License to thrill

License to thrill

Dominic Bliss meets the Yorkshire folk with the most nail-biting jobs of all. Nine-to-five this most certainly isn’t.

The first thing that strikes you is the noise: a chorus of deafening growls reverberating through your entire torso. Nine huge majestic lions are on the prowl and they’re waiting to be fed. They want meat.

This is feeding time at the lion enclosure at Flamingo Land, near Malton in North Yorkshire. In charge of proceedings, and very confident in his role, is zookeeper Martin Lees. He has a wheelbarrow full of raw beef from local farms, and he’s about to distribute it to the salivating big cats. Making the loudest noise are the alpha male Kumali and the dominant female Mishka. But the protestations from the other seven cats are by no means gentle. The five young ones are called Monday to Friday in Swahili. It’s Monday and Tuesday (Jumatatu and Jumanne) who we are going to see close-up. “They are both castrated so are less dominating than the others,” he explains.

Using long tongs, he holds up a piece of meat for Tuesday, high enough so that the lion leans up against the steel grille on his hind legs. This chap may be a youngster but he’s massive. On two legs, his head must be at least eight feet off the ground. His chest is a mass of thick fur, his paws the size of dinner plates. “This is how we examine them close-up to check if there are any medical issues,” Martin says. Now it’s time for the main course. Down long steel chutes we drop huge chunks of beef that Monday and Tuesday snatch before they hit the floor. Immediately they start devouring them.

Martin explains the set-up of the lion enclosure. Outside they have a stretch of prime North Yorkshire savannah to roam which has four-metre-high walls surrounding it. Once inside the feeding area, there are double-bolted, double-padlocked doors that open inwards for the keeper’s maximum protection.

Martin obviously loves his working environment and stresses how his nine cats are “a very settled pride”. When he tells strangers he keeps lions for a living, initially they react with disbelief. But as soon as he describes what his working day involves, they become enthralled. “Zoo keeping is really all about conservation. I see the animals as ambassadors for their wild relatives and our part is to keep these ambassadors as fit, healthy and mentally stimulated as possible.”

It’s the same ethos for rhino keepers, Hedd Angharad and Dace Vitola, where feeding time is a little different for their ambassadors.

Instead of slabs of meat, there’s pellets and alfalfa, fruit and veg and browse and leaves. And rather than steel chutes, there are giant troughs for the rhinos to munch from. This is the brand new Selous Black Rhino Reserve, home to mum Samira and daughter Olmoti who between them have a combined weight of 1.7 tonnes. To put it into perspective, it’s around the same weight as a Land Rover Discovery Sport. In fact, the motor car analogy is appropriate since Samira can charge with the full force of a speeding car.

The rhino keepers are well aware of this. “They’re quite protective and very territorial,” they say. “There’s always a risk they could charge.” A bit like the entire front row of a rugby team… but with a huge horn.

It’s full throttle of a very different kind over the other side of the county where there’s equally nail biting work to be done.

Croft Circuit, near Darlington, is a 2.1-mile motor racing circuit where anyone from Miss Daisy to Lewis Hamilton can put themselves behind the wheels of some frighteningly muscly cars. There are Audi, Aston Martins, McLarens, Porsches and Lamborghinis available.

It's the latter two marques that I'll be driving. First I'm given a quick orientation of the track in a Mazda, during which one of the older instructors shows me how to negotiate the corners, where the chicane looms, and how to avoid the kerbs. “Don't drive across them!” he warns. From then on, it’s me at the controls (with my instructor in the passenger seat), first in a Porsche Cayman, then a Lamborghini Huracan, and finally a Ginetta G20 racing car.

My wing man for the Lamborghini is Paul Moss, a freelance instructor who used to race karts and clubmans as a youngster. I’ll admit I’m not the most aggressive driver, and the hand-paddle gear shifts take a bit of getting used to. But Paul is encouraging and positive throughout, egging me on to put my foot down on the straights. On the longest straight we reach 80mph, although, being so low to the ground, it feels much faster. I ask Paul if he ever has to rein in his more excitable pupils.

“Sometimes I get a hothead in the driving seat, baseball hat turned backwards; that sort of driver,” he says. “I’m never offensive or aggressive. But if they don't do what I’m asking, I’ll pull them in. I don't want to get hurt. I don't want the driver to get hurt. And I don't want the car to get hurt. At the end of the day, safety is paramount.”

Even with the most experienced drivers, around 105mph is the fastest Paul permits on this track. “It’s not so much the speed that worries me,” he adds, “but the braking. The corners do come very quickly, and there’s no run-off.”

That’s not an understatement. As I swing the Lambo around Hawthorn Turn, Tower Bend and Sunny, I can feel the vehicle’s immense power. There’s a mid-mounted 5.2 litre V10 engine which puts out 602 brake horse power, accelerates from 0mph to 60mph in 3.2 seconds, and has a top speed of 202mph. To a sports car virgin like me, the dashboard looks like something out of Star Trek. This is the sort of car that gets Top Gear types salivating. A new one sells for more than £180,000. “This is my office for the day,” says Paul, gesturing at the car’s luxurious, high-tech interior after we’ve completed four laps and parked up in the pit lane. “What a great place to work.”

When he’s not instructing drivers, his job is sign-writing. His other car, he tells me with more than a tinge of regret, is a Ford Transit van. Unfortunately he’s not allowed to take the Lamborghinis home with him since the car’s owner leases out his precious machines to Croft Circuit just for the day. As Paul says, “He likes me but he doesn't like me that much.”


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This article was taken from This is Y 2017