The two lions, Rialda and Nalady, are about to come out. They had been brought to the park’s enclosure in a cage drawn by a van. They prowl restlessly.
We are meant to walk with them, stroke them, take selfies with them after paying Sh12,000 an hour. The irony weighs down on this event with as much intensity as the sun overhead.
Why? Because the day is World Animal Day and the two women I’m with at Lion and Safari Park on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, are from World Animal Protection.
As we stand there, there is an ongoing Wildlife Selfie Code petition to stop people from taking photos with wild animals.
I don’t think I have to worry about that now, I’m more worried that the lions might not be kinder to us when they are finally let loose.
Their handler is a big man without a gun, club, spear, or anything that looks like he can protect us. Basically, our goose is cooked. Or rather, we are about to turn into geese lunch.
We can’t outrun the lion because it can do an average 81 km/ph. It is also stronger than us even though it is obviously younger than us. But is there such a thing as a young lion, anyway?
“These girls are about 10 months old,” I’m told when I ask about their age.
Ten months, with those big mouths? The ‘girls’ like most lionesses can live together for life. The female cubs also stay with the pride, even after they are grown. The male cubs, on the other hand, must venture out once they reach maturity.
What isn’t coming out strongly here is the fear, the stark, crippling fear. A fear so fierce you feel it fill your bladder and dampen your palms.“This is a very bad idea,” I tell myself repeatedly. “I’m a black man, I have no business being here, doing this. This is not what we do.”
I want to leave. It’s the most sensible thing to do. But the main gate is too far. Plus I might run into more of these beasts along the way. Maybe even a full-grown lioness that can weigh anything like 120 kilogrammes. I’m only 87 kilogrammes. I can make a meal for five days.
But we are inside now and the man without the axe or gun or club is opening the cage. The lions look excited. Too excited for my liking.
“We have done this so many times, relax, it will be just fine,” he says, hands on the lock.
We stand together, as if that will dissuade the lions from attacking us. The door is opened. One jumps out. Must be Rialda, the lighter of the two. Nalady follows.
There is another gentleman, our driver, who is carrying a bucket of pieces of meat. He tosses them in front of us and the pair rush and eat them. He throws some at our feet and the pair rushes in again. Then they start rubbing themselves against us. I’m surprised they can’t hear my pounding heartbeat.
I’m surprised my heart hasn’t stopped.
The pair smell. I don’t want to say that they smell like lions because that wouldn’t help you, but they smell. Lions smell of hard fur, like a carpet that has stayed in the sun for long.
Deep in the eyes
The two have retractable claws that we see when meat is thrown between two trunks of a small thorn tree. Their teeth aren’t fully developed but they can kill with one bite.
“Don’t touch the head or the tail,” the game handler warns.
“Because that’s like someone touching your armpit, it can be irritating.” Of course, nobody wants to irritate Rialda and Nalady.
Actually, all I want is to get back inside the car. We take pictures with the ‘girls’ in what is called Selfie Tourism. They are posers. We crouch near them and take turns taking photos with our hands on their spine.
A lion’s spine is like steel under leather. It sends little electric impulses of fear into you. Their eyes —if you are brave enough to have eye contact with them— are sinister brown, revealing a million genetic differences between us and them.
You look into the eyes of a lion and you don’t see a tame lion, but an animal with the deadness of a creature unlike us.
The fear goes at some point. But it’s replaced with deep and consistent wariness. I read somewhere that you should never show a lion your back. So, I don’t. I trail behind them. I avoid their head. I wonder what would happen if you accidentally stepped on their tail. Thankfully, we don’t find out. We leave before our hour is up. We feel lucky. We survived.
“How did you feel?” one of the women from World Animal Protection asks me.
I don’t know how I felt, to be honest. There was fear. Then there was the romance that comes with standing so close to a lion.
Then there was the feeling that we were robbing these animals of their right to roam wild and be animals.