Dec 7th, 2011.
Following the highly anticipated release of the Lion King Diamond Edition on Blu-Ray and DVD earlier this month, Katie Jennings ventures to South Africa’s Pride Lands to experience the Circle of Life for herself.
The first time I watched The Lion King, I wore yellow dungarees and Doc Martins. I wasn’t strictly on-trend, but then again, I was only five. Feeling like Thumbelina in a gigantic cinema seat, the trailers flicked past me unnoticed, until a short tie-in advertisement for cuddly-toy lions began.
I was transfixed.
As the screen faded to black, my Dad leaned over and whispered: “So there you go Katie. Did you enjoy the film?” I nodded dumbly, already slip-sliding out of my seat to go home.
Last month, the Diamond Edition of the film was released. Indeed, the 7th of November marked the first time The Lion King has ever been available on DVD. So, in search of more adventurous viewing, I ventured to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, hoping to meet Simba for myself.
Squashed into northern South Africa, just shy of the Mozambique border, the Kruger was established in 1898 to protect the wildlife of the country’s Lowveld. Now a flagship National Park, it covers nearly two million hectares of land and contains an unrivalled number of animal and plant species.
As if to prove this point, within minutes of my dusty jeep bumping ride through the Park gates, the Disney film’s cast began to make themselves known. The atmosphere was tensely expectant as our group of 6 sat on the edge of our seats, legs braced and cameras straining in our hands waiting for our first sighting.
The starter’s pistol blew.
We flashed into action, necks craning, cameras clicking, an African drumbeat pounding against my ribs with the exhilaration of seeing my first animal in the wild. Our close proximity allowed me for the first time to appreciate the glossiness of the creature’s coat, the coarse brown hairs imperceptibly smudging into dapples of cream and the elegant curve of its infamous neck.
The day passes in a series of snapshots as we drive through the flat, sun-scorched land: a distant rhino drinking from a waterhole; a higgledy-piggledy procession of elephants crossing directly in front of us; swathes of sky so huge I feel as though they would swallow me whole.
Darkness brings with it our first night-drive, as well as a hunger to spot Simba and his pride, who so far, have successfully eluded us. We take it in turns to probe the inky landscape with a torch in the hope that the glassy eyes of any lurking creature would give them away. The Cyclops stare of the torch catches monkeys, zebras and a solitary serval (a small, spotted cat: a poor-man’s leopard), but the King of Beasts makes us wait a little longer.
Lying in my tent, my belly full of hearty impala pie, I suddenly become aware of a snorting and snuffling outside. Poking my head through the window flap, I find myself being ogled by a raggedy hyena; lying puppy-like on its belly, chin on paws. Looking back at the creature before me, it occurs to me that God must have been running late as he hastily doled out these features: its bat-like ears, saucer-shaped eyes and mish-mash of a coat seem entirely at odds with one another. I find it rather more difficult to sleep knowing a vicious, carnivorous animal lies a few feet away, salivating at the thought of my flesh.
In the morning, a guide collects us for our game-hike just as an egg-yoke sunrise cracks across the sky. Descending from the security of our truck, I feel like a kid without stabilisers: vulnerable and wary. I am unsure whether or not to be comforted at the sight of the huge gun glinting in the guide’s belt. His careful caution rings in my ears: “Never run from a wild animal – it will instinctively chase you.”
Suddenly, our guide stops dead and motions to a cluster of bushes less than 15 meters away. In hushed tones we are informed that an injured lion has been lying behind these bushes for four days and may well still be there.
A sound as menacing as machine gun fire rips through the air – a furious, low growl. Butterflies chase themselves around my stomach, as we stand stock-still, our guide’s hand clutching his gun.
The lion is still there.
Through the shrub I can make out a furiously wrinkled feline face. A far cry from Simba’s squeezable cheeks, this lion looks murderous. Half petrified, half exhilarated, I stand face-to-face with the King himself.
While Disney’s latest release brings The Lion King to life like never before, a trip to the Kruger National Park is an attack on the senses like no other. The days of build up; the stalking; the hushed whispers; the crunch beneath my feet as I tentatively step across the cracked earth; the heat; the sunsets; the breathtaking surroundings. It is difficult to imagine a rush able to surpass the adrenaline I felt when faced with one of nature’s angry beasts.