Almanac Life: On Safari

The free trial on my Netflix subscription was just about to expire when the Covid lockdown commenced. So, I signed up. Initially, handing them my credit card details for that monthly deduction was against my better judgement, as the reassurances about being able to exit at any time had a vaguely Hotel California-esque ring to them: “You can check out any time, but you can never leave…” However, the horizon ahead was pointing to much more “home” time, so I dove in.


I tend to skew toward sports themed programs, so for me there has been a steady diet of Formula 1, cycling, and of course Michael Jordan – which has been essential viewing. Occasionally, I have ventured out of my comfort zone and found that, as with any entertainment service, there have been hits, misses, and stops in between. And then there has been the downright strange, such as the magnificently mulleted Joe Exotic in “Tiger King”. How easy has it been to marvel at just how weird and dysfunctional our American friends are while watching this fascinating car-crash of a series? In reality, we have always known this, but “Tiger King” lays it all out in front of our eyes.


Pointing the finger at back-country American oddballs parading around in their private zoos is all well and good, and provides us with a sense of superiority, but it may come as a surprise to those under the age of 35 that there were two lion parks which existed right on Melbourne’s doorstep. One was in Rockbank and the other, which I visited a couple of times, was on the outskirts of Bacchus Marsh. My memories of it are a little sketchy, and there are no relevant photographs in our family albums, but I do recall that the up-close visits were uncomfortably laced with terror.


There was a time when one could drive a car out onto Williamstown’s Gem, Reid St and Ann St Piers. Being a prankster, my dad would take great delight in driving out onto a pier and performing a three-point u-turn, with his children screaming in fear in the back seat. So it was only natural that the Bacchus Marsh Lion Park held a certain thrilling appeal for him. It is a little difficult to comprehend in 2020, but the concept of the park involved cars entering through a gate and slowly driving through the huge lion enclosure. The paddock was chock full of lions and tigers. My dad would slowly wind down his window and call out to the big cats, while my sisters and I gripped the rear bench-seat with white-knuckled fear. My mum would also join in the terror chorus, which would only increase the pandemonium, and put a spoiler on what was supposed to be a fun family day out. Our fear was not without basis, for we did once have the misfortune to see a lion spring onto the roof of a car in front of us. Fortunately, cars were built of sterner stuff in those days.


I also recall a picnic ground, which had an adjacent rope bridge suspended across a swamp. This bridge (and the swamp) was almost as scary as the lion enclosure. Successfully crossing it without once squeezing your eyes shut was an exercise worthy of a medal. In those days, Bacchus Marsh was a bona fide day trip, not just an outer Melbourne satellite suburb. Lunch in the picnic ground would be regularly accompanied by the roars of the disgruntled beasts – sounds which would feel disconcertingly close. Both parks closed in the 1980’s, and there is surprisingly little information about them on the internet. One snippet mentions the tragic, fatal mauling of a 12-year old by a lion in 1978, and a tiger which pulled a woman out through a partially open window of a car (I hope my dad is reading this).


The last time I passed by what was once the turn-off to the Lion Park on the Western Highway, I imagined for a moment that, in the distance, I could hear the dis-satisfied roars of the frustrated tigers and lions. More likely, it was the fearful screams of my mother, my sisters and myself.


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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Dads have a bit to answer for at times!

  2. Rulebook says

    Smokie you’re dad just a tad to outgoing for my liking! Incredible when we think back now what was allowed and considered perfectly ok back then

  3. John Milton says

    Smokie I can remember a great piece of graffiti on a wall in Carlton in about 1973 or 74
    “Christians, test your faith. This Sunday Bacchus Marsh Lion Park.”

  4. Luke Reynolds says

    Love Mr Dawson’s sense of humour, he might not have got your family to laugh but I sure did reading about driving on the piers and winding his window down!

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Tiger King yet, despite Netflix recommending it every time I turn on.

  5. E.regnans says

    Loving this Friday series Smokie.
    So many moments that could have gone either way…

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