A walk in the wild

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am

Playing with lions or riding on the backs of elephants is something I never imagined I would do - until I arrived at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, southern Africa.

I graduated from the German Swiss International School last summer and did not know what I wanted to study, so with my parent's approval I decided to take a gap year.

As I love animals and travelling, I decided to look for a voluntary job in Africa. Searching the internet I found Antelope Park, a sanctuary for lions and other animals.

It is a 1,214ha park and every day tourists from around the world go there to walk with lions, swim with elephants, go on game drives to see giraffes and zebras, or horse riding.

When I arrived in Zimbabwe I discovered that my job was to guide these tourists and lead the activities. I also had to clean the lion enclosures, chop up meat for them and feed and look after the cubs.

In my first week when I saw the guides go into the lion enclosures I thought: 'No, no, never in my life am I going to do that!'

But I soon got used to waking up and being greeted by a lion cub at the door, and found myself playing with the lions as if they were puppies.

After 21/2 weeks I was carrying cow's legs or a rib cage as if they were vegetables. Everyone who knows me knew that was unusual. When watching animal programmes at school I used to close my eyes whenever an animal got eaten or there was any sign of blood. But somehow my perspective changed while in Africa. I knew that without food the lions would die, so dragging that cow's hoof across the floor did not seem bad at all.

I had to look after cubs from the age of two to seven months. The older ones were in huge enclosures in the middle of the park, where they were looked after by professionals.

I also learned to be a game guide which was not easy as I had to spot and talk about animals I had never seen before.

When one pictures a lion one thinks of this fierce, powerful mammal. And yes, that was also what I thought in the beginning and it's true. But if they get used to you they can be more gentle than a cat. I must admit that some people were not as lucky as I was.

One volunteer was badly bitten on her leg and had to have several stitches.

I also had a client who was on a walk with the lions when Eslam, a 12-month-old cub, decided he wanted to play with her and jumped on her back, which was not in a very nice state afterwards.

You just have to remember that they are lions and have their natural instincts. You have to be alert all the time. The only lions I got scratched or bitten by were the two- to five-month-old ones. When I fed them with milk in a bottle, they were so excited that their teeth and claws were everywhere.

Although many people discouraged me from going to a country such as Zimbabwe, I had the most adventurous and fun time of my life there and I hope to return one day and see the grown-up cubs.