Today, I went on my very first game drive. This is no small deal. This is a massive deal. I have dreamt of this since I was yay-high (I love that expression).
What I was not expecting, was that I would be so afraid of the big cats.
Paula (my guide, friend, and wildlife guru) says this is a good thing, because we should be afraid of them. Some of the twats in our group weren’t, which was bad (more on that later).
We spent the afternoon at Plettenberg Game Reserve, where we boarded an open, army-like safari vehicle and set off in search of the Big Five. Its gear stick jittered and rumbled around, its engine roared and spluttered, and it had no doors or windows.
“Lions are very fast,” our driver informed us. “If they wanted to, they could easily jump into this vehicle and attack us. They are also very unpredictable.”
He said this, mere feet away from a pair of lounging lions, as if he was reading out his shopping list for the week. Oh and don’t forget the frozen peas.
Seeing a lion for the first time in real life (happy, not in a zoo, yawning, shaking its mane) knocked the breath right out of me.
Its paws were the size of dinner plates, its chunky face the size of an old-school TV, its row of teeth the size of pocket knives.
Because they are well-fed and generally pretty laid back, it is very rare for a lion on a game reserve like this to attack a human or a vehicle. But it does happen.
Attacks happen, as usual, when humans are stupid.
It happened recently. An American producer got munched out of the safari car by a lion for being too eager with her camera. And when I say munched, I mean she died.
As a rule of thumb, they say, don’t lean out of the vehicle. Don’t have food around. Don’t aggravate or entice them. Don’t make sudden movements. Basically, don’t piss them off or lure them towards you.
Paula and I were joined by three rows of nightmare passengers behind us – loud, brash, cocky South African gawpers, along with their predictably loud, brash and cocky offspring.
The children jumped up and down. They squealed. The adults smoked cigarettes. They chomped on CRISPS.
I nearly lost my mind. Sometimes one of the lions would twitch its head towards all the commotion and eye us up with a flick of its rope-like tail.
My thoughts: “I love you lion. I respect your prowess. I wouldn’t blame you in the least if you ended the lives of these wankers, but please don’t get them mixed up with me.”
My words to the driver: “If a lion charged, how fast could you drive away?” – His response: “Not fast enough, but I’d try.”
“What if the car stalled? What if it wouldn’t start?” – “That doesn’t usually happen.”
“Yeah but has it ever happened?” – “Yes.”
“How long does it take for it to kill a human? Do they eat you alive or, hopefully, snap your neck first?” – “Snap your neck.”
“Ok, so say it did attack us, would it pick off the children first, you know, because they’re small?” – “Yes.”
That last one made me feel a lot better.
In summary though, I couldn’t have been more entranced or humbled by these big cats.
For one of the first times in my life, I understood, a little, what it must feel like to bow down to a god (I don’t capitalize ‘god’ because I don’t pay religion any respect at all – I think it’s silly, at best, and terrifyingly evil, at worst).
So really, you could say that to me, looking into the face of this particularly magnificent male lion, or this regal female cheetah, was like looking into the face of god, to an evangelical bible basher.
These giant cats made me feel small. They made me afraid, they made me feel awe, they made me feel like if anyone else disrespected them I’d give them serious trouble, they made me want to write worshipping poems about them, and above all, they made me feel humble.
Actually, they made me feel like I should capitalize their names.
This one’s for you, Lion. And also for you, Cheetah.
Next up: Monkeys, the dark side of animal ‘sanctuaries’, and living in a house with gap year volunteers… which turned out to be more fun than I ever could have predicted…