THE moment called for the courage of Richard the Lionheart, but I felt more like the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz.
Even after taking a deep breath, I hesitated, feeling my heart beating louder and faster, like that of a cornered rabbit.
Determined not to be the one and only scaredy cat, I reached out.
Only centimetres now from the long frame and those massive back paws with menacing claws which I feared would take mere seconds to tear me limb from limb.
We had been warned not to meet her head-on. But the only thought in my mind was whether the element of surprise from the rear would be equally as threatening as one from the front.
And I knew I was more wildebeest than gazelle if I needed to run for my life.
But cats and I have only ever merely tolerated each other. And Kiara the lioness apparently was no different, showing total disinterest as I finally placed my hand on her back as she lounged across the dead tree trunk in the shade.
I could feel a lean, warm body through her short hair, which was neither course nor soft.
Watching her body language like a hawk for signs of discomfort or discontent, I stroked rather than patted her and hoped she would at least turn towards the camera, if not smile and say cheese, for my once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.
The three-year-old already had graciously allowed a few curious humans to invade her personal space as we were called up from our tightly gathered group for a man-and-beast encounter.
But in this instance, beast definitely had the upper paw and I didn’t want to be the one who pushed her over the edge through unsolicited and unwanted affection.
So a few more strokes using a growing confidence and I was done – happy to return to my position behind the camera lens, recording other people’s joyous moments with the big cats.
With long sticks in hand, our media group of six had joined several other members of the public in this Interaction With Lions – a signature adventure at Casela Nature Park on the island of Mauritius, off the east African coast in the Indian Ocean.
Time seems to stand still in the 15-minute adventure in the high-fenced enclosure as we watch Kiara and two-and-a-half-year-old lioness Lundy climb trees, play with their handlers and scratch tree bark like a kitten on a clawing post.
We gasp as they yawn in the afternoon sun, revealing sharp incisors. Gulp!
We smile as one of their ears twitches with every nose scratch from a handler.
And we observe the power of outstretched paws and separated claws as they reach for a hat teasingly placed in front of them.
Another photo and video session presents itself when regal Lundy reigns supreme over her audience by sitting atop a high tree stump.
But we can’t help but duck our heads and turn as we sense movement from behind when she inquisitively leans forward or changes position.
Before long, even the self-confessed dog lovers among us soon turn into cat people ... big cat people, that is.
OUR encounter with three-year-old twin cheetahs Bwana and his sister Impi is no less enchanting.
Like ceramic loungeroom statues, their small heads atop long necks and beautiful sleek, soft bodies stare at us as they sit or lie motionless in the sun.
We easily forget these are wild animals as their tails curl and we admire their beautifully patterned coats.
One even gives out a faint purr with our enthusiastic pats on the back and scratches behind the ears and on the head.
The pair gathers at the feet of easy-going Mauritian handler Jonathan Avice, whom we notice has an Australian accent.
Jonathan, who has spent time in Australia and has a Mauritian-Australian girlfriend, jokes that he’d “rather go fishing every day” than tend to the big cats, but his genuine love for them is obvious.
The same goes for 19-year-old Ben Bristow, a fourth-generation big cat handler, whom we initially meet with the lionesses.
His family, originally from South Africa, operates the big cat encounters and safari adventures at Casela.
As he calls his two male lion cub charges, Ginger and Bowser, for playtime, we watch from the shady shelter above their enclosure.
Although towering over them, his relationship – at least at this stage of their young lives – is like a big brother. And we quickly realise this is the “comedy act” as the pair chase the oversized ball, jump up at the water bottle tied to a string and affectionately and playfully wrestle with Ben and each other.
When we are fortunate enough to have our own playful encounter with the cubs, we begin to understand the unique nature of our visit.
Ben said his family hoped one day to involve members of the public as volunteers to help care for and study the animals because of the rare access possible at Casela Nature Park.
No matter how you get up close and personal with the big cats at Casela, one thing is for certain: these kings and queens of the jungle will touch you in a very special way – one that will leave an imprint forever.
The writer was a guest of Flight Centre.
CASELA NATURE AND LEISURE PARK
Casela Nature and Leisure Park is in Cascavelle on the west side of Mauritius, on the main road about 1km south of the turn to Flic en Flac.
The 14ha reserve offers a diverse variety of animals and birds as well as its adrenaline-pumping “rando” fun with suspension bridges, flying foxes, hiking, canyons with hidden swimming spots and quad bike action through the neighbouring 45sq km Yemen Reserve, featuring animals including monkeys in their natural habitat.
But Casela’s world-renowned attractions involve one-on-one encounters with the big cats with Walking With The Lions And Cheetahs and interactions with them in special enclosures.
Walking with Lions: Rs 2000
Interaction with Lions: Rs 500
Interaction with Cheetahs: Rs 500
Viewing: Rs 100
Entrance to Casela: Rs 270
($A1 buys 30 Mauritian rupees; 1MUR = 0.033 Australian cents)
Air Austral flies direct from Sydney to Reunion, twice weekly, with connections to Mauritius daily.
Flight Centre can arrange flights, accommodation and tour packages to suit your travel needs.
Return airfares to Reunion start from $1103 per person flying economy class and from $2773 flying premium economy class.
Prices are based on travel between February 1 and October 25, 2011 and valid for sale year round until sold out.
Phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414 or see www.flightcentre.com.au for bookings.