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The real landscapes that inspired the Lion King – and 10 amazing ways to see them

By Brian Jackman - 10th July 2019

Africa - Somalisa Hwange National Park Zimbabwe - Children Walking Safari.jpg

Telegraph Travel’s safari expert Brian Jackman on the Kenyan plains which inspired Disney’s writers, his own fascinating lion encounters, and ten of the best lodges in Africa to have yours.

Why should lions have held the world in thrall since the dawn of history? As long ago as the seventh century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal had his royal palace at Nineveh decorated with magnificent bas-reliefs of lion-hunting scenes.

In Ancient Rome, the walls of the Colosseum resonated to the roars of lions as gladiators fought to the death with the king of beasts. Closer to our own time, Sir Edwin Landseer’s four bronze lions were set to guard the statue of Nelson, the nation’s hero in Trafalgar Square, and even in my lifetime I have watched spear-carrying Maasai warriors loping over the savannah to prove their manhood on a ceremonial lion hunt.

Celebrated in literature by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, lions have maintained their enduring hold on the national psyche, appearing on the shirts of the England football team and even entering our living rooms thanks to the popularity of TV wildlife documentaries such as The Big Cat Diary and Sir David Attenborough’s Dynasties series. 

But not since Born Free, Joy Adamson’s true-life saga of Elsa – the lioness she raised and returned to the wild – has anything gripped the public imagination like The Lion King. 

From its very beginning in 1994, the original Disney production took the world by storm, becoming the ninth-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Now, following his successful remake of The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau has created a similarly photorealistic state-of-the-art version for Disney that looks set to break all records when it is released in the UK on July 19. 

The story remains essentially faithful to the 1994 animated movie, revolving around a mischievous young cub called Simba, his father Mufasa and Scar, his wicked uncle. When Scar plots to usurp Mufasa’s place by luring father and son into a wildebeest stampede, his plans go astray. Only Mufasa is killed and Simba eventually returns as an adult to take back his land with the help of his friends.

Giving voice to the pride and their allies is a stellar cast featuring Donald Glover as Simba and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. Beyoncé stars as Nala, a lioness that was Simba’s playmate as a cub, and James Earl Jones returns to reprise the part of Mufasa. 

In their search for authenticity, Disney’s writers visited Kenya’s lion country, discovering locations such as Borana Ranch on the Laikipia Plateau, whose sweeping views and spectacular granite outcrops provided the inspiration for Pride Rock and the Pride Lands. 

Having seen the film you, too, may wish to follow in their footsteps to find the real Lion King, in which case Kenya is hard to beat. This is where I saw my first wild lion 40 years ago in the Masai Mara National Reserve, and the memory is as fresh as if it happened only yesterday.

I’d flown down by light aircraft from Nairobi at the end of the rains and the land was still green as we bounced from thermal to thermal over endless plains on which herds of buffaloes stampeded away beneath our wings. Even before we touched down on the rough dirt airstrip I knew it would be love at first sight.

The kiangazi was just beginning, the dry season that would tempt the migrating wildebeest to pour in from the Serengeti, and the ripening grasses had not yet been eaten down. Instead they stood tall, rippling in the wind like the waves of the sea towards a horizon so far away that it seemed like the edge of the world, heralding a time of plenty for the Mara lions.

We had driven out at first light to find the cats before they went flat and hadn’t gone far when I spotted an adult pride male perched on a termite mound. He was still quite a long way off, so I watched him through my binoculars, a magnificent sight with his mane backlit by the rising sun. 

Then he began to roar through half-closed jaws, and with every cavernous groan his breath condensed in the sharp morning air like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. All other sound ceased, as if the whole world was listening, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I thought: Who could fail to be hooked on lions after a moment like that?

You can read Brian Jackman's full article by downloading this PDF

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