Last week was just wonderful. I got to work on lots of cool projects.

Friday night, I went to DVD movie night with some friends. Saturday, I spent much of the day at work and then went to a nice cookout — they call it a braai — with a family that’s sort of adopted me here.

Because of my travel schedule — more about that in a moment — we suddenly realized that this was my last weekend in Johannesburg. So a few friends invited me Sunday for an outing to Lion Park, a nature preserve in Honeydew, an area northwest of the city.

Admission to this place isn’t cheap. A self-guided, self-driving tour of the lion settlements costs R130 per adult, which is $18.84 USD. For kids, prices start at R70 — $10.15 — and go down depending on how many children you bring.

We elected to take the guided tour in a heavily protected truck. That costs R195 per adult, or about $28.27. I didn’t really mind the cost. The money clearly goes to keeping up these beautiful animals.

The tickets they gave us were so detailed they practically needed a table of contents.

Most amusing to me was item No. 11:

The copyright in and to all photographs, both still and moving, remains vested in THE SOUTH ARICAN [sic] LION PARK (PROPRIETARY) LIMITED and may not be used for any commercial purposes.

So the Lion Park claims copyright over my photos, huh? Heh. Feel free to come after me, boys.

We signed up for the 11:30 a.m. tour, which promised us a close-up view of the noon lion feeding. Which sounded interesting. We had 90 minutes or so to kill in the meantime, so we went into the “petting zoo” area. Where we immediately came face-to-face with an array of warning signs.

A balanced diet. Hopefully, this doesn’t include tourists.

Even if a man-eating predator is chasing you: Please. Don’t. Run.

The animals here are not tame, we were told repeatedly. They are trained to some extent. But they’re not tame at all.

But try telling that to these giraffes. They’re eating food out of the hands of the tourists.

A booth sold small bags of giraffe food, which is the only thing you are allowed to feed them. The giraffes are very friendly. And very hungry.

I’ve always wondered what kind of sound a giraffe makes. I learned Sunday that they make no noise at all. Giraffes don’t have vocal cords.

Another interesting Giraffe fact: They don’t bite. The only thing they can do is kick. But they can’t kick forwards or backwards. They can only kick sideways.

Which is probably why this ostrich is keeping to the rear of his tall buddy.

In the field behind all this, springbok — the local type of antelope — sleep and zebras graze.

Just look at all the springbok. There were dozens of them.

The primary attraction in this section of the park, however, is an exhibit called “Touch a Cub.” The line to get in was huge. We spent a long time waiting, which is why I didn’t have time to feed a giraffe myself.

Let me take a moment to introduce to you my traveling companions for the day, three close friends from the group Science Fiction South Africa. From left to right here are Franz Tomasek, a financial whiz; Simone Puterman, managing editor of BizCommunity.com, which covers South African media; and Carla Martins, a business administrator and editor of SFSA’s quarterly fanzine, Probe.

Even at 11 a.m. or so, the day was turning out to be a hot one. Being nocturnal animals anyway, the poor lion cubs just wanted to sleep.

Still, they were gracious enough to allow us to pet them and to pose for pictures. This little fellow was very photogenic, as you can see.

I’m just grateful he allowed me to keep my fingers. Which is more I can say for these brothers.

I bent over to pet this li’l fellow and — moments after this picture was taken — he turned around and snapped at me. Scared the holy crap out of me.

None of us lost fingers or toes, in fact.

I can’t help but think the story would have been different had we visited at night, however.

On our way to the truck rendezvous point, we passed the meerkat area. This guy was at full alert, making sure no tourists came too close to his extended family.

The reason? The baby meerkats were out and about. The fellow on the right is about the size of a cell phone.

We shot lots of pictures of the meerkats and then high-tailed it in order to make our tour.

Now, the driving tour passes through several separate encampments of various animals and several families — called prides — of lions. You can drive your own car but it’s really much smarter to take the guided tour. Those are conducted from the backs of these trucks that are heavily enforced to be nothing more, really, than rolling cages.

I’m perfectly aware that lions can easily kill humans. But still, I was struck by a sense of overkill with all this protection.

Our guide — he said to call him “George” — was funny and knowledgeable. He also had a pretty good sense of when to ask the driver to pull off the dirt road and drive through the grassy areas in order to get us the best views.

We had barely left the boarding area when we paused to look at the giraffes, zebras and sprinkboks we had seen earlier. During George’s spiel, this fellow walked right up to our truck…

…stuck his mouth into the thin openings…

…and then gave the fabric roof a thorough licking. Apparently, something tasty had dripped there.

We also paused for the Sunday gnus.

(Sorry about that one.)

We got to the first lion area just as they were about to start feeding them. Dozens of cars jammed the road. George asked our driver to turn the wrong way up a one-way driveway, which is why we found ourselves with the closest, very best view of the actual feeding area.

This sounded like a great idea. Until a small pickup truck came roaring through the grass with the lions chasing close behind. Turns out, lions are much like housecats in that they are quick to pick up on patterns. They know they’re feed at precisely noon on Sunday. When that truck carrying their meat pulls into the camp, it’s like using the can opener at home. The lions came a-runnin.’

What came next happened so fast I wasn’t able to shoot it. Barely slowing down, a man in the back of the pickup truck picked up large chunks of meat and tossed them overboard. Where the lions each claimed a chunk for themselves.

I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. These lions are huge — much larger than a great dane. About the length of a Smart Car, I’d say. And they’re fast. And scary. They picked up these very large chunks of meat — the size of a child — and carried them away as if they were nothing.

That thing this female lion is carrying? It’s the leg of a horse.

Clearly, she ordered take-away. She hauled her drumstick into the nearby trees.

Then came the male lion, after his own dinner.

After checking the buffet, he selected his own meal…

…carried it just a few feet away…

…and then laid down and began licking it.

George explained to us that they feed the lions only once a week. These lions have the run of a large area, but they’re still in captivity. If they’re fed more than once a week, they’ll get fat and lazy.

They’re offered chunks of beef and horse. The lions prefer horse, George told us.

Apparently, the male lion in this pride ended up with beef. He kept looking over his shoulder at the female, chowing down on that leg of horse.

Suddenly, he decided her lunch looked better than his. And he wanted it.

The lions tussled for several moments. All this happened just a few feet away from us. A tremendous amount of energy was expended.

And I don’t mind telling you this was terrifying to watch. It was like watching a head-on train collision.

The male got his way, however. The female glumly picked up the beef and went back to her tree. The male stood there for a while, horse blood dripping from his tongue.

Assured his victory was complete, he sniffed at his second-hand dinner…

…and sat down to eat it.

It takes about a half-hour to eat a chunk of meat like this, George told us.

We were close enough to hear bones popping and see bits of horse flying everywhere.

Let’s just say I’ll be ordering my steaks very, very well done for the next few weeks.

In the next lion enclosure, we saw something very interesting. A staffer walking around, unprotected. The problem with driving around a wildlife area is that you have the occasional breakdowns. Not only was this guy unconcerned about the lions nearby, he was amused I was shooting pictures of him.

For the most part, this pride was dining peacefully.

These two brothers seemed more interested in challenging each other than in eating. While they tussled and stared each other down, several untended pieces of meat lay nearby.

George explained that in the wild, hyneas would have stolen the kill by now.

I couldn’t believe how damn close we were able to get to these lions. I couldn’t believe how enormous they were.

I lost track of how many enclosures we actually drive through and how many separate prides we saw. After a while, we found lions who had finished their meal and were laying down for a nap in the warm Sunday sun.

Naturally, all of us took photos. Lots and lots of photos.

Each lion seemed perfectly happy with one chunk of meat. With only a few exceptions, no one seemed interested in challenging another lion for her dinner. These four females rested in whatever shade they could find while their mate lounged nearly.

Our last enclosure included more white lions. These are not albino animals, George explained. They’re just colored white. Think of it as very, very blonde.

We ended our tour with a stop by the cheetah enclosure.

Cheetahs are not cats, George explained. In order to officially be a cat, an animal has to have retractable claws, and cheetahs don’t have them. In fact, George told us, geneticists say cheetahs are closer to being dogs than cats.

These two youngsters were busy staring each other down. Check out the ruffled fur along the back of the cheetah on the right.

Our truck deposited us back by the gift shop. The one thing I wish I had bought but didn’t: A crotch-grabbing monkey.

Simone, Franz and Carla brought a nice cheese-and-biscuit lunch for us. Biscuits, in this case, being crackers. We went down to the picnic area, selected a nice shady area and unpacked the food.

We planned for a big dinner, so our lunch was on the light side. Fabulous stuff, though.

We relaxed for a few minutes and debated what to do with the rest of the afternoon. It was such a gorgeous day — if a little on the warm side — we wanted to stay outdoors, if we could.

The Lion Park is not far from the lakeside town of Hartebeespoort, maybe 90 minutes northwest of Johannesburg. I’ve been there before, but it seemed like a nice day to drive up there and take a few more pictures.

The road across the dam is very narrow and has only one lane. Therefore, a stop light — they call them robots here — allows traffic to travel in only one direction at a time.

The water was this eerie shade of green. My friends explained that Hartebeespoort has suffered though a huge algae infestation this summer.

Just on the other side of the dam is a tunnel. Just through the opening and to the left, the road widens to two lanes and a long row of traffic waits impatiently to come back this way.

In addition to the actual town of Hartebeespoort — a bit of a tourist town, for obvious reasons — there are all sorts of heavily wooded streets and gorgeous little shopping areas along the edge of the lake.

This area is beautiful. Hardly anyone was out on the lake Sunday, perhaps because of the algae problem.

This picture shows the color of the water more accurately. Up close, you could see the algae swirling around the small waves.

Small mountains ring the lake. The one in the background of that shot is practically a master’s degree in geology all by itself. Note the pretty little houses along the side of the lake.

Oh, just what we need. To put our company logo on an overflowing garbage can.

We pulled off the road at this pretty little shopping center on a small strip of land between the lake and those mountains you see in the background.

Part of the reason I chose this place to pause: I wanted a picture of this sign.

I’m not quite sure how you’d attract customers to a shopping center with that name. Talk about a marketing nightmare.

In fact, the place was an eclectic mixture of art stores, restaurants, a dress boutique and a sports bar.

I thought about asking the price of that cute little two-piece orange number at lower right. But I figured they didn’t have it in my size.

In front of the nearby restaurant, we spotted something interesting…

…live chickens, strolling the grounds. Now that’s fresh poultry!

All too soon, it was time to head back to the big city. I had to pause on the way, however, to shoot a picture of the sign on the back of this truck.

What that sign means, of course, is the equivalent of “wide load.” But still. This is what cracks me up about traveling internationally. Words aren’t always used the same way we use them in the U.S.

My big regret about the drive back: I passed a huge sign warning that we were passing through a “carjacking hotspot.” I wanted to stop, turn around and shoot a picture of that sign, too. I didn’t, for obvious reason.

Still, that would have been an interesting addition to my collection of signs.

We drove to Hyde Park mall and ate dinner at a wonderful Chinese restaurant called the Red Chamber. Which was the perfect end to a perfect day.

I’m working at Media Park through Thursday of this week. On Friday, I fly to Cape Town, where I’ll work with the folks at die Burger for a week. I’ll return to Johannesburg on Sunday, March 27 and spent one final week here before departing for home Saturday, April 2.

I’m in my fourth month of consulting for a chain of South African dailies and Sunday papers to help improve their use of visual journalism. Go here to find a directory of previous blog posts about this trip.

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