LANSERIA, South Africa - If you don't have the opportunity to make it to the Pilanesburg National Reserve to see the "Big Five" animals in their natural habitat, the Lion Park outside Johannesburg can offer a convenient alternative.
Just up the road from the Lanseria Airport, the Lion Park sits on a large swath of rolling grasslands. Neither a game reserve nor a zoo, it features two distinctive areas where visitors can drive among the animals at close range.
The largest area is for the herbivores, allowing giraffe, zebra, kudu and various other range antelope to roam freely.
Adjacent to that are separate enclosed "camps" for the carnivores - cheetah, hyena and lions including the rare white lions that were featured in the recent movie "White Lion." You get so close to the big cats you have to be careful not to run them over as they lay across the road.
Go early enough in the morning and the lions are more active. You might even catch them getting a little frisky (which we did), explaining the vitality of one of the park's most engaging features - the Cub Park.
The Cub Park is much cooler than any petting zoo you've ever been to before. In small groups you get to go inside the enclosure with some of the smaller lion cubs, getting the chance to pet them and possibly hold them (if they are so inclined). As adorable as the cubs are, the park volunteers warn you to not put your hands in their mouths, to approach them from behind and to pet them firmly so they don't get confused with play which could lead to an intended bite.
Despite signs entering the park that ask visitors not to "approach, touch or feed the giraffes," visitors carrying small bags of feed attracted the 18-foot giraffe right up to the fence. The massive creature could not have been sweeter, leaning his head down to scoop feed out of your hands with his long tongue and sometimes nuzzling you to get more handouts.
The park has attracted celebrity visitors including Natalie Portman, Shakira, John Legend and Chris Daughtry. For 130 Rand (about $16) it's a nice an convenient value for an "urban safari."