Roaring into retirement: raising lions in Africa

Kathy Murrell and I worked together at John Brown Publishing in London in the 1990s. It was when I saw a post on Facebook recently about her beloved lions that I thought, now on earth did a publisher’s right-hand woman end up in Africa? So I asked her to tell me for the Bliss Files… Kathy’s story begins with what seemed at the time to be a personal disaster – she was made redundant after 20 years of service – but it was just the beginning of a whole new chapter. Here she tells us how it came to be…

Kathy with one of her beloved baby lions.

Kathy with one of her beloved baby lions.

To start the long story. I worked for John Brown for 20 years and my work was the most important thing in my life. I imagine that I would have continued until I dropped. Then came the fateful day that a new manager took over and made me redundant. It was a terrible shock.

John Brown was wonderful and gave me two year’s salary so I was financially secure. He also started to give me little jobs to do, like take his dog Daisy to the groomers, and take his mother Lady Brown out. That’s how my company ‘The Arranger’ came to be. Pretty soon I had lots of work doing all the stuff rich people couldn’t be bothered with! I had to fly to Zurich once to fetch a driver’s licence a chap had left in a car. Good fun, most of the jobs.

I think I must have Gypsy blood running through my veins; every year I travelled all over the world by myself.

I have never been a very social person, preferring animals to humans, so it was wonderful to pack a suitcase and go off. I had two friends who lived in South Africa and I visited them about eight years ago. I fell in love with it.

When I came back, John Brown took me to lunch one day and said I should think about living in South Africa. I scoffed – all that poverty and violence, much too scary.

But there is something about getting older in our society – you become a grey ghost; you fade into the background in society and finally disappear, and no-one seems to care.

One day I was out shopping in Wandsworth and as I went through a gang of youths, they jostled me and pushed me over, calling me a “white slag” and “old bitch”. When I got home that day everything about the UK suddenly seemed grey and hopeless.

It was then that I decided to move to South Africa – the start of a new chapter in the winter of my life. My friends were worried about my decision and tried to persuade me not to go to such a scary country. I had made my mind up though.

I rented my property for a year , just to ensure I had a bolthole to run to if things went wrong, hired an immigration lawyer in Cape Town, did medicals, police reports, closed down my business and got the shippers in.

This all took about six months but on 12 January 2007, it was time to say goodbye to my old friends in England.

I had bought a car and it was ready to collect in Cape Town. My little dog Idgie was being shipped and I rented a fab house on Cola Beach, sea pounding on my doorstep. I had begun my new life.

Later my good friend Andi Rive designed and built a beautiful modern house for me. I called it Bongani after Karen Blixen’s farm in Out of Africa – it meant ‘house in the forest’. It was on a couple of hectares of pine trees, with three lakes in front of me and the sea behind me. I was so happy.

Andi worked for the Shannons who had a lion reserve in Harrismith in the Free State. The Reserve had many problems and they were in danger of losing everything: 70 lions and 850 hectares of land that had been in his family for generations.

I begged to go and see the lions. Since the day I saw my first lion at Bertram Mills Circus when I was five years old, I had been in love with this amazing cat.

After my first visit, without hesitation I put my house up for sale, packed up and travelled halfway up Africa with my two dogs to live there.

Now, I walk around every day talking to the lions and stroking them; I know all their names. I have no fear but you always have to be respectful and be aware this is a predator of the highest calibre and they can crush you in a heartbeat.

I have found that when you connect with a lion, you lock eyes and gaze into those bright amber eyes and you can feel the connection and know them to have a soul. It never fails to amaze me that every day I talk to the lions and they communicate back; you know when they are sad, or a bit boisterous; you know when they are angry from their body language and the tail bangs on the ground and their ears go back.

Shalom.

Shalom.

The lions move so fast and you never hear them growl; it is a sudden rush and without the electric fence between us I would have been supper. There are some lions that you can never interact with – just the nature of the beast. The young lions nurtured and bottle fed by humans are different – there is such a connection between us.

Occasionally there are cubs born and sometimes the mother will reject or kill them; we watch carefully for the first 24 hours and if they do not take to the cub, we go in and rescue them – we try not to do this but have to. It is really hard work; they need a special milk formula which costs a fortune and have to be fed every three hours. A little known fact is that they cannot poo by themselves and we have to massage around the anal area until we can force the poo out or they will die! You can imagine we had six cubs to feed and poo at the same time; life was in chaos; like any other newborn, the demands to be fed and cuddled were huge. Sleep deprivation was the worst, we all tried taking it in shifts but we just had to get on with it. Normal life only resumed when they began eating solids three or four months later.

Ariel and Kathy.

Ariel and Kathy.

We now have six cubs we call the Star Pride, and the love they give is astonishing.

Every time I pass their camp they come running down to be stroked and cuddled. Fierce jealousy makes for a tumultuous greeting; they call out and almost purr, it is a wonderful sound: it says hello, where you been, missed you, stroke me no stroke me. I can’t go in with them anymore as they are so huge and I am short and they would just swamp me and pull me down; that is a position you do not want to be in as what they call play can be so dangerous.

We have very special cubs born here, the White Lion. In Africa they are seen as mythical beasts that hold the power of Africa, many great stories are told about this magical lion. It is actually a genetic throwback and is so very rare and none are seen in the wild anymore. The look like little polar bears.

One of my favourite lions is Shalom. He is pure white with incredible ice blue eyes and is very cheeky and boisterous. He was badly torn up by his mother when he was born but he was nursed and kept cradled next to a volunteer and now he is a strong magnificent chap. I hope to be bonded with him when he is full grown. The other white males here are a stunning sight.

Two whites were born just a few months ago in a terrible storm. One died that night and the mum would not take care of the other one, so we grabbed her. She was so cold and tiny. Andi put her against her body and it took ages to warm her; we called her Storm. She died two days later which was so sad.

The same Zebrina astonishingly gave birth six days later to three healthy cubs, all conceived at the same time. I never knew that lions could carry two litters at the same time – even fertilised by two different fathers. I learn so many new things every day.

The first day I arrived I had to collect a dead cow from a railway line – poor thing had been hit by a train.

It was stomach churning, with all the flies and blood and the smell was awful. But being British I gritted my teeth and watched the proceedings unfold. I heard a noise and turned to see this train bearing down on us at high speed and whistles blowing. “Run” I screamed and we all did leaving the poor cow to get even more beaten up. The many cattle farms in this area supply us with dead cows to feed our 70 lions.

I have fetched a dead camel from the vets, they chopped it in half so it could fit in my 4 x 4. I have almost become immune by such death surrounding me; the slaughter yard is behind my house. The smell is pretty bad sometimes but you just close the windows. We collect about 7 to 10 dead beasts a week so you do get used to it.

We have guests come to stay in the lodge here for weekends and that is usually great fun, they always invite us up for a braai (barbecue). We take guests up and down our mountain for climbs and picnics; there are trout dams for fishing and a few miles away the Sterkfountain dam which is glorious – blue clear water so deep and clear – and best of all The Drakensburg mountains are the final backdrop.

Sunsets are my favourite time. I sit on my stoop and look out at the vista, wildebeest prancing around – they are enormous but so elegant when they dance – next along comes the ostriches, ungainly and so funny, after that the zebras – my favourites – we just had two calves born and to watch them jump around and run is so heart-warming. Finally the bless buck rush along all busy and frantic, always got some place to be in a hurry.

I spend ages out there. I look around and everywhere I see lions, and the beauty of Glen Garriff is overwhelming. To my right I have five Table Top mountains and when the morning and evening mist drops down it is like a warm cushion of cotton wool rolling down.

So here I am, almost 70, and still living the life of an adventurist.

I could have stayed in London, but that would not have been fully living. Some people are lucky enough to have family – children, grandchildren. Some of us don’t.

Me, I have Andi – a true friend – and her 3 children are mine to spoil especially Shadi my godchild; this is the family I never had and they bring joy to my life.

I will eventually have a cottage built here at Glen Garriff, and be with my lions till I leave this earth, and that will be more than enough for me.

Fire.

Fire.

However, the future of Glen Garriff is in jeopardy.

Pat Shannon the original owner had a mental breakdown over a year ago, and it is such a long story of betrayal, witch doctors, debts, stolen money, lawyers, intrigue, adultery, scandal. Dead bodies are buried up here along with treasure – diamonds and gold – there has been much fighting, and endless battles with this multimillion company that is insisting we owe them five million rand.

We even have to battle with conservationists. One group of conservationists say lions should never be caged; another group says humans should not interact with lions. Surely it is better to have a live lion rather than a dead one? They say you cannot rehabilitate lions – yet George Adamson did it with the lions Boy and Christian.

The great parks in Africa are losing their lions at such a rate; there are few left in the wild and they diminish every year, last count there was about 20,000. In the near future due to poaching and disease these lions will also disappear. Then the parks will be happy to come and get their lions from us! Pat has spent years rearing the perfect genetic bloodline and the lions are bred for their temperament and finesse. If you could come and see the large enclosures our lions live in and how healthy and happy they are, no-one could disagree that this is the right way to preserve this wonderful animal.

We are constantly fending off canned lion hunters wanting to buy our lions. These hunters drug a lion and then release it into the bush for them to shoot and take home the head and hang it on the wall.

I recall the day the vet came to insert the lions with microchips; Nature Conservation have very strict rules and we need permits for every lion. The vet arrived and pulled out his rifle to sedate the lions. One after another I saw them shot and drop to the ground and imagined that one day if we do not save the reserve, this will happen and then it will not be a sedation dart but a real bullet that will call all our lions.

Even worse is the trade in lion bodies. We could raise thousands by selling off the bones and skins to the Asian market where they still believe rhino horn and bones from lions make them more potent. Till we can eradicate this we will never win and our future generations will never know the joy of meeting a real lion. We have stopped three auctions so far and fought endless battles, and we will never give up.

I often look out at the stars and think, hey look at me, look where I have ended up – me, a little street kid with no education.

I would never have imagined leading such a fabulous life, but I think you have to take that leap of faith and believe in your dreams. Dreams can come true if you follow your heart and trust in yourself. Life has a way of taking care of you if you dare to be brave.

Always say “What do I have to lose?” – take a chance and in that you will find happiness no matter what your age. Always look forward to another adventure!