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It often happened in the very early hours of the morning. I would raise my head from the pillow the better to hear. Moments later the rumbling, soul-stirring, throaty roar of an African lion would be repeated, filling the silence of the night. Reassured that all was well with the world, I would snuggle back under the blankets and, safe in my own bed, drift off to sleep again.

Lion 2010 Kariega Game Reserve Eastern Cape J Stander (5)

Later, when the sun rose, the roar of lions and other animal noises was drowned by that of motor traffic. Trams with much clanking would grind their way up Jan Smuts Avenue from Zoo Lake on the way to Braamfontein and the central city. At the time our house was not far from the Hermann Eckstein Park, the Johannesburg Zoo. Entrance was free in those days and open to all and my mother and I were frequent visitors. I would admire the rhinos thinking rhino-thoughts in the shade, have a ride on an elephant and see the now somnolent lions lying in the sun, recovering from a good night’s roaring.

My father seldom joined us, for on principle he disapproved of depriving wild animals of their freedom, although he admitted somewhat grudgingly that zoos might play a role in protecting endangered species. In fact he often said that the day would come when, in order to see a live elephant, rhino or lion, one would have to visit a zoo. He approved, however, of game reserves. During the Second World War there wasn’t the petrol to be able to visit the Kruger National Park, but as soon as petrol rationing was abolished he would be ready at a moment’s notice to pack up the car and head for the Kruger. He delighted in creatures both great and small, but if we should see a lion he would hasten to point out that unlike the “moth-eaten” specimens in the Johannesburg Zoo, these were “real” lions. How pleased he would have been to know that in the not too distant future a game reserve would be established beside the Kariega River within a stone’s throw of the farm on which he grew up; a reserve where one could see, among other wondrous creatures, “real” lions.

Some years passed before, unarmed and alone in the veld in what is now Zambia, I first experienced a face-to-face meeting with a lion, an encounter that evoked very different emotions to those of my childhood when in bed at home. The meeting beside a dusty, grass-fringed road remains for me as vivid a memory as the earlier night-time roars. It was what one might describe as being a truly African experience.

As my father predicted, and probably far sooner than he ever imagined, the number of wild lions – and elephants and rhinos – are rapidly decreasing. As the years go by so the chances of an encounter with a lion on a public road outside of a game reserve become less. No doubt there are those who are relieved that this is the case.