The Lion Park

Electric/barbed wire/metal spike fences, sprawling shantytowns, racial divides . . .
Lion cub petting, bunny chow chowing, spectacular topography flyby-ing . . .

Benoni, South Africa
You think Africa would be a cheap place to travel, huh? The thing is, aside from being averagely priced [by San Francisco standards], when you’re a tourist and can’t get yourself around easily there are what you might call “convenience” fees tacked on to all of the upfront costs. Relying on a driver for transportation, a delivery service for meals, and generic tchotchkes for gifts . . . these add up. So if I had known before getting into the car that a half-day excursion was going to gouge me 1150 Rand [about $170] I might have reconsidered.

Instead, off we went to the lion park, way way, ovah theah! waaay far, see that theah? and utha side! wooo! – according to the driver, Vincent, who couldn’t tell me anything about what direction it was, how many kilometers away, or the amount of time to get to this place except that it seemed to be perpetually past the horizon. He was equally enthusiastic about how terrified he was of the lions. “They take you, in tha car, like this. And when you go in, and theah! And they theah, yah! They take tha chickens. And ooh!” he shuddered and grimaced. “Lyin’ right theah! They theah! So peaceful. But some people yah, they think they smart. And they go brush. Ooh!” And the drive home, after I confirmed that yes indeed, on the tour they were actually lying right there, “theah!” I’d think he was pointing out something on the side of the road – the many construction workers, or the tenth time showing me the tall buildings of Sultan City off in the distance, but no, it was just the lions again.

And finally there we were! Turning into a gate under a small “Lion Park” sign, Vincent cackled at the cars that were driving out, implying that they were all running away scared.

I paid 175 Rand, negotiated in Sotho between Vincent and the cashier, for a guided driving tour and the Touch A Cub area. The animal enclosures were pathetically tiny, sparse compounds, maybe a single stubby tree in the withering grass: two cheetahs, a brown hyena, and a huge giraffe leaning over into an elevated viewing platform. A man offered me some grassy pellets to place on the good nine inches of gooey grey tongue flicking in and out of the giraffe’s mouth – a wet slurp and gone. Its head easily cleared mine as it swung back and forth looking for more handouts, cheeks larger than dinner plates, the length from nose to neck half my body.

Two tiny babies of some canine-like variety looked especially weak and lost in their shade-less pen, with nothing but a small log and a plastic cat carrier to entertain them. It was baby season, and there were also three scrawny meerkat kids scrabbling at a bowl of food and a two-day old giraffe just learning to walk, as well as miniature antelope seen out in the fields later. The baby giraffe, a head taller than the workers who gathered around the cage, had bulbous knees that buckled in all directions as it stumbled around a small circle. We were told she had been rejected by her mother, who was human-raised and had no clue what to do with a child, and so would have be taken care of by the park trainers.

And finally the advertised cub cage – the ones abandoned by their mothers for being sickly or an only cub were brought up here. Except for one girl who paced a seven foot length of fence near the door, the rest were sprawled and resting, completely ignoring the visitors’ fawning attentions. Their fur was coarse but not unpleasantly so, and longer and softer around the face and ears. One large man insisted that he be shot by a park photographer with the pacing cub, grabbing at her as she attempted to avoid him in the middle of her path, the photographer trying to convince him to go over to the sleeping ones, until the cub finally gave up and slumped against a tree for a few seconds, long enough to snap a series on automated shutter as he posed with a smug possessive smile.

I boarded a fence-sided safari truck for a tour of the larger enclosures, sitting behind a dumpy couple in pseudo safari gear with National Geographic worthy camera lenses and a man with a hick mohawk and a baseball cap cupped around the skinny top part of his egg-shaped head. Our guide was a sassy blonde who looked about sixteen, skinny and browned with an upturned nose and an Afrikaaner accent. We drove into a huge field with huddled herds of different kinds of antelope, a handful of zebras, and wildebeast. Did you know that zebras see in color, are grey under their stripes, can abort a baby at will to distract and satiate a predator, and fart loudly when startled? And the blesbok – an antelope named for the white “blaze” on the front of its face, and nicknamed the yahbok because of the way it agreeably nods its head all the time – has no survival instincts, rather everyone in a herd does the same thing at the same time, be it eating, walking, or sleeping; the nodding is a reaction to the worm that lives in its sinuses, a snot-eating symbiotic relationship except that the worm tickles. Or how about the one time they brought a lion couple on a walkabout at the far side of the field and the male got it into his head that he wanted a wildebeast dinner; he charged and the wildebeast, being either very clever or very stupid, charged as well. Once the lion realized that the wildebeast was approaching him faster than he was running, he turned tail and sprinted back to the trailer!

In the first group of lions was “the PE boys,” four prepubescent males known for the naughty things they did at a photoshoot in Port Elizabeth, and three ladies who were squirreled away with the boys when their father decided they were mating material. None were yet sexually active, though they certainly seemed large enough, and so they had no problems hanging out in a happy coed pile. At one point one of the girls leapt up and rushed to the side of the other truck where a toddler had caught her attention. She sat, staring hungrily, until they pulled away. Later a boy came over and stood up on the side of ours, peering into the cab, while the guide yelled and smacked his paws to get off. The guide told us about the three fatalities they’d had: a Taiwanese couple who decided it was safe to get out of their car and kick a sleeping lion, and a man who claimed he was a lion whisperer and wanted to commune, turned away by the trainers only to return at night, cut through the fences, and get mauled [amusingly, the lions ate only his penis and rejected the rest]. If only they’d had Vincent to warn them of the dangers!

The king of the park was a magnificent beast with a huge black and brown mane – a well-fed but still cranky Scar. He hated cameras and charged if he caught you looking too long, once slamming into a tour truck hard enough to nearly tip it over. Beautiful, powerful, a perfect specimen. In fact, all of the lions were sleek and healthy, not the scruffy, saggy-bellied animals you see in zoos in the US.

So, money well spent? I suppose so. It was no safari [a couple from LA was at the guest house for two nights, on their way to a lavish excursion that included “tents” with indoor pools and spa services and cocktails in the bush] but a poor girl’s approximation. Although I think I’ll rent my own car next time . . .

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