I am struggling to know where to start with this blog... my daughter and I have just done so many amazing things this past week that each deserves to be an opening line! So perhaps a brief bit about the beginning and then it will hopefully just flow?!!
My daughter has always wanted to be a vet... but don't half of our kids say this, before realising how hard it is to get in to, or changing their mind? Not Olivia though, well not yet anyway! Undeterred by the difficulties, even now when she is playing catch up after missing two months of college due to Glandular Fever, she still moves forward and cannot be put off. Not only is she aware that she has chosen a difficult enough path, she has made it even more so by her determination that she won't be a pet-vet like everyone else in the UK, no, in our country of dog and cat lovers, Olivia wants to be a wildlife vet and treat big cats and, well, wildlife.... basically any animal you will find in Africa, and certainly not in abundance over here!!
So, who am I to put her off her dream? It's a mother's job to encourage them to chase it after all, isn't it? Certainly, there might not be a lot of wild life here, but there are zoos, and their animals need vets, so why can't she be it? Why not her?
So, Olivia needs to get the grades and I can't help her much there, but even if she gets the AAA she needs, the competition to get into Uni is extraordinary. It will be those who stand out who get the coveted spots... those that are most passionate and interesting, that can prove their commitment... those with the best Work Experience...
Now how can a mother with access to cheap flights and contacts in South Africa possibly help with that???!
I do believe everyone you meet in life and everything you do steers you on a path if you are always alert to opportunities. A conversation in the flight deck, a chance encounter with a crew member from another airline... little things that lead to all of the huge things we just did in our eight day adventure. Things that are potentially life changing, but most definitely self-confirming for Olivia.
Here I am going to go out of order and start with the best stuff first!
The Lion Man!
His title says it all, don't you think?! You may know Craig Busch for his hugely popular tv show that was aired in over a hundred countries in 2004-7. Its viewers were mesmerised by the bond between him and his cats, watching him walking amongst them, playing with them like they were his children; the trust between them is something magical to watch, and even more so when you are there in person to see it.
Craig and his wonderful animals now live in South Africa, about two hours out from Johannesburg, and through a pilot friend of mine I made contact with him to see if we could visit. That first contact was to be the start of something that changed both mine and Olivia's life, and in Craig we have found the kindest and most humble human who we are now so lucky to call a friend. His private reserve is in the most beautiful place, with mountains and waterfalls, and wildlife all around you. He is a man who never stops moving forward, building more and more dreams, and making his home something so special, and for those lucky enough to be invited to visit you will be blown away.
When we first arrived we were greeted at the gate by Zenda, the dog, I mean giraffe! Zenda thinks she is a dog though I'm sure, and if she could fit in the house I think that she would certainly sleep on Craig's bed at night. Ever present, she follows Craig around, running alongside the car, coming to the house to hang out, or just lounging around on the lawn. He has raised her since a baby, when she lost her mother in a storm. Back then he searched by land and air to find her mummy, but when his search came up empty he stepped into her shoes and the result is just another animal that adores him as if it were his child.
Now let's talk Cheetahs! For most of us we seem to think that they are as dangerous and scary as all of the other big cats... but I was shocked at how wrong I was. In his sanctuary Craig has Zara and Zeus, and I can only do justice to them by sharing these photos and videos. I admit to being a little nervous, but Olivia already knew how gentle they could be, and so when he gave her a brush she was straight in the enclosure with them while I cried quietly inside 😬! I needn't have worried though, their purrs of happiness testament to her gentle manner with them, and I can honestly say it was the most amazing memory I have of my daughter so far. In that moment I understood why she wants to do what she does, how it is just meant to be, and even if she doesn't become a vet she will definitely be with these animals in some capacity. Maybe she'll be Craig's apprentice?!
Over the next two days she fed them and sat fearlessly amongst them, and when we left I'm sure she was holding in tears as she said goodbye 😢
Now, Craig wouldn't be The Lion Man without lions, would he? In his sanctuary he has seven of the most beautiful examples of the species, and two beautiful lionesses, that I have ever seen, and the beautiful Jabula is definitely the one who makes the biggest impression, the one who Craig raised from a cub and you can see that he has the sweetest of natures. He has appeared in Craig's shows and they have such a strong bond.
He walks with them, pets them, plays with them, and in return they all simply love him. We stood back and watched as he goes into their enclosures, seemingly fearless, although he will tell you that he is acutely tuned into them and does not underestimate their power. He knows each one of them so well, what they are capable of, how they respond to each other, and it is his decades of working with them that make him so unique and, well, just amazing.
The stay just got better and better! Craig involved Olivia in the feeding and I couldn't believe how comfortable she was, rolling up her sleeves to carry whole cow rib cages and throw them into the hungry animals. I declined their offer to get involved! Most of the meat that Craig feeds them is donated by local farmers when they lose an animal to injury or illness, and they will call him up to come up and collect it. Apparently this is common practice between the farmers and facilities like his. Craig never stopped sharing his knowledge with us and Olivia was like a sponge, soaking it all up, making note after note so that she didn't forget!
We were privileged to watch as he introduced his two tigers. Sadly Craig lost his beloved tiger Seloni a month ago, and so to save her buddy from being lonely he is hoping that these two will become friends. I have no doubt that they will, with a few more supervised intros, but rather Craig than me to be the one getting in between them... I'll stick to supervising the services on board the aircraft!!
To add to Craig's talents he is a marvellous cook, and the evenings were spent at the firepit with steak and wine, of course. He is both interesting and interested, and the best company to spend an evening with. You can probably imagine just how bright the stars are out there, and the only noises were from the animals... the peacocks sat in the trees above us, the jackals that sounded like they were having a wild party in the bush!
Trips back to the house became a little hairy though when the resident ostrich wanted to play a game of Bulldog with us... scary things those big birds!!
A brief nod to Andrew the almost one hundred year old tortoise who likes to ram everything... his fellow tortoises and humans alike! To the zebra's that passed by the fence and the peacocks who, when we left the door open, came inside to check themselves out in the mirror! I'm sure I must be forgetting something, but at the rate at which Craig moves I am sure that this blog will be out of date soon enough with new additions to his menagerie!
On our last day Craig drove us to his friend's facility... the phenomenal Ukutula Lodge. Olivia had heard of it as it has a research facility and is doing wonderful things in the name of conservation. For example, in Kruger National Park right now eighty percent of Lion's have TB or Feline Aids. Without places like this committing to creating vaccines, amongst other projects, the already struggling species would almost certainly become extinct. It was fascinating to tour the laboratory and hear about all of their projects.
Walking in with Craig was certainly something to be proud of. The staff all knew him, wanted to talk to him, even have pictures taken with him, such is their respect for the work that he does. Even here he counselled the staff, advising them and sharing his decades of experience. When presented with a lion cub that had been given to Ukutula by an owner who didn't want it, he stepped in to help our guide remove the bone to which he was very attached... I wouldn't remove a bone from my Jack Russell, let alone a lion, no matter what age it was!
Then things got interesting!
Here at Ukutula they have a very unique experience... walking with lions, and not just one... THREE! I was terrified! Olivia, fearless as ever, trusted the guides, listening to their instructions and walking confidently behind them. I was happy to stay at the back and watch, feeling that she was in safe hands with Craig at her side!
There is so much negativity to experiences like this in Africa, and I get it. You hear about lions being drugged so that tourists can have photos with them, cubs being raised just to be hunted by wealthy gun-lovers... but I can say, hand on heart that these are the good guys. These boys were happy, raised by their rangers with love and respect. They are known on these walks to be distracted and run after game, but would they be lions if they didn't?! They trust the rangers that the people they walk with are part of their pack, and you have to trust them too, even if, like me, your stomach is in your mouth and you spend the whole time fighting the urge to run away 😂
When we stopped, they behaved like dogs and accepted treats from one guides bag... a whole foul each!
With the South African government trying to counteract the negative perceptions of the tourist industry and under pressure from activists, unfortunately experiences like this may become a victim of future laws and be banned. It's so sad as you can see that these lions are so happy and loved, and I hope so much that the actions of the bad guys don't come to see the downfall of the good ones. If they do then I will treasure this memory even more than I already do.
Straight from walking with lions, Craig drove us himself to the airport. It was the saddest goodbye, filled with promise of return. In Craig's own words Olivia had 'blown him away,' and he too is certain that her future holds what she wishes for. I thank him so much for the time that he gave her, and for making her dreams come true. People come into your life for a reason, and never was I more sure of it.
Now for the beginning!!
I have to put this at the end as it just wasn't the best part, but for the first five days in Johannesburg Olivia was volunteering at the local zoo! Imagine, what an opportunity! The first day she arrived at 6:30 am, ready to fulfil her dreams, and her first job was to.... clean out the guinea pigs 🤣
It was hard work, they made her sweep and clean out cages, giving her little tastes of excitement with the adorable birds and interesting reptiles in between. By Wednesday she was tired and understandably disheartened, before things picked up somewhat for the second half of the week. Moved to primates, she made friends with the girls that worked there and bonded with Nina the Lemur, but the thing that got her through and spurred her on was the promise of going to Craigs on Friday!! I'm so glad that we had it booked!
Me, I bonded with a parrot named Rex who would join me for lunch some days while I waited for her... he was rather noisy, but I do miss him! 🐦
And so we are home, and I am still so overwhelmed by what we have just done. It has been good to write it down, to see in words just how awesome it was... and perhaps it will inspire some of you to chase your dreams!
If you would like to do any of the things we have done you can contact Craig here:
Or follow him on Instagram @craigbusch_thelionman
For Ukutula go to Ukutula.co.za for information
For Lory Park zoo email@example.com