It’s not easy to reach. But the road to triumph is always tough, especially in the world of Walt Disney where many a frog must be kissed to reveal a prince. In this case, we’re in the wilderness lands of Laikipia, Kenya’s heartland, following a tortuous path through thick khaki-coloured grass. It’s wide enough only to put one foot in front of another; and it winds down into a dry riverbed where we must slither and scramble over outcrops of quartz rock glinting gold in the fading light. From here it’s a steep uphill climb to the great crag of rock that rears up against the darkening sky. We’re at altitude, breath is short and we keep our eyes on the heels of the person in front.
Suddenly, or so it seems, we’ve arrived at the great grey rock. It’s hunched on the landscape like a gigantic frog about to leap. Just one short jump across the mouth of a deep crevice and we’re on its broad, flat surface. A vast apron of rock, it’s scarred by cracks and dimpled by puddles of water. Above us the darkening sky is pinpricked with the first diamond scatter of stars. Below us, the bush rolls away in great waves of gunmetal grey. In the far distance rise the massive shoulders of Mount Kenya, her jagged central turrets silhouetted against the sky. There’s a howling wind blowing up here; and it’s pushing us towards the edge of the rock from which it’s a murderous free fall to the ground below. It’s a very famous edge; and a very famous fall; because this is Pride Rock, the inspiration for the Walt Disney Epic, The Lion King.
This is a rock that’s familiar, in cartoon form at least, to literally millions around the world. It was for this rock that Simba the lion cub fought his battles. From this rock, that his father, King Mufasa, ruled the Pride Lands until he was murdered by his wicked brother, Scar. Atop this rock that was enacted the famous fight scene between Simba and Scar. And from this rock that Scar fell to his death in the jaws of the hyenas below.
It was in 1991 that the Walt Disney production team first came here. In Hells Gate National Park, Kenya’s dramatic geothermal park, they’d found the inspiration for their characters: the Pride lions, Pumbaa the warthog, Rafiki the monkey, Zazu the hornbill and the three wicked hyenas. But it was only here, in Borana, that they finally found the stage upon which their great drama, loosely modeled on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, would be enacted. It was an epic choice: The Lion King was to become the most successful traditionally animated film of all time.
Released in 1994, The Lion King won two Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride came out in 1998. The musical stage-play, The Lion King debuted in 1997 and is now the fifth longest running Broadway show. A photorealistic animated remake of the film will be released on July 19, 2019, which marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the original film.
Today, Pride Rock is famous for quite a different reason: it’s the most popular sundowner spot on the Borana Conservancy, in the heart of Laikipia, northern Kenya. In fact it’s so popular that it has its own Facebook page and must be booked in advance. We’ve been lucky. Tonight Pride Rock is vacant and we have its rocky stage all to ourselves. Now it is time to enact the famous Kenyan sundowner tradition, which dates back to the early days of the colonial era hunting safaris. The canvas bags are unpacked, an impromptu bar is set up. There’s a tray of canapés still warm from the kitchens of Borana Lodge and warm wraps, scarlet Maasai shukas, are handed out as we sit on a ledge to watch the sun go down over the wilderness lands of Laikipia.
Tomorrow, at dawn, others will come to Pride Rock to practice yoga as the great ball of the sun rises in the sky. Later, horse-riders might gather in its shade when their safari ride is over. In the late afternoon, walkers will gather here at the end of their guided walk. And as the curtain falls on another day, others will sit on Simba’s rock to look out over the Pride Lands.
Overhead shines a vast arc of stars. The crescent moon hangs like a bauble on the last vestiges of cloud. It’s time to pick our way back down the darkening path to the safari vehicle. Reluctantly, we turn our back on the Pride Lands. Suddenly there’s an eerie whoop, whoop, WHOOP in the night.
The hyenas are coming.