On landing at 11am local time, the captain informed us that the temperature was 11˚c - somewhat chiller than I had anticipated. Mentally, I was checking through my luggage to see whether I had packed clothing to cover this eventuality; it didn't look good.
Entering the arrivals hall, I had my very own paparazzi moment; everytime the doors opened and a bleary-eyed, recently-landed passenger came through, the sizeable welcoming crowd went wild, waving their tour operator signs vigorously, and yelling names in a bid to be heard above the crowd. Walking through with all eyes on me, each person willing me to walk towards their sign was somewhat unnerving, but I made it to the designated spot where I was meant to meet Mike, the guy responsible for delivering me to the Lion Park.
After a few minutes, there was no sign of the promised "Real Gap" sign, so I decided to do a lap of the arrivals hall.
Big mistake. Turns out the local taxi drivers pick up on signs of loss and confusion, immediately pouncing to offer their taxi services, touting for business before rival drivers get there. After being approached for the eighth time, as well as being surreptitiously offered knock-off plane tickets to other destinations, I learned that it was best to look confident, like I knew exactly where I was going and how I was going to get there (never mind that I was walking around in an ever-shrinking circle, scanning the crowd for the elusive Mike. Although I was still approached a few times, a polite but firm "No thank you" whilst still walking did the trick.
A phone call later, I managed to locate Mike, a very chilled out and helpful South African guy. Despite my apprehensions that I was the only volunteer he was collecting, and that I was therefore effectively getting into a stranger's car in a foreign country where I knew no-one and nothing, Mike was my only link to my final destination, so I trotted on like an obedient puppy.
The hour- long journey to the Lion Park was filled with Mike sharing his extensive knowledge of the park and, disappointingly, that South Africa was indeed in a cold snap, and had experienced a heavy hail storm that morning - bot quite the African Savannah dream I had anticipated!
We stopped at a supermarket en- route. Although I was provided with one meal a day at the Lion Park, I was expected to prepare all other food myself. It's difficult to know what foods to buy when you don't yet know what cooking facilities are available, so I stuck to the basics; pasta, bread, tinned fruit and cereal (I was very excited to find Froot Loops here in Africa, although later tasting proved them to be far crunchier than their American counterparts).
Parts of the journey to the Lion Park were shocking; several groups of people were sitting by the side of the motorway. At every set of traffic lights (or "robots" to speak the local lingo), people would approach the cars, trying to sell their wares - anything from toys, to sunglasses, to mobile phone cases - undoubtedly risking their lives in the process. One man stood in the middle of two lanes of traffic with a cardboard sign reading "I am hungry. Please help. God Bless." As developed as South Africa now is (the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg in the distance was testament to this) it, like any country, is not without it's problems. Mike's warnings of the dangers of central Johannesburg, particularly Nigerian drug dens, were further proof of this.
On arriving at the park, navigating around a giraffe who was standing in the road, I was shown to my accommodation, a semi-luxury shared tent, before being given a tour of the park.
Although the park was smaller than anticipated, the visitor part has plentiful facilities, including a restaurant, a bar and two gift shops. Most importantly, I got to meet the animals! The hyenas (spotted and striped -who knew?!?) and leopard enclosures are out of bounds to all volunteers, as they are dangerous animals. There are only two members of staff who can safely enter these enclosures, staff who raised the animals from a young age.
To my surprise, I was allowed to go straight into one of the lion enclosures, home to five lion cubs aged 3-6 months. I was expecting the typical British approach, having to undergo hours of safety training before I was allowed anywhere near the animals, but it turns out that South Africans are pretty lax about health and safety (and they have a jolly good time mocking the OTT British approach)!
Unfortunately I was still half asleep from my rough night on the plane, so was not fully able to fully enjoy my first ever encounter with a lion, something which I will always regret. What I do recall is being surprised at how rough their fur was; do not be deceived by the smoothness of The Disney Store Simba toys!
After my orientation I went to unpack (read: nap) and woke up a couple of hours later when the other volunteers had returned to the camp. My tentmates are a Brazilian girl named Andreia and an Italian girl called Speranza. Although there are volunteers from all over the world, there are many, many Brazilians! The atmosphere is very friendly, with all volunteers willing to help each other, despite the language barriers.
The highlight of my first evening was seeing the female giraffe, Perdy, casually hop over the fence into the main part of the park and stroll into the restaurant, a common occurence judging from the lack of reaction from staff and other volunteers.
|Perdy pops in for a bit of shopping|
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