Our task, on the face of it was simple; meet the school from their coaches, take them to the toilets, to the touch-a-cub enclosure, to the picnic area and then on a game drive. With 2 volunteers and 4 teachers to round up 110 excited 7-9 year olds (it seems that the adult:child ratios that apply to British school trips do not exist over here) it was quite a task.
Having successfully herded them through the cub enclosures and giraffe feeding station, the toughest challenge being to keep them quiet around the animals, it was time to set off on the game drive. This meant one hour of me, standing at the front of a bumpy safari truck, telling 30 odd kids about the animals, which I had known very little about myself until the previous week.
Fortunately they were very interested in the animals and engaged well with what I was telling them, asking questions (most of which I could answer!) and proudly telling me facts that they already knew.
The thing which struck me most was the way in which the schoolchildren addressed their elders with such respect; even when talking to me, they addressed me as "Maam", pronouncing it with a questioning intonation as a way to request permission to speak, and peppering the rest of their speech with "maam" the way a British teenager punctuates her speech with "like".
Further into the drive, chaos descended, with even the teacher struggling to control the over-excited class; for me it was a nightmare come true, having 20 little people shouting and vying for my attention at once. Couple with that the fact that we were amongst a pride of white lions, some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and it suffices to say I was feeling a little uncomfortable.
As we drove through one of the lion camps, the third of four safari trucks in convoy, two fully grown lionesses paced the side of our truck, looking as if they were about to hitch a ride; the staff had told me that lions often jump onto the side of trucks, but only now did it occur to me that they had not told me how to deal with such incidents. As I turned my back on the snarling teeth and looked at the 30 faces staring back at me, some having the time of their lives and no doubt silently imploring the lions to jump, others fearing for their lives, I just asked them to keep quiet and make sure all fingers were inside the truck.
Although I knew for certain that the lions couldn't get to us, as the trucks had cages on for this purpose, there was a split second when I truly believed I was going to die then and there in South Africa, at the hands of a lion, with 30 kids watching.
You're reading this, so obviously I survived. Fortunately the lionesses didn't jump, but when we got back to base, we found that they had jumped onto the truck after ours. Nobody was hurt, and as soon as the driver drove away, the lions jumped off.
I was relieved when the whole school experience was over, as it was mentally draining, but I was also proud of myself, not only for surviving the lions, but also for surviving the children, and I spent the rest of the day feeling like I could do anything I put my mind to.
Whilst I'm in teacher mode, a quick lesson*...
THESE are fully grown, scary, wild lions, who will pace up and down next to safari trucks scaring children:
Not to be confused with THESE little cuties, the cubs, who will have a nibble on your shoelace, or lick your hand.
*Not really a lesson, more an excuse to post these adorable pictures.