*Disclaimer, these photos are low-res and all-different-dimensions because I’m on an island now and the WIFI is shit*
Quite by coincidence, it turned out that my old friend David Yarrow, a stonkingly successful wildlife photographer, just so happened to be in the Joburg area at the same time I was.
He was there for two reasons.
1) To take photographs of lions at a sanctuary run by the very famous Kevin Richardson, AKA the ‘lion whisperer’, and 2) To attend the 80th birthday party of Gary Player, who is a very famous South African golf legend.
I tagged along for both.
David Yarrow is Scottish. He used to do something to do with hedge funds, and was very, very good at it. Then about four years ago he quit that to do what really flicks his switch, which is photography.
Apparently, according to several separate sources, David was laughed at a bit when he revealed this plan.
But as it soon transpired, he was actually phenomenally talented in the art of taking photos and now he is Europe’s best-selling wildlife photographer.
Half the time, David wanders around in shirts and loafers and says ‘FUCK OFF’ whenever he answers the phone to telemarketers, in the manner of a hedge fund guy.
The rest of the time, he is following lions or driving around like a maniac, covered from head to toe in mud and mumbling through his teeth, which are almost always clenched aggressively around a cigarette.
So we spent the morning at Kevin’s sanctuary, where he has 25 lions and lots of land. It’s in the region of Pretoria, which is about an hour away from Joburg.
This is not a run-of-the-mill ‘sanctuary’ where tourists can go and cuddle lions – there are plenty of those, and they are almost all unethical and fucked up.
No tourists allowed here. Just Kevin, his small staff, and all the lions.
So I felt extremely lucky to sneak behind the high-security gates and get up close to these frankly re-donkulous beasts, because I refuse to buy a ticket into one of the afore mentioned ‘sanctuaries’.
The shoot – which resulted in a breath-taking monochrome photo that David would later auction at Gary Player’s party – went like this.
An enormous male lion called Bobcat was the subject.
He roamed around free, and the humans (all except Kevin) had to be in a cage. This is because it would take less than five minutes for Bobcat to kill a human, which he would, given half the chance (except Kevin).
So David had chosen a small marshy stretch of water shrouded by reeds, and set up his camera there, nestled on one side of the water, with the hope that Bobcat would leap over the water towards the camera and provide the winning shot. Spoiler alert – he did.
David conducted the shoot by remote control from a few feet away, where we were both standing in the small-elevator-sized human cage.
I can’t even begin to describe how cool this was to see (but I will a bit anyway), this enormous lion strolling right past us, all shoulders and thumping paws, his mane shuddering as Kevin coaxed him to jump over the water with hunks of carefully aimed meat.
At one point, Bobcat kicked the camera and at another, it drowned it in the mud and stopped working. But to his delight, as he loaded the memory card into the laptop later, David had the shot.
Just before we left, to my utter elation, Kevin let us go and see his new cubs.
I say cubs. These guys were the size of labradors, but much, much stronger and bulkier. And this time, we were allowed to mingle with them. No warning really. We just entered a huge enclosure and up came five of these gargantuan beasts, bounding towards us.
First they launched themselves onto Kevin, wrapped their front paws over his shoulder and clamped their jaws around the back of his neck. This is play. You will have seen puppies do it. Except this is much more hardcore.
Kevin wrestles them off, muttering to them in lion language (low gruntish roars) and they scatter off together, nipping and jumping and tackling one another.
Then it’s my turn. One locks eyes with me from afar.
“He’ll go for you,” Kevin says casually. “I know it seems counterintuitive but best thing to do is sit down on the ground.”
So I did, and before I knew it, BAM, I was bowled over and pinned to the dust, an adolescent lion going for my throat – and another going for David’s next to me.
Because I’m weird, this was one of the best moments of my life.
The lion was definitely only playing of course, you can tell this because his claws weren’t out and he didn’t sink his teeth in, he just swatted me with his floppy paw and mock-bit bit me. You know, like puppies do, except much more hardcore.
We tussled around like that for a length of time – couldn’t tell you how long because I had taken a brief trip up to heaven, so the clock stopped.
I also cannot convey in writing to you how strong these animals are. I have nothing to compare it to. But they are really, really, really strong. And magnificent. The whole thing was over way too soon.
As David all-but dragged me away, off to the car, to leave, I noticed a trickle of crimson blood worm its way down my forearm. A LION INJURY. I never want this to heal.
It was all I could think about as we drove our way perilously over to our next destination, Sun City, for Mr Player’s party. I say perilously because David is a dreadful driver. He blamed it all on the hire car but I suspect otherwise.
That night we stayed at quite a remarkable hotel called the Palace of the Lost City.
It can’t really seem to make its mind up about what it wants to be, this hotel. But it’s opulent, sprawling, gauche, Vegas-like, and architecturally astounding, all at the same time.
A bit Buckingham Palace, a bit Taj Mahal and a bit Indiana Jones.
I must confess that the next 36 hours were a bit of an inebriated blur. Gary Player’s party was very fun though (bar then dinner then auction then bar).
David was sporting a lion injury on his forehead and I was enthusiastically touting my arm scratch around.
The photo he took of Bobcat drew much admiration, and made a lot of money for charity (the Player Foundation) at the auction. I can’t remember how much because of the inebriation.
What I’ve gained for this leg of my trip is a solid plan for what I’d do if I won the lottery.
I would buy a bit of land in Africa, take in a load of rescue cubs, grow them into fully-sized lions, like Bobcat, never let tourists in, and instead join their pride.
This one’s for you, David.