Lion Country Safari — Bring Your Pith Helmet and Camera
Lion Country Safari is not very far from I-95 but it is miles away from what you are likely to see anywhere else along that busy highway. Just west of West Palm Beach, Lion Country is a fun day trip full of up close and personal drive-through visits with big game from around the world coupled with a walking park and a small water feature park for the kids. Bring your camera and some bottled water and get ready for fun.
It is exactly the kind of place you might have taken a trip to visit back in the late ‘60s before the Mouse first began to roar in the early ‘70s, back when Marineland with its dolphin shows was a big deal and smaller attractions along the highways had motorists pulling off the road right and left. It’s a little elaborate for an Old Florida designation but close.
When I was kid I often imagined wild animals all around the house. And though I have heard a panther scream far out in the swamp I have not see one in the wild. I loved watching movies about Africa with the big lions and herds of stampeding zebras but I have not been to see that either. Lucky me and lucky you, if you are craving a wild animal experience that will get you close enough to reach out and touch (but don’t, it’s against the rules and fairly dangerous) from the safety of your car, this is the place for you.
Founded in 1967, Lion Country Safari is a drive-through safari with seven distinct habitats and animal groupings. Clearly one needs to keep the predators away from the prey so the experience doesn’t get too intense. After paying and getting your ticket you drive through a big gate just a little reminiscent of Jurassic Park but don’t worry, there are no staked out goats or lurking T Rexes. Each section is gated off from the next and each has park staff in safari cars never far away should you need them.
The Pampas (named after the grasslands of South America) are the first compound with Brazilian tapirs and llamas, rheas and the large Aldabra tortoise from Madagascar. The Aldabra can live for 150 years and is larger than the more well-known Galapagos tortoise. The tapirs have a distinctive snout-like nose and like to swim. The Pampas are a gentle introduction to the compounds that follow.
In Ruaha National Park section there are herds of greater kudu, impalas, other antelope-like critters as well as the impressive eight-foot tall ostrich. The greater kudu males grow curved horns of up to six feet. When we were there the herds kept a little distance from the driving paths but were close enough to view well.
In the Kalahari Bushvedt — corresponding to a 500 square mile area in Southwest Africa — you see more ostriches and other herds of horned herbivores like the Nile lechwe and scimitar-horned oryx. This oryx species is now extinct in the wild though there are plans to use herds in captivity to breed a group to reintroduce to the plains of Africa. It is thought the last wild oryx were in Chad until around 1990.
The Gir Forest is named after a national park in India and sports the impressive Asiatic water buffalo, the nilgai (very large) and the blackbuck (very small). Blackbucks will pronk, leap straight up in the air, if something startles them. Although there are millions of domesticated water buffaloes in the world, only a few hundred are left in the wild. You can also see the kulan, the Asian wild ass that are the fastest in the horse family and live in natural herds in Turkmenistan. Due to hunting they are now endangered in the wild. In this section as in the others where the animals are loose and you are caged in a car, you need to drive carefully as the animals are likely to decide to cross the road in front of you and can do it quickly, especially the young frisky ones.
The Gorongosa Reserve is based on an area in northern Mozambique. Here you see the famous African lions but for your safely you will always be separated from them by additional chain link fences inside the compound. On the day we visited they were mostly taking naps inside concrete shelters like open-ended Quonset huts. Regardless, they were still impressive beasts reaching 550 pounds and eight feet long nose to tail.
After the lions it is right back in the thick of things with a trip to The Serengeti Plains. More ostrich opportunities are here and impalas, too, with the addition of waterbucks, wildebeest, elands and the super impressive watusi (Ankole Cattle). The watusi are large and regal with horns that can measure eight feet from tip to tip and occasionally up to 12 feet in width. The bulls can weigh in at 1600 pounds and entire cultures have existed in Africa around raising and herding these beautiful animals.
The best may be last. Pull through the gates into Hwange National Park (after the reserve in western Zimababwe) and there is so much to see, so close to you that it’s hard to catch it all. Herds of zebra wander near and on the roads and there are always foals to see. Several of the antelope family are there in herds and there are bunches of gangly but elegant giraffes wandering in what almost looks like slow motion. The chimpanzees are kept on five island displays (they don’t swim so that keeps them safely confined). But one of the biggest thrills has to be the large number of white rhinos. They look as if they could easily topple your car but (usually) don’t. They too come quite close and you are urged to stop the car when they are very close lest you seem aggressive. There was a baby rhino when we drove through and it was as curious about us as we were about it.
Exit the drive-through safari and park for a stroll through the “walk through safari” where the animals include many colorful birds, snakes, turtles, goats, sheep, monkeys and a miniature Sicilian donkey. This is very family oriented and has a petting zoo, camel rides, paddleboats, gem panning, giraffe feeding, Ferris wheel, water park, mini golf and a lot more. There is even a prehistoric park with cement dinosaurs lurking in the shrubs. There are live animal shows throughout the day.
Lion Country has a restaurant and you can get a hamburger and fries with a small drink of $8.99. It is okay but not an exciting option.
Give yourself at least half a day to do both parts of the park and you can easily spend the whole day going from the animal compounds to the walk around parts doing boat rides and shows and golf and more.
There is nothing high tech about this experience. It’s about the wonder of the natural world and having some fun on colorful rides knowing there is a big ice cream cone waiting for you before the end of the day.
There is even an adjacent KOA campground if one day is not enough.
Lion Country Safari is located in Loxahatchee a few miles west of I-95 and the Florida Turnpike. It is open daily around 10 and closes around 5 (varies with season and day). Admission is $31.50, $28.50 for seniors, kids 3-9 are $23 and parking is $7 but you can usually find a coupon on line to cut a little off that cost.
© Copyright 2015: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison and Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.