It was the year 1996. Our lives were about to change forever – yet we did not know this at this point. My father was working at one of the mines in Welkom in the Free State. I know, I know – if you are South African you are probably cringing right now due to the fact that Welkom is not the fabulous city that it used to be. But none the less, this is what we called home. At this time mining companies were closing down all over the country and there were rumours that the company my father was working for will soon go down the same path. My parents had to make a plan. Fortunately for us this was the big nudge that the world wanted to give my family. My mother picked up the newspaper and started to look for a new job for my father.

When my mother was a little girl, she and her family were well acquainted with the Kruger National Park due to frequent family holidays in their caravan and tents. The Kruger was also part of my parents’ honeymoon tour across the Transvaal, now known as Mpumalanga. So when my mother saw the ad in the newspaper for the position of an electrician in Skukuza, in the Kruger National Park she basically begged my father to apply. My father, being a bit sceptical of such a faraway move, did not understand my mother’s obsession with this job. Being a wise man, like my father is, he did as his wife asked and applied for the job.

After a few weeks my father got invited for an interview. Dates were set and plans were made. Best of all, our family will be joining my father on the trip to the Kruger National Park when he is going for the interview! My mom was over the moon. She now had the chance to introduce her children to a place that she was crazy about.

So we had a little family meeting – useless in the sense that my parents already knew the plan and me being the only child in the family understanding full grown up sentences (and my sister only knowing the dialogue of Nala). But this was the time that my sister and I was informed of this interview that my father had in the Kruger National Park. I don’t think that I really paid much attention to the nice comforting words of my mother when she started out with “Daddy needs to look for a new job and he applied for one in the Kruger National park,” This was gibberish to me and even more so to my three year old sister. It was when my mother came to the good stuff that it grabbed my attention. She informed us about the great animals that we were going  see and being fans of The Lion King made this so much more exciting.

Now at this point I must tell you that we have never visited the Kruger National Park before. We have been to a few zoos in South Africa but my sister and I were very small when that happened. So we did not really know what these animals look like in real life. We have seen pictures and postcards but didn’t have a clue about the real deal. Our main reference being the wonderful singing menagerie of The Lion King.

We use to have this jar in our house filled with beer and glass cold drink caps (my mother had these from a church project). My mom will fill this jar with a number of bottle caps before we leave for a family holiday. The number of caps inside was the number of days left before leaving on holiday. Each morning I had the privilege of taking one cap out of the bottle.

In the days leading up to our departure, my mom shared childhood stories of their visits to the park (which I might include later on in the blog).

The day arrived when there was only one bottle cap left. That night we were put to bed with lots of questions and excitement. When the kids were asleep my mother, being a proper Afrikaner lady, prepared us some padkos, which is basically snacks for the road. This usually involves cheese and tomato sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and frikkadelle (meatballs).

I might share my favourite frikkadel recipe with you later on the blog

We got up early, packed the car and got in. My dad, my mom, my sister, my gran, myself and the padkos. As is tradition the padkos was opened when we hit the highway and we were ready for the 8 hour drive to Skukuza, where my dad had his interview.

Luckily we didn’t have to do the whole journey in one go. After a 4 hour drive, we slept over at my aunt in Middelburg and got up early the next morning to complete the rest of the journey.

Between the usual children fights (“are we there yet?”) and cassette tapes with children songs we had a lot of questions about this magical kingdom of animals we were about to enter. My mom still telling stories about the Kruger as we went along. At one point when Susan started to become a bit irritated, my mother comforted her with the following words: “Don’t cry. Just be patient we are almost there. And maybe if we are lucky we will see Simba and Nala and all their friends!”

These words had our immediate attention. The comparison with the on screen cartoon animals from Disney that we know was enough to keep us busy for the rest of the road.

Every now and then I would prompt a new question:

“Mom, will Zazu also be there?”

“Yes, Zazu is called a hornbill,” my mom would reply.

A few kilometers would pass and the next question would come up:

“Mom, will we see Pumbaa?”

“Yes dear, you will see them kneel on their front legs when grazing,”

A while after that I would ask about Scar. My mom told us that Scar is like Nala and Simba, and also like Mufasa and Sarabi. She explained about Bonsai, Shenzi and Ed being nocturnal animals. She also told us that apparently Timon can also be seen in the Kruger (although to this day I haven’t seen him). And so the grownups in the car soon realised that to keep the boredom at bay they can enchant our imagination with the colourful world of Disney’s Lion King. During the ride this world came to life with blue hornbills, colourful jungle scenes and images of our favourite Disney movie coming to life!

We reached the gates very early. At this point, my mom took the liberty of explaining that the Kruger National park is not like a zoo. You cannot get out of your car. You cannot walk up to the animals. The animals do not live in cages, or enclosures, they roam around freely. Sometimes you might see them all in a very short period of time and there might be a chance that you do not see any animals at all. For this, we did not care. We were excited to meet our television friends that belt Hakuna Matata and I Just can’t wait to be king.

That day fate introduced us to Kruger in a way that is so set in my mind, when I close my eyes I can immediately travel to that moment. I can see the exact position we sat in: My dad driving, me sitting behind him. My mom in the passenger seat, my gran behind her, and Susan snuggled between me and gran.

We drove through the gates. The universe conspiring for the first time to give us an introduction to the place we would soon call home. It was still early morning, therefore not being very hot and humid (yet). The air was still crisp and clear. We drove for about five kilometers and didn’t see anything. My mom mentioned how strange it is because you usually see Impala after entering the park. My sister and I was very disgusted because we haven’t yet seen any of the Lion King cast that was promised to us. Lies I tell you! They tricked us!

No, the universe had something else planned for us.

After another kilometer or so my mom exclaimed “Here we go,” and my sister and I sat up straight. Little did we know that our lives were about to be changed forever. About 300 meters in front of us stood something. Something not resembling anything from the Lion King. However, my mom turned around to us and with big wide eyes and an ecstatic smile she announced: “It is Simba!”

The car went quiet. My dad approached slowly.

This animal who was supposed to be Simba was in the middle of the road. Laying there without a problem in the world.

As we got closer, it got up.

“The rest of the pride is supposed to be around here somewhere. Everyone, be on the lookout,” mom whispered.

It gave a yawn. Stretched. And then started walking our way.

The car was now at a complete standstill. You could cut the air with a stone knife of a bushman.

Our family sat there staring in complete silence as this animal came closer.

The grownups in the car had smiles on their faces and wonder in their eyes. My sister and I, on the other hand, did not quite understand.

The beautiful male lion walked past my father’s side of the car.

I can still remember getting up on the car seat standing on my knees for a better view. I was glancing out the window fixated on this creature. And then when it reached my side of the car it stopped. It glanced over at me.

Time stopped.

At this moment, for a split second a five-year-old boy and a mature male lion had a stare down.

It looked me straight in the eyes.

It didn’t blink.

I didn’t blink.

In this paused scene between me and this beast, time and space and matter did not apply.

As if the king of the jungle said in an Aslan type of voice: “Welcome young one! You are going to have a great time.”

This moment was broken when my sister started to cry. She was afraid of the animal.

The stare was broken and the lion continued on his path. I had one last look at him through the rear window of the car. The lion did not look back – as if he knew about all the encounters with its kingdom that is still to come.

My dad started the car. My mom was calming my sister with the help of my gran. I, on the other hand, realized then and there that this would be nothing like The Lion King…