Up close and personal with 10 hungry lions

It's impossible to describe the deep-throated snarling, the primeval smell of blood, fur, breath, guts

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If you had asked me a week ago how I'd feel about watching 10 lions devour a freshly killed impala from a distance of no more than six feet with nothing but the mud guard of an open Jeep between me and the diners, I'd probably have said "peckish" or "petrified", something trite knowing that it would never happen. Well, it just has, and for the record I wasn't petrified. I was quivering with the same nameless terror that I used to feel as a child when Sister Agnes Paul at the Convent of St Francis de Sales told me that Reverend Mother wanted to see me in her study after vespers. Reverend Mother had a moustache and a broad leather belt with which she used to beat recalcitrant pupils - the belt, not the moustache.

If you had asked me a week ago how I'd feel about watching 10 lions devour a freshly killed impala from a distance of no more than six feet with nothing but the mud guard of an open Jeep between me and the diners, I'd probably have said "peckish" or "petrified", something trite knowing that it would never happen. Well, it just has, and for the record I wasn't petrified. I was quivering with the same nameless terror that I used to feel as a child when Sister Agnes Paul at the Convent of St Francis de Sales told me that Reverend Mother wanted to see me in her study after vespers. Reverend Mother had a moustache and a broad leather belt with which she used to beat recalcitrant pupils - the belt, not the moustache.

We're in South Africa, staying at Kirkman's Camp in Sabi Sands, a private game reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. It's a family holiday; we've brought a couple of the children and granny, which, my husband said, when he booked the trip, might kill two birds with one stone. It would be educational for the boys and with any luck a foolproof, if unorthodox, way of getting rid of my mother.

Kirkman's Camp is totally unfenced: the animals are free to move in and out as they please. After nightfall guests are advised not to leave their rooms in individual, colonial-style bungalows dotted around the site unless accompanied by a ranger in case they should run into a prowling hyena or leopard. My mother, an independent woman, a law unto herself as they say, has never been one to take advice and is living proof of the old adage that behind every successful man there stands an astonished mother-in-law.

Our personal game ranger (all the guests are provided with one) is called Donovan. He is 19, just four years older than my youngest son but in terms of practical experience and knowledge of wildlife, flora, fauna, entomology, ornithology, climatology, animal behaviour, ecology, sustainable development and basic car mechanics, he is closer in age to Methuselah. Watching bull elephants on musth, a pair of two-ton rhinos fighting or vultures hovering over an injured bush buck is undoubtedly educational for kids brought up in London but not half as educational as having Donovan as a role model.

There are other far more luxurious safari hotels in Sabi Sands with marble everywhere, individual plunge pools and spas. Richard Branson, of course, has one, but they're not the Real McCoy. Kirkman's Camp is. It used to belong to Harry Kirkman who moved into this cool, rambling colonial house with old-fashioned ceiling fans and wooden verandahs in 1927 to farm cattle. Not a brilliant idea in the African bush where predators are as thick on the ground as flies round a carcass. He'd probably have been better off in Dorset but, like my mother, Harry Kirkman wasn't one for advice, and it was only after he'd killed 500 lions to protect his wretched cows that he saw the light and became a rabid wildlife conservationist.

It's a magical place - the peace, the views, the sounds, the smells, the waitresses at breakfast carrying baskets of fresh croissants and homemade bread on their heads and, best of all, the twice-daily, off-road game drives. There's a points table in the bar for guests to keep score, 150 for a leopard, 50 for a lion, one for an impala, 200 for a kill or a fight and a bonus if you see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo) in a single day.

Heading back to camp after our first evening game drive - we'd already totted up an impressive score, four of the Big Five and had drinks and snacks in the bush while watching the sunset - we saw the kill I mentioned earlier. Donovan stopped the Jeep six feet from the nearest lion ripping open the impala's stomach, remarking casually that if we remained seated and made no sudden movement, we'd be perfectly safe.

What can I say? It's impossible to describe the scene, the sensations, the closeness, the deep-throated snarling, the primeval smell of blood, fur, breath, guts, the 10 pairs of huge yellow teeth wrenching, tearing, gnawing and, scariest of all, the pale yellow eyes occasionally turning from their prey to stare straight into mine. There were scuffles between the lions. Two young males were fighting over what was left of the impala's head. Only the matriarch of the pride, an old lioness, huge with a torn ear, had the sense to carry her portion off a little way and have her dinner in peace.

"If I leaned out of the car," said my mother, "I could touch that lion." "Why not try?" said my husband hopefully, but she didn't. Old ladies, like old lionesses, aren't stupid.

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