IT WAS the dawning observation that three lions, hefty teenagers oozing bad attitude, were completely entranced by every move our two children were making that gave my wife and me a chill and a sickening realisation that you can't tame beastly instincts out of a wild animal.
The lions - two male and one female - were raised by good (human) parents on a Christian farm, but there was no denying that our children, aged four and 20 months, were being sized up as walking snacks for these enormous animals, their coiled, pent-up energy palpable through thick wire and electric fences. We clutched our children and scurried away.
It was a moment of true enlightenment on a surprise Father's Day weekend on a farm, Loebies Gasteplaas, north of Bela Bela. A two-hour drive from Jo burg and the highway was lovely, the middle grass island neatly cut and rich with trees. The road to the farm from Bela Bela soon turned into a dirt road of variable quality. Hearing the bottom scraped off a new car does bring tears to one's eye but the reward was worth the clenched buttocks, sweaty palms and screaming children.
The farm specialises in tobacco and vegetables, with newly harvested fields of sweet potatoes stretching away into the distance from behind our basic chalet. There are three chalets built in a single long block and the kitchen is intriguingly housed in a separate building, in a communal type arrangement. We were the only family there so it made little difference. If there had been two other families sharing the weekend away, it might have been a little claustrophobic.
The farm has four cages housing caracals, a couple of lynxes, two young lions and a small white lion cub, and a leopard cub, which, despite being brand new to the world, was already displaying impressive hunting techniques.
The leopard cub and his white lion pal were allowed out for a stroll every now and then, which frightened the life out of our kids. Walking with their mother to the main farmhouse, they were ambushed by the three-month-old leopard, which leapt out of the flower bed and tackled my daughter, the younger of the two. The "weakest prey first" doctrine clearly applied. Her mother plucked her to safety and the leopard pounced on my son, who had nearly passed through himself but whose ankles were suddenly enveloped with velvet-soft, claw-laden paws in an iron grip. He wanted nothing more to do with either cub.
The three teenage lions are kept in a separate cage near the driveway and the sight of our diminutive female host going in and playing with them (after their dinner) prompted my wife to say: "You know, we're going to read about this place one day." I bet it will be the white cub that turns renegade.
Sitting on the lawn, playing with the cubs, I held my daughter on my lap and stroked the cubs. She wasn't sure about it and raised a howl if either came too close. The lion used its needle-sharp teeth to chew my arm like a dog gnaws on those rawhide chewing toys. It wasn't as much fun as it sounds.
In a comment that provoked mirth from the farm's owners, who had gathered to watch us wrestling the cubs, I told my panicked daughter as the leopard cub jumped onto my lap in a one-sided competition for space: "Don't worry, my love, it's only a leopard."