Do you ever wonder how you survived your childhood? This is a question I ask myself frequently. Sometimes I think we survive in spite of our parents, rather than because of them. [Note to mum. Just joking.] Let me tell you the story about the day my family was nearly eaten by lions.
I haven’t been to Africa, but recently my brother went on holiday there and he came back with some amazing wildlife photos. I loved the photos but I became obsessed with knowing what kind of vehicle he and his partner traveled in, where they stayed, and if they camped in a tent, what prevented the predators from, well, predating. I also follow the blog of a South African wildlife photographer, and the same questions occur when I see photos of his family camping in tents in wildlife reserves. I could ask I suppose, but maybe it is better not to know. Less anxiety-inducing. Still, my brother’s experience has jogged a long forgotten memory. I’ve been getting flashbacks. Truth is merging with fiction. [Cue violins playing. Maybe a few clarinets too. Cut to the theme tune for Out of Africa.]
When I was a girl I lived on a farm in western Sydney. In the 1970s, western Sydney was a pretty wild place. Some might say that it is still pretty wild. They have a football team called the Panthers and plenty of utes. I digress. Anyway in the 1970s, if you were really lucky, you could encounter a pride of lions or two in the wild west at the foot of the Blue Mountains. You see from 1968 to 1991, western Sydney was home to Bullen’s African Lion Safari, a 400 hectare property where lions, tigers and cheetahs were able to roam free. The general public could also roam freely with the lions, albeit safe within the confines of their vehicles, viewing magnificent beasts in their ‘natural habitat’. What a treat, right? But for whom?
My father considered himself a bit of an adventurer. Still does. Maybe it is a man thing or maybe it’s a dad thing. One summer’s day, my dad loaded my mum and us two kids (the third not yet having made his debut in this world) into his dark green Sandman panel van to go on safari. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to western Sydney in the middle of summer? If you have, you’ll know it is fucking hot. Like 40 degrees centigrade in the shade. Okay, that was last century, so probably only mid-30s. Still, very hot. In the Sandman, it was even hotter. The Sandman panel van was a classic car. It was built sturdily for the tradesman or the hoon. My father was both. The car had two front seats but no back seats, and no side windows in the ‘cargo’ area. It also had no air-conditioning. No car did. My sister and I were the cargo and we sat in the back on a mattress, which was kind of fun, except if you suffered from motion sickness.
It was quite a drive to the lion park so it was already mid-afternoon by the time we got there, my father timing our arrival to coincide with the hottest part of the day. Did I say it was fucking hot? I was about seven years old, so probably the words “fucking hot” didn’t occur to me, but I am sure they did to my mother. But not my father. I probably thought that I would like to stop and get an ice-cream or a cold, fizzy drink. My memory is hazy on the finer details, but knowing my dad, who was made of tough stuff because he was a construction worker who worked outdoors all day, we probably didn’t stop to cool down before entering the park. And it would never have occurred to my parents to bring a bottle of water from home. A hard-earned thirst requires a big, cold fizzy drink and you can’t get that at home.
Every year, about 200,000 lucky people visited Bullen’s African Lion Safari, and there was often a long queue to enter the park. The park was double-fenced and there was one entry and one exit. You can imagine how fucking hot it was in the back of the Sandman waiting in the queue. All may not have been well even before we eventually made it through the gate.
To Be Continued.