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‘When you introduce people to something that they suddenly connect with, they will think more about wanting to protect it.’
Gems in this
South Africa is famous for safari and its Big Five — the lion, the leopard, the black rhinoceros, the bush elephant and, of course, the lion — but renowned conservationist Kevin Richardson is passionate about all of the creatures that inhabit the country’s bushveld, big and small.
Nicknamed the Lion Whisperer, Kevin has become a well-known and outspoken conservationist, using his influence to help protect South Africa’s beloved fauna. Viewing nature on a game drive is one thing, but — putting his pilot’s licence to good use — his favourite way to absorb the surrounding wonders is to take to the skies. It’s from this vantage point that he can best appreciate the habitats he is working to protect. We caught up with Kevin to hear about the best ways to enjoy the wild and wonderful parts of Gauteng Province, from must-try restaurants to hot-air balloon rides over meteorite craters.
On where you grew up
I grew up in a little area called Orange Grove, in the suburbs of Johannesburg. It wasn't what people would think — on the back door of a wilderness area — it was actually in the city, in suburbia. Now, I’m just northwest of Cullinan, in a place called Roodeplaat, near the Roodeplaat Dam.
On how you started working with big cats
I didn't wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to be a lion guy.’ One thing just led to the next. Twenty five years ago, I had an opportunity to go to a lion park, which had been acquired by someone I knew. When I visited, I saw these two lion cubs and completely fell in love with them. I made it my life's mission to see these lions every day of my life after that. When I think back to that 23-year-old, and how I was then and how I am now, it's been such an evolution. I never envisaged myself ever having a relationship with a fully grown lion, never mind the lionesses and cubs and all of these things that have happened in my life since those two young lions. Now, we’ve all got old together — some of the lions in my care are 20 years old, and others have passed away already. If you had said to me, the day before I met Tau and Napoleon 25 years ago, that people would call methe Lion Whisperer and I would be running a sanctuary, I would have asked if you were smoking something.
On working with lions and challenging preconceptions
The more people told me I couldn’t go in with them because they’re too old, the more that piqued my curiosity. I thought, ‘Well, why would a lion want to hurt you one day after it turns one year old?’ It makes no logical sense. If he likes you, he likes you, whether he's one, two, three, or twenty. There were all these preconceived ideas about how lions should behave, and when I actually had interactions with them, I realised that wasn't true at all. There were all these misconceptions about how if you turn your back on a lion, you’re toast. Or if you look them in the eyes, they see it as a challenge. There are always elements of truth, but it's not necessarily how they operate. As the relationships grew, people started to take notice. I’m still learning. Every day is something new — you learn and you adjust and tweak. The more I know, the less I consider myself an expert.
On the importance of wildlife conservation in South Africa
Without wildlife conservation, we're doomed. Without wild spaces and natural resources, we're not going to be here. So conservation is really about helping us conserve what we need and rely upon. So I think the conversation about conserving certain species should really branch out to conserving habitat. This is where my thinking has eventually led me to: I was always talking about lion conservation, but it's really about conserving habitat.
‘What I love about travelling outside of South Africa is it makes me realise what we have at home. You realise what we have right on our doorstep.’
On staying at the sanctuary
If you want to come to Dinokeng and experience the area, then I would definitely recommend staying here and enjoying the sanctuary. The lions are nearby, you hear them roaring at night. I still never get sick of the lions roaring or the hyenas whooping. I mean, it's a sound you cannot get sick off. It’s been a labour of love to get the sanctuary to where it is, and it's not going to be there forever. So come and see it while it's still around; it won’t be here once the animals have passed on.
On what inspires you most about South Africa
South Africa is diverse in so many different areas, from a biodiversity perspective, but also a cultural perspective. We have 11 official languages and we've all got to figure out how to get along with each other, which is kind of interesting; it's not one culture. If you look at the landscapes, the southern tip of Cape Town is so different to Durban on the East Coast. You go inland to the spectacular Drakensberg mountain range; further north, you have the grasslands. The Magaliesberg is such an interesting mountain range. The world's your oyster here.
On your relationship with travel
The more I travel, the more I want to travel. What I love about travelling outside of South Africa is it makes me realise what we have at home. You realise what we have right on our doorstep.
On Gauteng’s fossils and meteor craters
One of my favourite places in Gauteng is the Magaliesburg area. The Hartbeespoort dam is there, so it's quite a well-known destination, but what really attracts me to the area is that it’s known for its hominid fossil discovery at the Cradle of Humankind. To think that the origins of our species could have come from there is quite mind-boggling. And then to think that the mountain range just to the north is 2.3 billion years old, who wouldn't be wowed by that? Then just to the north of that is the Tswaing Meteorite Crater, which is spectacular to see. A 50 metre-wide meteorite hit Earth and left a crater one kilometre wide and 100 metres deep. Tswaing is Setswana for ‘place of salt’ because the meteor impact created a salt lake. If you want to do it spectacularly, you can hire a microlight, a hot-air balloon, a light aircraft or even a helicopter to check these places out.
‘Floating above the treetops is a fantastic way to view the bush.’
On why you should make time to fly in South Africa
South African airspace is pretty free to fly, which is wonderful and encouraged. But not everyone can pop into an airplane and just go where they want to. For those who can't, there are operators who offer alternatives. I’ve flown in a hot-air balloon over Magaliesburg. Bill Harrop’s “Original” Balloon Safaris does hot-air balloon adventures. Hot-air balloons are fantastic because you have that floating sensation and it's silent for periods, and then there's this burst of noise from the burner. Floating above the treetops is a fantastic way to view the bush.
On where to eat
It’s quite cool to go to Alfie’s Italian Cafe in Hazelwood with your family. When you find a spot that's got decent pizza, you frequent there. But it's not only about the pizza, it's about the environment, especially on the weekends. It has a real hustle and bustle, people rock up in their cool cars and on their bikes while you sip on gin and tonics.
On where to stay
Mongena Private Game Lodge has different accommodations. There's a little tented camp on the dam, which is really nice. There's also lodge accommodation in well-appointed chalets. There's a nice restaurant called the Kingfisher, and it's one of my favourites. I go there quite a lot because Mongena also has an airstrip and I do a lot of anti-poaching flying for the game reserve. After a few hours of flying, it's nice to go there for a coffee and a breakfast. It's open to the public and it’s not far off the N1 highway, so you can drop in and get a good breakfast while enjoying the view of the dam.
On where else to go in South Africa
I know it's going to sound a bit clichéd because everyone says it, but we have a lot to be proud of with Kruger National Park. It's a couple of million hectares. The nice thing about it is it's accessible to everyone. You can get in your car and go to Kruger and camp in the designated campsites, drive around for days on end, seeing the wilderness as it should be. It’s a must for me, as a nature-lover. And there’s a place very close to my house called Buffelsdrift Trail Park, which has incredible mountain bike routes — I mean, some that will really kill you. You can do some really hard trails or some beautiful walking trails; you can trail run. It’s a family outing — take the dogs, the kids. It gets them outdoors and off technology.
‘You never know who you're going to inspire, and those people could be the future protectors of this land.’
On your thoughts about safari
I get off on seeing people's excitement when they see animals for the first time. It's really cool. And when you introduce people to something that they suddenly connect with, they will think more about wanting to protect it. There's merit in taking kids to these areas to showcase it rather than just seeing it on your telly. It's not the same thing. You never know who you're going to inspire, and those people could be the future protectors of this land. We have every reason to be proud of our animals in these areas, and we should be protecting them better.
On seeing the Big Five
People come to game reserves just wanting to see the Big Five; when people don't see one of those animals, they get upset and disappointed. But if you just looked at that little water monitor, or that blacksmith lapwing with her little babies, fighting for survival, it's insane — I even stop for impala because they’re so spectacularly beautiful. It’s also all about the guides; sometimes, if you do a self-drive, you overlook so much because you don’t have knowledge. I like to inspire people to see things through a different lens, because it’s not just about the lion and the leopard. If you can get people to be enthused and passionate about those species, then when they see the others, it’s a bonus.
On how to ethically experience South Africa’s wildlife
When coming to South Africa, try and speak to people in the know in the area, especially when it comes to animal interactions. I would be very sceptical about recommending places to go to actually interact with animals. I think most of these establishments operate as businesses. A red flag for me would be if it’s a business, and not a rehabilitation or rescue nonprofit organisation. I would be very careful about saying you must go somewhere because you can feed the giraffe or pick up the lion cub or walk with the cheetah.
On the concept of ubuntu to you
Ubuntu, for me, is about community. It's about helping people. A lot of the time we can become quite isolated and mean in the way we exist, and we only realise the meaning of ubuntu when we’re broken down on the side of the highway and some total stranger stops to help us. I think there is the spirit of ubuntu in South Africa, despite the past and our differences.
On a window or aisle seat
I’m definitely a window-seat person, because I like to see everything.
On a song that sums up Gauteng
I would have to go with a song by Johnny Clegg: ‘Great Heart.’ For me, it's a song about needing the courage to make it. This place can be quite hectic, you need a lot of courage and stamina to go with the daily grind.
On Gauteng in one word
It's eclectic, that's the one word I would use to describe it. Gauteng has a lot on the go. It's a hustle and bustle. It's where all the go-getters are, and we have a lot of cultural diversity.