back row of our open-air vehicle, right up against the side closest to the lion’s path.

Now I’m not usually paranoid, but I was quite certain that the lion paused for a moment while right next to me, turned his head slightly and stared me straight in the eyes yet again. For a brief second I entertained the thought that it was only my tricky imagination, but when the lion finally passed, the rest of the group in the vehicle confirmed that the beast did indeed stare me down.

With an increased heart rate and an abnormal amount of early morning sweating, I tried to return to a normal breathing pattern as our vehicle pulled away.

But alas, our driver wanted us to have one final view of this lion and so he drove ahead of the creature one more time and waited for the lion to approach.

This time, I moved a little closer towards the safety zone that was the middle of the bench and I sat still, as still as possible, merely glancing at the lion out of the corner of my eyes as he strolled up less than two meters away from me. And I kid you not when I say that he clearly was not impressed with my attempt to avoid his gaze. One more time he stopped and tried to look into my eyes and from what I could tell, he also made a face that indicated he would love to bite off my head for breakfast.

He didn’t look up at anyone else. He wanted me and only me. And as flattering as that may sound, when you remember that he may have wanted me for a meal, the word ‘flattering’ really loses its meaning.

Here’s the video proof from the first time the lion passed by…

Luckily, the lion soon wandered into an area of thick trees and even though our driver tried his best to follow him, we eventually lost his trail, which I certainly had no complaints about.

Then, only a few minutes later, as we bounced along the dirt road that crossed the seemingly infinite prairie, we encountered an animal of a different sort, a family of warthogs. And upon sight of these silly things, I immediately started to feel better. Believe me, if you need to find a way to calm down after nearly being eaten by a lion, a group of hand-sized baby warthogs darting ever so adorably all over the place will do the trick.

Warthogs in South Africa

Of course, I still continued to look over my shoulder stand up and use binoculars every few minutes seconds for the following hour three hours or so, just in case that lion decided that a male human head, or arm, or maybe leg, would make for an ideal breakfast in the end.


While everyone wants to see a lion while on safari in Africa, there is naturally no shortage of other wildlife roaming around the game reserves that are equally as impressive when seen up close. And since this post focuses on my own safari experience, I thought I’d share a few photos of some other animals that we encountered at remarkably close distances…

Nyala in South Africa

Giraffe in South Africa

African Buffalo in South Africa

Elephant in South Africa

Cheetahs in South Africa

Rhinoceros in South Africa

Those are some of the animals that await you in South Africa!

If you were going on a safari, which animal would you be most excited about seeing in the wild?


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Comments 45

    1. Hey Jessica – It was quite scary despite the constant reassurance by the guide. And the warthogs were a big hit with everyone…they were the most fun of all the animals to watch.

  1. That looks so awesome (and a little scary)! I really want to do a safari someday, this is just making me want to go even more. Great pictures of all the animals you saw! And I’m glad you made it out alive.

    1. Hey Ali – It’s interesting because doing a safari was never really something at the top of my list of things I wanted to do in life. But now that I’ve done one, I would certainly put it at the top of my list during my next life!

  2. Wonderful pictures. I’m so jealous. South Africa is one of my top travel destinations. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, but I’m a first-time poster. I loved your piece a few years ago about smoking hashish with the Taliban. That post has always stuck in my mind as one of the best travel stories I’ve heard. And since the admiration of a complete cyber stranger is what everyone wants, then I am glad I have made your day sparkly.

    1. Hey Bula – Well, I do appreciate you leaving a comment and I am glad you enjoyed some of my travel stories 🙂 And forget about admiration, I just like knowing that people are enjoying the site. It makes me want to continue with my adventures!

  3. It’s funny. I’m reading about your stare down with the lion. And i had to chase one off our compound at 3am. It was trying to get to the herd of cattle we have. The wild is my everyday life out here in Kenya.
    PS: Loving the blog, stumbled on it today.

    1. Hey Leila – That is funny! Sounds like an interesting experience to have as a normal occurrence 🙂 And thank you for visiting the blog!!

  4. Awesome photos! I’m not sure if you were lucky enough to get really close, or if you have an awesome camera (maybe both :)). Brings back memories from my safari a few years ago!

    1. Hey Laurie – My camera is quite normal but I have a feeling any time you have such animals as the subjects of your photos, it’s difficult for those photos to turn out bad!

    1. Thanks Mina! That would not have been a nice ending at all, but I’m quite certain that I wasn’t in any danger at all. It was well worth it to be that close!

  5. That’s a great wildlife story!

    I was in almost an identical situation a few years ago in Tanzania. The local driver pulled up to what seemed a very unsafe close distance to 3 lions, 1 male and 2 females. Our driver insisted that the lions had killed an animal the night before and weren’t at all hungry so it was safe.

    When I really nearly had a heart attack was when the male lion got up and roared at the top of his lungs – I nearly fell out of the truck… and of course, the driver said he was just “yawning!”

    1. Hey Mark – That’s quite a tale! I’m not sure I would be able to handle a massive roar from such a close distance. Luckily, our lion was just walking at a slow pace, seemingly quite calm (apart from his stares). At least both of our situations just gave us a scare and nothing more!

  6. The Lion experience would be the one that I would treasure most. It must have been an excilirating experience after it occurred but one that would have been terrifying at the time. It’s interesting that out of all the people on your guided tour that it was you that the Lion decided to stare down not once, twice but three times courtesy of the driver. Unless you did something to attract its attention, I would put it down to positive karma that you had the experience and that no harm came to you.

    1. Hey Matthew – It was indeed interesting that the lion seemed to focus only on me. Maybe it was because I was wearing blue. That’s all I could think of at the time as I think I was the only one wearing that color. Other that that, I have no idea. But I’d be willing to chalk that up to positive karma as well 🙂

    1. Hey Samantha – Hippos are incredible animals to observe. They are so massive and so powerful, and yet you can get quite close to them by boat or even find them walking around some towns!

  7. Hi Earl,

    1-year long near religious-like reader, first time poster.

    Your photos are awesome and I love the post. I noticed in your picture of the Cheetahs that the way they are standing forms the close but rough shape of the South American continent between them! You’re not trying to hint at anything are you!? And you say you can’t take photos! That’s meta-blogging right there!

    Keep it up!

    1. Hey Kirk – That does look like South America now that you mention it. I would never have picked that up, so clearly, there is no hint in that photo 🙂 And I appreciate the kind words about the photos. When you have amazing animals so close in front of you, it definitely becomes much easier to take decent photos!

      Thank you for being such a loyal reader as well! It certainly does mean a great deal to me.

    1. Hey Claire – Good choice 🙂 Seeing a lion up close is something that is guaranteed to leave you speechless and in awe. Hopefully you’ll be on safari soon enough!

  8. Whew, I’m glad he decided not to eat you! I would have been terrified that the driver insisted to cross his path so many times. What a great chance to see so many animals outside a zoo!

    1. Hey Patricia – The experience sure does beat a zoo! And the driver knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t get in the lion’s way but would make a wide circle, stop the vehicle and just wait for the lion to approach on its own. It was a bit scary but it will be an experience I’ll never forget!

    1. Hey Stephanie – I had no idea about Nyalas either before going on safari 🙂 They are fascinating looking creatures though and we had a chance to see quite a few.

  9. Wonderful photos. Not sure how I’d handle being approached like that by a lion…good on you for staying calm! Your cheetah picture is amazing by the way; I think those are the animals that I’d most want to see on a safari.

    1. Hey John – The cheetahs were amazing and we watched this one group of three running all over the place, hunting for food, having a run-in with a herd of massive buffaloes. They were definitely the most exciting animal to watch and I think we followed them around for 2 hours at one point!

  10. They can’t guarantee you that the lion won’t jump at the sight of you if he thinks you look delicious. What kind of guarantee did they give you at the beginning of the tour then? What an awesome experience!

    1. Hey Andrea – Of course there is never a guarantee but the guides explained that the lions becomes so accustomed to seeing the safari vehicles ever since they are born that they just assume it is a large animal that won’t bother them. Also, passengers should always remain quite still or else the ‘large animal’ might start to look like a bunch of small animals 🙂 But as long as everyone stays on the vehicle, the possibility of an incident is basically zero.

  11. Reading this made me miss my visit to Africa! I love the picture you took of the cheetah (or was that a leopard? leopards are usually in trees, no?). Everyone thinks that animals are plentiful when you’re on a safari, but there’s definitely a bit of luck involved, too, and it seems like you had great luck on yours.

    1. Hey Diana – We did have great luck and we saw almost every animal on the game reserve except for leopards. Those are cheetahs in the photo and we saw plenty of them, which was amazing! There certainly is luck involved, even though the guides and wildlife trackers are highly trained, so they are generally able to pick up trails!

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