Chapter 49 – Lion Cubs and Tortoises

After crossing Botswana by road, we cleared customs and immigration at the South African border just before sunset and made our way to Hartebeespoort Dam. We spent the night in a motel opposite the Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park, and it was with some disappointment that I noticed our allocated room was going the way of the Botswana bathrooms. Tiles were falling off the bathroom walls and the shower door was severely damaged and could not be opened completely, so I squeezed past it and closed it behind me with some difficulty. It was wonderful to be able to wash my hair and get cleaned up, but when it came time to step out of the shower, I was unable to open the door I had forcefully closed only moments ago. Grasping the door with both hands, I tried not to slip as I pulled and rocked the door with all my strength. I was not going to have come all this way only to be trapped inside a defective shower! Right at that moment, a steadily moving object in my outer field of vision made me turn my head, and I saw a sac spider running along the floor of the shower towards me. Named for the distinctive silk homes these spiders make for themselves, they are also known for their defensive temperaments and the necrosis their bites cause. The running water had no doubt disturbed it and made it look for a safer place to hide, but that did not change the fact that the sac spider possessed one of the most potent cytotoxic venoms of all Southern African spiders. Wondering if the shower had a mind of its own and was determined to do away with me, I tried again to tug at the sliding door and thought about yelling out for Austin to come and free me, but another pull at a slightly different angle sent the shower door crashing to the side and I leaped to safety, dried off and opened the bathroom door.

‘What was all that noise about?’ Austin asked, happily stretched out on the bed watching the grainy television screen.

‘Oh, nothing,’ I replied. ‘I just got stuck in the shower with a sac spider, that’s all.’

‘Where is it?’ Austin asked warily. ‘Wait a minute, how did you get stuck in the shower?’

A grin spread across his handsome face as I explained my predicament.

‘Poor lush,’ he said. ‘Did you catch the spider?’

‘Going now,’ I said, but when I returned to the shower prepared to catch and relocate the spider, it was nowhere to be seen. I still had not located it when we turned off the lights and went to bed that night, but it showed itself again around 3am when Austin returned from the bathroom saying it had run over his bare feet.

Amy Stevens with lion cub, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens with lion cub, South Africa.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

The next morning, we made a quick breakfast of tea and rusks using our portable gas cooker to boil water. After packing and checking out of the motel, we arranged to leave our car in the motel grounds and wandered across the street together to visit the Hartebeesport Dam Snake and Animal Park.

Upon reaching the waterside enclosures we discovered that four lion cubs had been born at the park a month earlier and were being hand-raised by a member of staff. Austin slipped behind the barricade and asked the woman in charge if I could enter the enclosure and examine the sleeping cubs. She nodded and smiled, and a moment later, Austin took my hand and led me towards the jumbled mass of baby lions lying next to each other inside the pen. Each lion cub was already more than twice the size of a domestic cat and their large paws reminded me of the supreme predators they would soon become. I was utterly delighted when the woman who was now ‘mother’ to the cubs asked me if I would like to hold one. I reached over the edge of the pen and gently slipped my hands under the nearest cub. He was heavier than I had anticipated, but I succeeded in scooping him up and lifting him out of the pen. The cub’s enormous grey-blue eyes gazed at me sleepily as I cradled his warm furry body against my chest. Austin stood in front of me and snapped some photographs, and I gently pressed my face to the speckled fur. As I felt the strong beat of the lion cub’s heart, I was reminded that this animal’s recent ancestors had hunted and brought down some of the swiftest and most powerful animals roaming the African continent. Walking slowly back towards the pen, I lowered the sleepy lion cub to rest beside his brothers and sisters, who were still dozing with their legs and tails entwined.

I heard a shuffling sound behind me and turned to see two giant Aldabra tortoises mating in an adjoining section of the enclosure. The male balanced precariously behind the female with his front feet resting on her shell. Other tortoises emerged in a slow and ponderous way from their heated shelter and I went to sit beside one. Native to the Aldabra Islands off the east coast of Africa, each tortoise was more than a metre long and weighed over 150kg. Regularly exceeding the age of one hundred years, they go through life at a relaxed pace. I heard the distant sounds of traffic from the busy road outside the park, a world these animals were totally untroubled by, and thought that all people could learn a thing or two about enjoying life from these tortoises.

Amy Stevens with Aldabra tortoises, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens with Aldabra tortoises, South Africa.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

Austin and I made our way to park owner Jack’s office and spent the next two hours discussing snakes with him and his son Jason. The conversation turned to Australian snakes and we discussed the treatment of several recently reported cases of snake bite and talked about the laws governing exotic animals in captivity. We admired Jack’s extensive collection of antique canons and other weaponry before saying goodbye to the staff members at the park and continuing on our way.

By late afternoon, we reached the hotel in Sandton City that Tigress Productions had booked for us for the duration of the voice over recordings for Austin’s second television series. We met up with Sarah, the Series Producer, and arranged for the driver to pick us all up at 8am the next day to take us to the sound studio. Austin and I went to bed early that night but by 4am Austin had a raging fever and was shaking uncontrollably. He was still experiencing post-operative symptoms from his prostate surgery despite several months having passed, and his bladder had seized up once again. When he was still unable to pass urine after an hour I hurriedly dressed and prepared for a trip to the nearest hospital. As we were about to leave, Austin found that he could pass very small amounts and I relaxed somewhat. By 5.30am we were back in bed but Austin was never able to completely empty his bladder and so was forced to go to the bathroom every half hour or so until it was time for us to leave. By the time we met Sarah and our driver in front of the hotel at 8am, we were exhausted. Our nerves were frayed after the difficult night, but Austin managed the drive to the studio and improved as the day wore on. Over three days Austin completed the commentary for the grizzly bear episode in Canada, the vampire bats episode in Ecuador and the elephant episode in Sri Lanka. It was the first time I had seen footage from those shoots, and it looked as though all three would be fantastic films.

The morning after voice over was completed, we checked out of the hotel and met up with Sarah and Mike, also known as ‘Mad Mike,’ to discuss the possibility of Austin and the film team using his tent camp in Botswana as a base from which to film a pride of lions that Mike had spent countless hours habituating. It became clear over the course of the meeting that it would be extremely difficult terrain in which to follow and film lions and it was eventually decided that Austin would move ahead with another concept, filming snakes in St Lucia, and that other potential locations would be explored for a possible lion episode later in the series.

Austin and I spent the next few days at our friend Johan’s house, enjoying his warm hospitality and fabulous cooking. It was wonderful to have a friend like Johan in South Africa, who was always happy to provide us with a place to stay and good conversation. We told him of our plans to continue on to Kruger National Park, and he warned us that four of the rivers inside Kruger that provided water to some of the camps had recently tested positive for cholera contamination, a fact that was later verified by a park official. We thanked him for the warning and proceeded to enlarge our stock of water. We bought a week’s worth of supplies and left shortly after dawn the next day for the long drive to the park.

To be continued in Chapter 50, in the awe-inspiring paradise that is Kruger National Park…

For a complete list of previous posts, please visit the Blog page.

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