Living with Lions

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Africa » South Africa » Gauteng » Johannesburg
May 29th 2012
Published: May 29th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

It’s now two months since I left Africa, and I haven’t posted a single blog entry. I really do feel terrible about it. One of the reasons for this is that my last two weeks in South Africa were just so busy that I never had the time to write, and the other reason is that once I left there, I was so sad that not only did it hurt to write about the country I had left behind but it was also difficult to summon up the enthusiasm to write about the country in which I had just arrived. However, after repeated hassling from my friends (thank you, you knew it would get through to me eventually), I realised that it was time for me to get focused again. So, here you have it, a new blog entry, and I want to go back to when one of the most beautiful and amazing experiences of my life began.

It’s been so long since my last update that I’ll recap briefly. Trip to Kruger. Virus. Hospital. Injections. Cancelled flights. No Cape Town. Pretoria. Lovely B&B (must write review on Trip Advisor). This takes us up to the 19th of March. Now, this was a day that I had been looking forward to with just a little bit of trepidation. Having never done any foreign volunteer work before, I had no idea what I had got myself into by signing up to work with baby lions for a fortnight. I didn’t know what the work would entail, what the people would be like, if the program would live up to my hopes and expectations. And a new worry, that I hadn’t had to consider before…would I be well enough to really enjoy it? I pretended that my inability to walk without losing my breath just didn’t exist, nor that every mouthful of food still had to be swallowed with water, just to be safe. I didn’t want anything to ruin the part of my trip that I had most been looking forward to.

I was picked up from the B&B during the afternoon by a chap who introduced himself as Jonathan. I wasn’t sure how many other people were going to be picked up after me, so I settled myself in the back of the minibus with my backpack and made conversation with Jonathan as we headed out of Pretoria. About fifteen minutes into the drive, Jonathan invited me to sit up at the front with him. I wondered if he might pull over to allow this transition from back seat to front seat to take place, but apparently such maneuvers are acceptable in Africa when sailing along at seventy miles an hour. The section of my brain given over to self-preservation was very firmly shaking its head, but polite soul that I am, I dutifully climbed on over.

After a journey of about half an hour, during which Jonathan answered my many questions, we arrived at the Lion Park. I remember the exact moment that I knew I was going to love the place. It was when I noticed a giraffe, casually wandering about the car park, and Jonathan sighed and said, “He always escapes”. I was dropped off at the volunteer campsite, which is less than a minute’s walk from the main park, and I met the volunteer coordinator there. It turned out that as I was the final volunteer to be picked up, there wasn’t enough room left in the four person volunteer tents, and so I would have to stay in one of the guest tents for a few days until another volunteer went home and there was room. I really had no issue with that. My guest tent was lovely, with a double bed, air conditioning, a fridge, a large shower, and various other items that I expect to find in hotel rooms but which I consider to be trappings of luxury in tents. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on interacting with the other volunteers, because the tents were all in the same campsite, and really, I was glad to have the opportunity to keep getting better in private.

As soon as I dropped my backpack off, I headed up to the park and explored a little. The first things you see there are the nursery, which is closed to members of the public, and a big curio shop with a bar and restaurant outside. Beyond the restaurant is a path that leads to a number of large enclosures, so I made my way down there and got my first glimpse of the animals that I would be spending the next two weeks with. About fifteen lion cubs were divided into two separate enclosures right next to each other, whilst the two enclosures behind held some hyenas. Further away from these were bigger lions, and I also spotted some meerkats and, roaming freely beyond the barriers of the park, another giraffe as well as zebra, ostriches and various members of the antelope family.

A member of staff let me into the enclosure not being used for members of the public, and at this point, I should explain that the Lion Park is both a conservation and education centre. There are a number of lion camps on the game drive at the park, where the lions are able to live as wildly as it’s possible for them to live outside of a game reserve or national park. If cubs in these camps are ill at birth, or if they are rejected by their mother or she is unable to give them milk, or if they are at risk from other members of the pride, they are taken away and hand reared by staff. Once they’re old enough and they’ve had the necessary vaccinations, they’re put in ‘Cub World’, where visitors to the park can interact with them for five minutes at a time and have photos taken with them. The cubs are put into separate enclosures so that they’re not constantly being harassed by tourists, which is nice, as it gives them a break and it also gives volunteers the chance to spend time with them. When the cubs have grown enough, they’re reintroduced into one of the prides, or they might be sent to other parks.

There were a couple of other new volunteers in the enclosure that I had been let into, so I sat down on the dusty floor and had a chat with them, and after a little while, one of the cubs decided that I was worth investigating further. A white cub, with grey-yellow eyes, he sniffed at me for a little bit before flopping down in my lap and going to sleep. I couldn’t quite believe it. There I was, surrounded by baby lions, with one of them fast asleep on me. It felt like the most surreal and the most amazing thing I had experienced.

The white cub, whose name I learnt was Makunga (his nickname was Fat Boy, later changed to Big Boy – apparently political correctness exists amongst lions) didn’t get a chance to sleep for long. Another of the cubs, a golden brown one this time, came over and began attacking my flip flops. I learnt two things at this point. One, that this cub was Jameelah, one of the most dominant in the group who loved to chase and pounce and claim everything she sunk her teeth into as her own. Two, that cubs love to chew on shoes. I was glad that I had some closed shoes back in my tent, because I got more cuts on my toes that afternoon than I’ve ever got before. My toes being under attack had never been a concern of mine until that point.

The next day was the first day of work, and it didn’t take long to settle into a routine. Work started at eight o’clock every day, and some volunteers would be in the nursery for the first hour, preparing breakfasts for the cubs, whilst the rest of us would be cleaning out the enclosures. This was done on a rotating basis so that everyone got a fair chance at being on feeding duty. Although, making up meals of horse meat, milk powder and boiled puppy pellets could be just as messy a task as cleaning out enclosures and picking up after the giraffes who had escaped in the night. Each duty had their advantages. Being in the nursery meant being able to bottle feed the four little cubs who were too young to be seen by the public, as well as one of the older cubs, Daisy, who just hadn’t worked out that she was a lion and she was meant to eat meat like her brothers and sisters. Not being on nursery meant more free time to play with the cubs, because nursery duty was three times a day for an hour at a time.

Other daily tasks included selling giraffe food (pellets of bark and leaves) at 30 rand a bag, checking tickets on Cub World Gate, overseeing the public’s interaction with the cubs, and taking tickets as guests went through the gate for the self-drive game drive. All of the work was easily picked up, and as two volunteers or staff members were put on each task for two hours at a time, we would usually arrange it so that the shifts were split and we only had to do an hour each. This helped with giving us plenty of time with the cubs, as well as time to eat lunch or take care of laundry back at the camp. Sometimes we were given other work to do, over and above the daily tasks. The most tiring job I helped out with was picking up big piles of raked grass in the cheetah enclosure and putting them in black bin liners. It wasn’t so much the work itself that was exhausting, it was the heat. However, my reward for my hard work came from Masai the cheetah himself, when he sauntered over and sat next to me, and just started purring at me and licking my arm. That makes it into my top ten list of most memorable moments in my life.

A special mention should really go out to the two resident giraffes, Gambit and Purdy. Every single night, without fail, they would escape from their area of the game drive and we would wake in the morning to find them inside the camp or, if the gate had been shut and they hadn’t been able to get in, they would be in other areas of the park. They also escaped during the day, sometimes twice daily, and would just amble around the park until someone came along to herd them back to where they belonged. Gambit’s most impressive feat was managing to get into the outside restaurant, much to the delight of the guests and, it has to be said, the volunteers as well.

Gambit also features in two of my favourite giraffe memories of my time at the park. The first was when I was running from the outside shower block back to my tent in the middle of a storm one night. And for anyone who hasn’t experienced them, South African storms are impressive, and just a little bit frightening if you’re outside in them. I had my head down against the rain, and suddenly lightning flashed and illuminated a pair of giraffe legs right in front of me. I skidded to a halt just before impact, but it very nearly became an RTC between pedestrian and giraffe. The second incident occurred early one morning, at about six o’clock. I was woken by what sounded like plates being repeatedly dropped on the floor. Supposing I had been dreaming, I ignored it, but then, very much awake, I heard the same noise. It sounded like it was coming from outside my tent. I got out of bed, unlocked and opened the tent door, and peeked out in time to see Gambit knocking an empty bottle off the table, whereupon it landed amongst all the other debris that he had, for some reason, decided had no place on the table. We looked at each other for a moment, and then he wandered off down the row of tents, using his nose to knock things off tables as he went. I just shook my head and went back to bed.

An advantage of not keeping a daily diary of my time with the lions was that I could just relax in the evenings, and spend time with my friends without having to worry about writing up that day’s events. A disadvantage of doing it this way is that there’s so much to say, and you, dear readers, have to sit here until the bitter end. If this was on ITV, right about now is when they would go for an advert break, so if you want to go and make a cup of tea, feel free, and I’ll just wait until you get back…

One of the great things about volunteering at the park were the many excursions that were arranged for us, and the two days off that we were given to either hang out around the park or to do sightseeing of our own. Early on in the program, the manager of the park took us all out to Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg, where we had dinner at a restaurant called Lekgotla. There was a buffet laden with traditional African fare, but I chose off the menu and had springbok carpaccio and Ethiopian coffee steak, which was grilled beef marinated in coffee and Kahlua. The atmosphere at the restaurant was great, with traditional song and dance being performed, and a lady painting African designs on our faces for a small fee. I also tried a Cape Malva pudding, which was spongy in texture and tasted of caramel. I hadn’t intended to have it, and only did so because it came well recommended, but I was glad I chose it – it was one of the yummiest desserts I’ve had!

A safari to Pilanesburg National Park was arranged for us on the third day of our placement, but I decided not to go. I’ve made a point of saying ‘yes’ to as many things as possible since I left England, and although it would have been nice to go on the safari with my new friends, I was still getting over being so ill, so I thought that it would be best to take the opportunity to have an extra day off and just relax. Also, it wasn’t as though I had never been on safari before. Having visited the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, plus the private nature reserve at Balule Plains, I had seen my fair share of wild animals.

I did, however, go on the excursion to a nearby crocodile farm, which wasn’t really my thing, but interesting to see and learn about all the same. My favourite trip out of the Lion Park was to Glen Afric, where visitors have the opportunity to take part in an elephant walk through woodland and fields. As the name suggests, you walk with a small group of elephants, a female called Three, so named because it was written on her crate when she was rescued as a baby, and the name just stuck, and also her babies – one biological, and one who she adopted. The walk lasted about an hour and a half, and it might sound cliché, but it was magical. By that point, I had already seen plenty of elephants since arriving in Africa, but being able to stand right next to them, with nothing between me and their trunks, was something really special. All of the elephants were gentle and docile, especially Three. Her handler explained that Three knows how much damage she can do to humans, so she makes sure to be careful with us fragile creatures! Occasionally she made a low rumbling sound, which we were told was her way of saying hello and voicing affection. I’m reaching into my box of clichés again, and pulling out the words ‘unforgettable experience’.

I’ve talked so much about the animals (and I’m still not quite done with that, so don’t get too excited) so now is probably a good time to mention the people. The permanent staff at the park were all helpful and funny and friendly, and one of the nice things was that they all understood that the volunteers wanted to spend as much time as possible with the cubs. They understood that whilst the lions are a permanent thing for them, we had limited time and would have to say goodbye in two weeks or three weeks or four. So sometimes they would cover shifts for us if we were having a busy day, so that we would have the chance for free time with the cubs, and every night after most of the permanent staff had left and the visitors had gone away, we stayed in the enclosures until it got dark. The cubs were at their most active once the heat of the sun started to fade, so thus ensued much stalking and pouncing, and rolling around on the ground, and various other games.

Some other people who more than deserve a mention are, of course, the other volunteers. I think that all of us were, and still are, in mutual agreement that we had a wonderful group of people to live and work alongside with. I commented earlier on in this blog, back when I was still on the overland tour, that it’s natural for there to be clashes when lots of different personalities are put side by side, but that just didn’t happen with the volunteers. Everyone was there for the same reason. Everyone loved Africa, and everyone loved the lions. I have very fond memories of pizza nights in the outside restaurant, or sitting around a fire at the camp and toasting marshmallows. We had the sort of unique experience that brings people together, and I know that I made friends for life during those two weeks. I also know that walking away from those little cubs at the end of my placement was harder and more upsetting than I had ever thought it would be. We all came to think of them as ‘our cubs’, and it didn’t take long for them to recognise us, to trust us, to actively look to us for protection when they were frightened. The moment that a cub wrapped his paws around my neck and clung to me because he was afraid of drums being played up in the restaurant by a traditional African dance troupe was something that I’ll never forget.

Seeing happy recognition in the lambent yellow eyes of six month old Kai, when he noticed that I was wearing the jeans that he had had such fun tearing to pieces the day before; watching Daisy eat her first piece of meat and sitting with her as she slowly worked her way through a whole bowl; acting as a chew toy for two month old Mikhaila, Sangera, Lakera and Lungi as they realised that, yes, they had teeth and claws, and they could use them; lying awake at night and listening to Letsatsi and his pride roaring up in the lion camps...all of these things will stay with me, and although I cried to leave behind the most memorable experience of my life, I know that it won’t be long before I find my way back there again.

Additional photos below
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29th May 2012

Soooo Cute!
How cute with the loveliest eyes!!! xxxxx
29th May 2012

Having just read your blog 'Living with Lions', I now understand why you've left your heart in Africa Emma and I just know that one day you'll return. x
1st June 2012

im glad i was one of the friends who hounded you for a blog about this because although you have told me about stuff it was good to re read them about laugh at your story all over again!!! xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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