Never will a person hold you so rapt - not your examiner on driver’s licence test day, nor your child’s teacher when you’ve ominously been ‘called in’. Not even the lawyer, who’s mumbling through the last will and testament of your previously-unheard-of-till-now yet colossally wealthy great-aunt… it’s true, never will a person hold you so rapt as when Julie Colloty tells you how to walk with lions.
Zimbabwean-born Julie is an old hand at walking with white lions. Carnivorous, predatory lions! Lions whose tails lash and whose cold, inscrutable eyes drink you in like an appetiser. But if you just listen to what Julie tells you to do, rest assured you’ll be spared from becoming fast food. “No children under 14,” she begins, “no running or crouching and please listen to the guides and follow their instructions at all times.” All fine, now you just have to tell your brain to tell your legs to tell your feet to start walking.
Crunch your way through the tinder-dry veld with a quartet of lions for company...
I ask Phuti Matjiakgang, one of the guides accompanying us on our stroll, which lion is his favourite? “That attitude is the beginning of death,” he finger-wags, “when you humanise the lions, you forget that they’re beasts and not pets. That’s when you let your guard down and invite trouble.” But his solemn outlook belies his impish humour when he introduces us to Grumpy. “Because he was born grumpy,” Phuti grins mischievously as we all take a few nervous steps backwards.
The white lions are just one, although admittedly the most unique, facet of the goings on at the1 000 hectare Ranch Conservancy. Because despite bearing the ubiquitous Protea franchise badge, The Ranch Hotel is actually a family-run establishment that’s well over 50-years-old. In fact many from the area formerly-known as Pietersburg can still remember being served a signature rump steak for just 85c – oh the good old Sixties!
The initial property consisted of a meagre eight rondavels constructed by, shudder, cancer-causing asbestos (the prices may have been handsome, but the Sixties was not the most forward-thinking era, as throngs of our black brothers and sisters can attest to). There were communal ablution facilities and one small restaurant housed the reception desk. Today, 53 years later, there’s so much more on offer, and yet, despite its 1 000 hectare sprawl; it still maintains its rustic charm with lush rose gardens and pretty, Biggie Best appointed suites. Expect a pool complex, including a large heated swimming pool, a gym, game drives, a helipad, conference facilities, Wi-Fi, a golf course, restaurants and a glut of accommodation to suit a variety of visitors - from hotel to self-catering. Not a speck of malignant asbestos between them! But of course the biggest attraction, are the Ranch’s white lions with their clear as vodka eyes.
They arrived in 2001 from Zimbabwe as part of a pride of 18 mixed lions (some white, some your normal bush-variety). Many had been used in movies and so were quite used to human handling. Walking with them seemed like the next step and gave The Ranch something altogether unique to draw the public. “Walking with lions is an experience that is deeply treasured by all those who want to fully understand the world of the African lion,” says The Ranch founder, Tom Shearer, “and this walk allows each guest the unique opportunity of personally forging a special bond with the proud and magnificent King of Africa.” Sounds good on paper, Tom, but now, back to the real deal…
The walk is really more of a stroll, and after the first 10 anxious minutes the lionesses will casually amble up to you and head-butt your thigh (a terrifying attempt at affection, Phuti tells us) – you really do relax and start to notice things other than the white noise in your ears and your nervous, sweaty palms. Julie talks animatedly and learnedly about their habits and habitats and explains that the large knobkerries we’re each assigned is just so they know who’s boss. Geez, I hope so, I silently implore, because there are no weapons on this walk should a lion decide to go rogue. Something I’m assured is not likely to happen.
An hour-and-a-half blurs by in what feels like 10 minutes and all too soon we’re back where we started. We cuddle the growly, hungry cubs in the nursery and quickly forget everything Phuti said about humanising them. How can you resist when you’re bottle-feeding a greedy little bundle of golden-syrup fur?
The adolescent white lions we walked with use the palm trees as scratch posts and every now and then even scramble up to the fringy palms and pose, quite dashingly, for a pic or two. Movie stars indeed!
The big beasts purr, albeit like generators, and weave between us, just like oversized housecats. But they’re not housecats. They’re lions. Rare white lions to be precise. And we’ve just crunched through the tinder-dry veld with them and lived to tell the tale.