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Florida Travel: At Lion Country Safari, Rhinos Have the Right of Way

An all-too-close encounter on safari



 

When I decided to take a day trip to Lion Country Safari—the drive-through animal park 20 miles west of West Palm Beach—I invited my friend with the sturdiest car.

“This isn’t dangerous, right?” he asked as we set off across the state.

“Oh, no,” I said, waving a dismissive hand.

But when we reached the park and I saw the sign posted out front that read, “Rhinoceroses have the right of way,” I wondered if my friend weren’t right to be concerned.

We crept through the gates at a cautious 8 miles an hour, on the lookout for wild animals. In the first habitat, meant to simulate the South American pampas, a couple of giant tortoises munched placidly in the grass while a lone tapir stood amid a flock of brown pelicans.

“See,” I said, “not dangerous at all.”

But in the next section, we had our first run-in—with an impala, of all creatures. He stood higher than the car with horns that stretched another 3 feet from his crown. He had black eyes and nostrils that flared angrily as we inched past, only feet away. His herd of 20-odd females grazed in the distance, seemingly unconcerned by the trail of cars that passed.

“Go slowly,” I said to my friend. “I want to get a good look at him.”

The buck glared at us. I could see the long lashes above his liquid eyes, the ridges on his spiraling horns and the pointed angle of his hooves.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” my friend said, “before he gets really mad.”

The next few habitats passed without incident. A herd of blackbucks pranced in the grass, rolling and frolicking, and a group of wildebeest lay stretched in the sand. We passed watusi and oryxes and gemsboks, and we drove through the lion enclosure where the big cats napped in the shade. A long-necked ostrich came close enough that my friend fretted about his windshield wipers, but after leaning over to peer into the window the bird high-stepped away. I patted my friend reassuringly on the arm.

We were nearly to the end, at the Hwange habitat, meant to simulate the largest game reserve in western Zimbabwe, when we saw a sign similar to what we’d seen at the front entrance. “Rhinos have the right of way.”

I laughed nervously, and my friend cut his eyes at me. We drove slowly into the habitat and spotted a pair of rhinos in the distance.

“Nothing to worry about,” I said.

My friend stared straight ahead, both hands on the wheel. “I hope you’re right.”

It wasn’t long before we reached the lake, its banks crowded with a herd of zebra and—in and among them—rhinos. These were the southern white rhino, docile compared to their cousin the black rhino, but still intimidating with their heavy horns and frames like Mack trucks. The line of cars in front of us, which had been creeping forward at a slow pace, came to a stop. I looked, and three car lengths ahead a large rhino stood in the middle of the road.

This was the moment I started to sweat.

She was bigger than I’d imagined and more solid. If she wanted to do damage—real damage—it wouldn’t take much. My friend and I sat in silence, struck dumb by her size, as the rhino ambled across the road, made a turn and headed toward our car. We were stuck in a gridlock, unable to move forward or back, and the only thing to do was sit there and admire her. She came just inches away and gave us a sidelong glance before continuing on.

We let out the breath we’d been holding, looked at each other and laughed a mad laugh. You’d think we’d just escaped being trampled.

Read more: The Best Florida Day Trips

If You Go ...

Lion Country Safari is open every day of the year from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., though the entry gates close at 4:30 p.m. The safari habitats take a little over an hour to drive through, but you’ll want to budget more time if (like me) you like to stop and watch the animals.

There’s more to Lion Country than just the safari. Once you’re done with the driving tour, it’s worth parking and visiting the rest. There are enclosures for smaller animals like porcupines, iguanas and macaws as well as a petting zoo, paddle boats and rides aimed at younger children.

If the drive-by animal encounters weren’t close enough for you, don’t miss the giraffe feedings. Held throughout the day, they give visitors and wildlife the opportunity to be even nearer. 2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee, FL 33470; (561) 793-1084; lioncountrysafari.com

 

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