It took smashing a chicken carcass with a butcher’s knife for me to question whether volunteering at a lion park was a good idea.
As winged insects swiped around my peripheral, I stood covered in partially hosed-down dirt in the South African heat of Ukutula Lion Park and Lodge. Yes, this place was beautiful - in a Lion King meets Lord of the Flies kind of way - but was a promise of working with lions on a rotating shift that I now knew included preparing their dinner really worth it? The inner-ranger in me thought so, and so I persisted. Fortunately as the days went on there was less wildlife MasterChef-ing and finally I was introduced to the cubs.
The three cubs were between eight and twelve-weeks-old and were housed in a playpen set amongst the bushveld. Their enclosure was blanketed in sand while broken tree trunks lay horizontal to create a habitat no different to that which you would find on safari. To appease the tourists and volunteers, a section is tiled, with a thatched roof to protect us from the elements.
As a volunteer my job description, and the reason I had flown more than 10,000km from Australia to Brits, included feeding and interacting with the cubs. I will never forget the moment the lead ranger passed a cub to me for the first time - its coarse fur brushing against my fingers and its sharp tongue scratching at my skin in the priceless moments that followed. A lion cub pouncing on my toes was reminiscent of an attack from a catnip-crazed kitten, while playing fetch with broken sticks was like interacting with an enthusiastic puppy in the park.
On one occasion I leaned back against the wooden fencing and closed my eyes, just for a moment. I breathed in the pungent stench of the African air and allowed the experience to sink in. However, animal instinct is sharp. I, as potential prey, had let my guard down and I was hastily awoken with the weight of a cub on my lap and the teething sensation of his jaw combing through my hair. He wasn't aggressive, but I was startled and yes, my breath was taken, for all the most adorably fortunate reasons.
Sitting among the dusty enclosure there were several pinch-yourself moments, not least of which involved a sleeping lion contently draped across my lap. At the same time adult lions, tigers and hyenas, who also called the 260ha property home, growled savagely from beyond while birds twittered from the safety of the skies. They are sounds I can still hear today if I close my eyes.
Later I would bottle feed even younger cubs that I was tasked to baby-sit in my room overnight. It wasn’t the kind of occupational health and safety that exists out of Africa, but that enabled an intensive travelling experience that blurred the line between the wild and the wonderful.
As it turns out, the realisation that for the next two-weeks I had regular access to creatures that would grow into kings of the jungle was nothing short of a priceless adventure. By the end I was most definitely convinced my cherished experience was worth cutting up a dead chicken for. Such is the circle of life.