Trapped in the Lion’s Den: Family’s terrifying true story. When they found themselves trapped in a burning car inside a lion enclosure at a safari park, they faced the choice of burning to death or chancing it with a pack of 12 hungry lions…
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I was busy getting the kids’ dinner ready when my eldest, Charlie, 12, came running into the kitchen.
“Mummy, mummy, can we go to Longleat Safari Park, please, please, please?”
Charlie loved anything to do with the natural world, and would watch every documentary on TV. Whether David Attenborough or Bear Grylls, she loved them all.
But her favourite was Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 programme on CBBC where he travels the globe in search of the ’world’s 60 most deadly animals’; she hadn’t missed an episode.
“Steve Backshall is giving a demonstration at Longleat this Easter,” she said.
“They’ve just announced it on the tele.”
I wiped my hands on the tea towel and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Of course we can,” I said.
“We’ll add to your list of birthday presents, shall we?”
Charlie had already asked for a mobile phone for her birthday, but with my salary as a sales assistant at the local village shop, I couldn’t afford a brand new phone.
I managed to get her a second hand iPhone 3 for £50 and had given her the present early.
“You’ll get nothing on the day, though,” I warned.
“Oh thank you, mummy,” she said, her little face lighting up as she switched it on.
Her brother, George, nine, looked on with a hint brotherly jealousy on his face.
The trip to Longleat would please them both equally, so as soon as I’d put the tea in the oven, I went on the Internet to book the tickets.
A few weeks later and the kids were off school for the holidays and when Easter Sunday came around, we piled in the back of the car and drove from our home in Kingswood, Gloucestershire.
“Don’t forget your new phone, Charlie,” I said, knowing it was the last thing she’d leave behind.
“Got it right here, mum,” she said.
The weather was lovely and we were lucky with the traffic and managed to make it to Wiltshire within about an hour and a half.
Longleat was packed – there were literally cars everywhere, and we were jammed in like sardines as we made our way around the park.
Longleat is not like other zoos. There is a safari park where you drive around a track through different enclosures, and the animals come to you. Or not – it depends how lucky you are.
Then there is the adventure park where Steve Backshall was giving his demonstrations. We had tickets to see him in the afternoon, so spent the morning driving around the safari looking out for animals.
The track is bumper to bumper and as soon as they stop, you know there are animals close by. Cars can overtake in the right hand lane, but generally, the animals are on the left.
The first paddock we drove through was the Zebra paddock, and when the traffic evened out, we got to see the wonderful animals.
With his nose pressed up against the glass window of our giant Fiat Ulysse 4X4, George oohed and ahhed.
“Look, mum,” he kept saying, pointing at the zebras. “Look over there.”
Charlie was busy taking pictures on her phone and I was trying to keep us moving so we wouldn’t lose our place in the line.
After the zebras, we entered the giraffe enclosure. But I was distracted because I knew what the next part of the trip was.
It was the monkey enclosure, and I’d heard stories about them getting into your car and causing havoc.
Fittingly, they called the enclosure ‘Monkey Mayhem’ and we were warned that they have a fondness for windscreen wipers and car aerials.
As we approached, there was a sign saying ‘ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK’, and people were advised that they could skip this part of the safari altogether.
“That’s just for people with posh cars, mummy,” Charlie said. “Let’s go!”
We crossed the cattle grid and approached the monkey ‘Drive-Thru’; we wound our windows up tight and waited for the onslaught.
Charlie and George screamed as about a dozen cheeky monkeys leapt onto the bonnet and roof, pulling at the windscreen wipers and aerials.
Then they jumped and scurried to the back of the car and started pulling at the rear windscreen wiper.
It was over as soon as it had begun. They couldn’t pull the wind screen wipers off and the aerial had long since fallen off.
Our car wasn’t a banger, but at ten years old it had certainly seen better days.
“Is that it?” George snapped from the back seat.
“I think it might be,” I said hiding my relief. “It’s the lions next, though…”
We entered the ‘Big Cat Enclosure’ and got a great look at the tigers before moving up to the lion compound.
The second we entered we were gridlocked. Up ahead cars were moving off slowly, but the traffic was ground to a halt as people leaned up against their windows and took pictures of the lions.
There were red signs everywhere saying, ‘DO NOT EXIT FROM YOUR VEHICLES’ and ‘DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FEED THE LIONS’ and ‘KEEP YOUR WINDOWS UP AT ALL TIMES’.
There were two prides of lions at Longleat, and each pride boasted cubs, and we were dying to see them.
After a good ten minutes of not moving, George was getting impatient in the back.
“Aww we’ll never get to see them at this rate, mum. Can’t you go around?”
I was a bit concerned with all the starting and stopping of the car, that the engine might overheat, but everyone else was in the same boat, and there were no cars on fire.
I steered the car out of the single lane and drove up on the right hand side up toward the top of the hill.
George and Charlie’s faces were pressed up against the left windows trying to see in between the cars.
We stopped about 100m from the nearest of the two zebra-patterned ranger’s jeeps that were patrolling the paddock.
But we still couldn’t see the lions. They were about 50 metres to the left of us, dozing under the trees.
Suddenly, I noticed steam rolling over the bonnet.
I turned the engine off and told myself it was just the heat – nothing to worry about.
But then the steam turned into thick smoke, and it began rolling up the bonnet toward the windscreen.
“What’s the smell?” Charlie said next to me, looking concerned.
“It’s nothing,” I said, trying to reassure her. But inside I was starting to get worried. I knew if there was a problem with the car and it wouldn’t start, it really wasn’t the best place to break down.
“I’ll just let it cool down for a few minutes. It’s probably just a little over heated from all the starting and stopping.”
The cars by the side of us started moving slowly forward and we got our very first glimpse of the lions.
They looked much closer than just 50m and they were all looking our way.
My heart started beating in my chest, and I could feel my palms getting sweaty on the steering wheel.
I looked back at the bonnet and the smoke looked like it was starting to subside.
Then when I looked again, it was coming through the vents. Within seconds, the car had filled up with thick black smoke.
Through the smoke, I could still make out the bonnet of the car and could see that flames were now rising out of the vents.
“Oh my god,” I said. “We’re on fire!”
My mind immediately went to all those films I’ve watched where the car blows up seconds after it catches fire, and I started to think we were sitting in a ticking time bomb.
I remembered seeing one of the signs as we entered the ‘Big Cat Enclosure’ that read: ‘SOUND YOU HORN IF YOU NEED ASSISTANCE’.
So I gently beeped my horn, wanting to get their attention, but not wanting to make too much of a fuss, in the typical English way.
Then, when the flames began rising out of the bonnet, and the car was almost filled thick black smoke and the rangers were no closer, I leant on the horn as hard as I could.
“God, we’ve got to out,” I said.
“No mum, we need to stay where we are,” Charlie said.
But George had already opened the sliding side door and was half way out of the car.
“I’m getting out of here,” George said,
I automatically opened the window on the driver’s side to let the smoke out and get some air.
Then I realised what was happening and turned in my seat and told George to get back in and close the door.
Before he could, a zebra-patterned ranger’s jeep drove by and the ranger yelled at George to get back in the vehicle.
“But we can’t stay here, the car’s on fire, “I yelled back, getting frightened.
“No, you must remain in the vehicle, Ma’am,” he said.
I looked to my left and saw that all the cars had moved off to get away from us, and now there was nothing between us and about a dozen fully-grown lions.
And they were all looking our way.
“Well you’ve got to come and help us then – look at the car!” I shouted, feeling the panic rising in my throat.
Then the other ranger’s jeep came screeching to a halt next to us, opened his door and yelled at us to leap from the flaming shell of our car.
George leapt across first, and then Charlie jumped on top of him and on top of the ranger.
I grabbed the keys out of the ignition, as they had my house keys attached and took the leap of faith from one car to the next.
“Mum, my phone!” cried Charlie.
It was on the passenger seat and she’d left it behind on the panic.
“It’s too late, Charlie,” I said. “You can’t get it back now. Maybe it’ll be all right when the flames go out.”
They were both crying. It was such a frightening moment.
“It’s all right,” I soothed. “It’s only a car. It’s no big deal. At least we’re safe and sound.”
The jeep sped off down the hill and the other jeep cut off the track so that other cars couldn’t get through and risk getting too close to the burning wreckage.
The lions were all fully awake now and were taking considerable interest in the flames erupting from the car.
They had taken over the vehicle now and were well over a metre hire – the entire car was up in flames.
I realised how lucky we were to have got out when we did – a minute longer and we would’ve been a tasty meal for the lions. Cooked to perfection too!
The jeep stopped at the bottom of the hill, outside of the enclosure, and I got out to take a picture with my phone.
When I looked back, the car was a melting shell. There was no way to save it now. Poor Charlie never saw her phone again.
The ranger transferred us to another jeep and then sped us off to the Longleat office.
The fire brigade came to ask us a few questions and then the insurance company called to pick up the vehicle and arrange a taxi for us.
“Does this mean we can’t see Steve Backshall,” Charlie said with a sad look on her face.
“Not at all. At the end of the day it was only a car,” I said.
“We can count ourselves lucky that none of us were injured and that the lions didn’t have us for dinner.”
We left the office and walked over to the Adventure Park and had a wonderful afternoon watching the impressive shows they put on with birds of prey.
Charlie was delighted at seeing her idol off TV, and soon forgot that we were trapped in a burning car in the middle of the lion enclosure just an hour before.
And even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was hot on our shoulders, there was no more chance of over-heating.
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