Walking with lions in Mauritius

DANIEL HURST
Last updated 05:00 03/02/2011
Casela Nature and Leisure Park

KING SIZED: Visitors can get up close to the kings of the jungle at Mauritius' Casela Nature and Leisure Park.

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The lions will be happy," our tour guide boldly declares. "Fresh human meat - with rum."

Mauritius, the island haven 1000km east of Madagascar, may be better known as a honeymoon destination with pristine beaches and coastline-hugging resorts but more adventurous visitors can power through muddy terrain on a quad bike or embark on an hour-long walk with lions. And then there's the cultural diversity and friendliness of the locals.

Half past nine in the morning would normally be too early to crack open the alcohol, but today is special.

We begin our day by taste-testing rum varieties at the Rhumerie de Chamarel - mustering some Dutch courage not too far from the adventure park where we'll come face to face with ferocious-looking animals near the top of the food chain.

We are taken on a bus through the Casela Nature and Leisure Park to the lion encounters area and a small demountable office where we must leave our belongings and pick up defensive walking sticks.

The wooden staffs, some of which bear visible bite marks, must be held next to the neck of the lion when patting it to prevent the head from snapping back.

"Keep the sticks with you at all times," the lion handler, Graeme Bristow, says.

"If you don't have a stick they think they can play with you.

"They'll play with you, but when they play they use their claws."

And just for good measure, he tells us the two 120-kilogram lions we are about to meet can run at 65kmh and will catch us in any running race.

We must stand still, make ourselves look as big as possible and make loud shouting noises if things turn sour during our 1.5-kilometre-long walk with the two unrestrained animals.

Bristow leads our group of a dozen through a barbed wire gate into the 800-hectare enclosure which resembles any other natural walking trail, except for the two lions being led towards us.

Siblings Souku and Lundhi, each about two years old, look fairly placid but they certainly aren't small and their teeth appear capable of tearing us to shreds.

We fall in behind them and follow the hands-off lion handlers along a pathway next to coqueluche trees indigenous to the island.

To illustrate the fact these lions are the real deal, a handler uses meat on a stick to lure one of the them up a tree.

Its agility is on clear display as the big cat clambers up the tree and well above the heads of our group to grab the tasty treat.

Each lion is fed 45kg of meat a week.

As the walk continues, each of us is given the opportunity to pat the animals - either while moving along or during rest times.

We can touch them on the back or from the neck down. No one breaks the rules. So far so good.

Bristow reminds me of the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, only a little less in your face. He mucks around with lions - rubbing their tummies and snouts, playing with their legs, or tapping them on the back to hurry them up - as if they are a normal cat or dog. Perhaps it's just because that's all he's ever known.

He explains that he comes from a family of lion handlers and grew up in Africa around the impressive animals, with hyenas, leopards and cheetahs also roaming around his garden.

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When he was still a baby, he claims, his dad put a lion in his cot. And when he turned five he pestered his parents for a "normal" pet like a dog or cat rather than lions.

Bristow says he's only had one really scary encounter, with a 12-year-old lion he raised from a young age which confronted him and put him in a "fight or flight" situation for 15 minutes.

The wildlife enthusiast relishes telling us how he hit it on the nose with a stick in a battle of wills and lived to tell the tale.

The lions on display at the wildlife park - established in April 2007 - were rejected as cubs by their parents. We are told only one in five lions make it to adulthood in the wild.

Bristow says about 5000 people a month come to see the lions but assures us there have never been any fatal encounters, only the occasional scratch.

"It's a lot easier to train the animals than the people," he quips.

But there is an age limit to the lions used in the public walks - about three years.

We have been walking with Souku and Lundhi, both two years old and from the same litter.

Soon they will start smelling fear and their "mind changes".

"Now they just want to play, when they get bigger the instinct kicks in and they just want to hunt," Bristow says, before partaking in a playful handshake with the "lazy" Lundhi lying on its back.

It is all food for thought as we pose for photos with one of the lions, perched on an outstretched tree branch and co-operatively staying put. It knows it will get rewarded with a parcel of food if it behaves. But it is very close to the back of my neck - almost near enough to feel its breath.

The experience is unforgettable.

The writer travelled courtesy of Air Mauri-tius and Mauritius Tourism Promotional Authority.

FAST FACTS

Air Mauritius flies to Mauritius weekly from Perth and weekly from Sydney via Melbourne, with additional flights scheduled in December and January.

The Legends four-star resort is designed and themed along Feng Shui principles. Plenty of water sports are on offer. Room prices depend on the season but start at €171 (NZ$303) per person per night, which includes all meals but lunch.

The five-star Le Touessrok resort faces the tranquil Trou d'Eau Douce bay and is a short boat trip from two islands, one of which boasts a picturesque championship golf course. Depending on the time of the year, rooms start at €210 (NZ$372) per person per night, including breakfast and dinner.

Spend an hour or so walking with the unrestrained lions at the Casela Nature and Leisure Park. The walk costs about 2000 Mauritian rupees.

- The Age

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