Eye for an Isle

Written by Neeta Lall

The sun-drenched Mauritius is a multicultural melange with fine cuisines, great biodiversity and pristine beaches

Look there. The lions will emerge from that gate and walk towards you. Stay calm. No shrieking or shouting, please.If you are scared, you can climb on top of each other, but don’t climb on me!“ We are at the Casela Nature Park in Cascavelle, south Mauritius, where our safari leader Jim is initiating our group of 12 tourists into the “walking with lions“ tour.

Not for the faint-hearted, the hour-long adventure will allow us to be really close to the beasts as they roam in the savannahs. Though the 11-hectare park hosts around 1,500 birds (over 150 species), turtles, giraffes, giant tor toises as well as a large diversity of flora, the lions are its biggest lure.

We arrive on a safari bus to the lion reserve where we deposit our belongings at a tiny office and pick up wood en staffs. The staffs, Jim explains, must be held next to the lion’s neck while patting it. “If you don’t have the sticks, the lions will come to play with you -but mind you, they play with their claws!“ The two lions we are about to meet can run at 70 kmph, Jim adds. If things “turn ugly“ during the 2 km walk with the unrestrained animals, we should “stand still and shout loudly“.

When the two honey-coloured beasts -siblings Jumbo and Jen, each about three years old -appear before us, a hushed silence descends upon our group. They look majestic and feral with sharp teeth and claws and penetrating, green eyes. With Jim leading the way, we start walking next to the lions, crossing a barbed wire gate and then entering the 800-hectare savannah enclosure. We amble along a trail carved between coqueluche trees indigenous to the island while watching the animals gambol, eat, play, hop on rocks of the river banks, eat and scale trees.

Ten minutes into the trail, the lions are fed. “Each lion consumes about 40 kg of meat a week,“ says Jim. Each participant is given a chance to pat the animals -either while moving along or during rest times. But rules must be adhered to. We can touch the animals on the back or from the neck down but never on their claws . Nor are we to ever look into their eyes directly, crouch in front of them or pull their tail. Jim occasionally plays with the beasts, rubbing their tummies, egging them on as if they were pet cats or dogs. When Jumbo perches on an outstretched tree branch, we quickly fall in line to pose for photos with him. Standing next to the beast, I can almost hear -and feel -its breath. Time flies by and soon we are back to the reserve while the beasts are led back to their dens.Jim requests us to sign the visitors’ book. “We call this the survivors’ book!“ he says as we crack up.

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