ON THE CAIRO-ALEXANDRIA HIGHWAY, Egypt — As the sun set over the Zambezi, a lone zebra ventured to the water's edge for a cooling drink after the hot day, apparently unconcerned about predators or other danger.
After all, why worry? This was not an untamed river in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Zambezi Rest Stop, just off a busy highway linking Cairo and Alexandria, and the only predators in the vicinity were two lions lazing behind the secure fence of a large enclosure. The free-roaming zebras, gazelles, springbok and other wild animals have no fears at the Africa Safari Park, where guests watch them from their cars or from the terrace of the Zambezi, a restaurant overlooking a man-made lake.
The park, landscaped to mimic the African veldt, for now aims to lure curious commuters who have an hour or two to spare on their journey between Egypt's two major cities. By next summer, though, owner Tarek A. Makarem envisages the park as a longer rest stop — he is building luxury guest houses that will let visitors live a longer safari experience.
"When I finish, this park will be the fourth pyramid in Egypt," Makarem said, clearly proud of his achievement in turning the flat desert expanse into an African-style grassland, with hills, rocky outcroppings, a small scenic lake and waterfalls.
Makarem, who decided to build the park after taking a safari in South Africa, is following an eccentric wildlife trend along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. At least three of the main rest stops that break up the 135-mile journey host small zoos housing lions, tigers, a variety of antelope, apes and bird species.
Egyptians are cautious about animals; pets are an almost alien concept and the Cairo Zoo — which regularly hears criticism over the poor conditions and unhealthy animals — is more of a public park to stroll through on holidays than an animal attraction.
The visitors to the small zoos along the Cairo-Alex highway one hot summer day seemed mostly curious about the caged animals, not knowing whether to approach them, feed them or heckle them.
Master's Zoo, at the busy Master's rest stop almost halfway between Egypt's two largest cities, is still stocking its large garden with animals — for now, interested visitors stretching their legs from the drive can see caged peacocks and Chinese geese, white mountain goats and a few gazelles in a sunken circular pen with a cave providing shade, a couple of isolated monkeys, and, strangely, three German shepherds and a Rottweiler in a kennel at the far end of the well-kept park.
A bit further down the road to Alexandria, speeding vehicles rush by a pen of ostriches just off the highway at the Omar Oasis restaurant. Few guests stopping for a meal here venture out to the few cages of animals. The largest pen, a 35-foot-long narrow enclosure, holds about 25 spotted deer, crowding into the shade around a stone water trough. When a playful 8-year-old named Ahmed — who said he asks his parents to stop at the tiny zoo on every trip to Alexandria — brought bread from the restaurant, the deer scrambled to their feet, flocking to the fence and almost desperately nosing each other in competition for a scrap of food.
The third animal pit stop — Assad, or lion in Arabic — is a more like a jungle-theme restaurant. The entrance is the mouth of a tiger; three sleepy lions rest on a molded rock outcropping just inside the gate; and cages containing ostriches or monkeys are just feet away from the dining tables, which sit under stuffed wild animals in aggressive poses hanging from the rafters. Deeper in the mini-park is a circus cage for the once-a-week lion and tiger shows; Assad is home to six lions and about 12 tigers.
Sensitive to questions about the care of the animals, workers at each of the small zoos insisted that the animals had regular checkups from veterinarians and were cared for by trained employees. Their statements could not be confirmed, as the owners of each zoo could not be reached.
The animals in the private zoos did seem to have better health, and for the most part, better living conditions, than those at the Cairo Zoo, which has for years been called to account by animal rights activists and concerned visitors who see the animals suffering from neglect, cramped living spaces and poor veterinary care.
Makarem, owner of the Africa Safari Park, said he has employed a veterinarian from the Cairo Zoo to come once a month to check his animals, which he imported from across Africa, and all of the employees were trained by experienced animal trainer.
Even before its official opening, though, one unique element of the safari park raised the eyebrows of some. Each Friday, guests can gather at the fenced lion enclosure and watch the female "hunt" a live pig placed at the far end.
Makarem refused to answer questions about the so-called lion hunt, saying it was a minor part of what the park offered to Egyptians — a chance to see wild animals in an almost-natural environment, a safari without the expense of travel to southern Africa.
"I feel the animals are in their natural place," Makarem said. "They have water, hills, grasses. It's freedom for them."
The park is a driving safari — an entrance fee of about $8 lets vehicles follow the trail through rolling grassland where one can spot grazing springbok and zebras. Around one corner, two chimpanzees screech for attention — and food — from a tall rocklike formation in the middle of a small lake. At one enclosure, an employee places apple bits all over the vehicle and guides it through a gate: suddenly at least half a dozen baboons swarm the car, climbing on the hood and roof to snatch the food, sitting on the car while they munch their snacks and the visitors watch through the windows, having been warned not to open them to the animals. A roofed enclosure features birds of all sizes and colors flitting to and fro above the vehicles, chirping incessantly.
Animal trainers wander by foot or bicycle through the park, making sure the visitors maintain their distance from the animals, or pointing a lost car back to the trail.
The safari ends at the Zambezi Rest Stop, a restaurant overlooking the lake.
Makarem plans to bring in rhinos, giraffes and elephants before opening the park as a hotel resort next year. He will also incorporate a shopping mall and a park for children.
"I'm convinced that this will be a place for Egyptians to be proud of," Makarem said, gazing out over the lake he created in the desert.