Thursday, July 10, 2008
The one who would not be king
I went to the Lion Park with Freya, her friends from America and young Lillian (7) and Kai (10) who were delighted to see wild dog pups, to touch and play with cubs, and feed a giraffe with a long sticky tongue.
Freya was playing messenger, as often happens when someone knows someone who is traveling 'down south' from Zambia. I think that's why people in my family are so incredibly secretive about their travel arrangements, lest they be asked to play courier. But that's another story. Freya was taking a laptop from Gail(who speaks lion, apparently) to the Lion Park people. The Lion Park people were deeply traumatised because the day before - a Sunday - there had been a hold-up and armed robbery there and a visitor had been shot. As one does on these occasions, you try keep the overseas visitors in the dark, downplay the situation, shut the child's ears.
Lion Park Guy: It was terrible. There were four carloads of them, and they took all our takings. Why they had to shoot someone I don't know...
Me: Come, Lillian, lets go check out the wild dog pups
Overseas Visitor: What was that they said about shooting someone?
Me: About what?
Freya: I think it was a guard
Me: look, Lillian, you can feed a giraffe
I find out later just how nasty the whole affair was - the robbers herded everyone into the restaurant area, presumably to take cameras from them, and a young guy steps out of the toilets holding his toddler and is shot dead.
I learn this from Alex the lion-trainer who has grown up in the circus and really does speak lion. He's full of quips like
'sure you can get out the vehicle but it'll be the last time you do it.'
In the meantime, the kids have a wonderful time and Freya the big game walker and ace safari guide gets to be guided. Alex takes us to see the white lions, who melt into the highveld bleached grasses and stare diffidently from icy blue eyes. They are amazing.
He also hugs and roughs up the glorious maned brothers who treat him like a sibling. All my years of lion training make me shudder to watch this. Yes, he has developed a relationship with them over 7 years. He grew up training big cats, treating them like family. But I'm with Ruby and Jemima, my cousins who, when they were both very little, went to the Joburg zoo. The blank-eyed lioness there was checking out a group of squawking gawking, jellytot eating city kids. She went into a crouch and her tail started to flick. My mom turned around to talk to Ruby and Jemima and they had disappeared. She found them hiding in the nearest bush, having slowly backed away. Yep, well trained girls. That's the school I come from.
This group here, these are the man-eaters, says Alex casually. Really. Someone got into the enclosure the other day, for whatever reason, and staff found the lions munching on human femur. He blames the cheeky lioness. But said that only one of the boys, one of the bigmaned pair of brothers was boycotting the whole affair, and had his back firmly turned, at a distance, passive resistance. Conscientious objector.
"how do you know they won't eat you?" squeaks Lillian.
"I don't. You never know that."
I'm not a big fan of places like this. I get a tight chest watching those cheetahs pacing round and round their ring, barely a paddock. They've got some beautiful gemsbok, some springbok, giraffe, hyena. All in separate enclosures, apartheid for animals. But I do respect Mr circus trainer, who clearly has a deep empathy for cats and loves his movie-star supermodel pride.
Over a picnic lunch the kids ask Freya to tell safari tales. She is like an ATM for stories. I tell them how my grandfather raised two lions and taught them to hunt. Long before I was born. How he 'returned them to the wild'. In the mellow light of the late afternoon, the conversation turns to hunting. The kids think its brutal, can't get the nuances of it all. I tell them my grandfather was an elephant control officer. That if he hadn't killed crop-raiding elephants for people to eat, people would have starved because the elephants had eaten their entire years' worth of food. They have just spent two weeks in the Luangwa and have had a thorough education from Freya and can tell the difference between giraffe poo and puku poo. But they're not sure about this hunting thing.
The light dips. I think of Alex telling me how the wife of the shot man fell to her knees when she came around the corner and saw her husband on the ground. I recognise the tone in his voice when he tells me. Its something you learn when you understand your place in the foodchain. It goes deeply beneath the niceties of civilized caring. Its compassion for predator and prey, no judgement, no disgust.
On the way home, the headlines of the Star assault us at every robot - "Lion Park visitor shot by robbers."