This is complicated. So let’s start at the start. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, there was a lion park way out west. It was near Bacchus Marsh, on a large hill on the north side of the Western Highway. It was not a very good lion park. In fact, it was eventually closed down. Now there is no sign it ever existed. But Tracy knows where it was.
We drive on the Western Highway a few times a year, and when we drop down into the Marsh valley on the shady side of that hill, Tracy gives a kind of shudder, almost imperceptible, like a facial tic. She eventually told me the story. She had been taken to the lion park as a five year old, and has been unable to erase the memory ever since.
It was the middle of a very long hot summer, and the temperature that day could have been 42 degrees Celsius, except we didn't have Celsius then, so it was probably a far more impressive 100-plus Fahrenheit. Tracy’s family lived in Dandenong in those days; and there were no freeways. The marathon drive was about three hours, in an un-airconditioned car, with how many children? Five. Tracy told me her father, driving, was not happy. They had only been in Australia a few years after migrating from bonny Scotland, and their idea of a day trip was a picnic by Loch Lomond on a tartan rug, with sandwiches and shortbread and whisky. The prospect of going to a lion park in a heatwave was bad enough, but they were going with neighbours with whom he didn’t get on. Tracy's mother's idea.
Tracy took her new doll along. It was early January. The doll was a Christmas present. Tracy had named it Chrissie. She put Chrissie on the back parcel shelf of the car, to keep it safe. Along the way, Chrissie melted in the extreme heat. Tracy’s older sister had kept her doll on her knee, and it had survived, and there had been gloating.
Three hours passed. The lion park gates loomed ahead of a long queue of 1960s cars. The man at the gate warned Tracy’s father not to lower the windows, and winked at the children.
So we’re on a baking hill in arid Bacchus Marsh in a hundred degrees, in a car with all its windows wound up tight, and no air. In the car are two grumpy parents, and five children – some of whom are crying or fighting. The car moves forward slowly. A lion jumps onto the hood, then paws at the drivers’ window. The driver freezes. The mother screams. The children panic. The sun beats down mercilessly. Inside the car, the temperature may by heading towards sixty Celsius.
They survived, and made it into the relative sanctuary of the carpark area outside the large fence, where they had planned to have a ‘pleasant barbecue lunch’. When a steak finally hit Tracy’s father’s plate, it was immediately settled on by hundreds of flies, who probably had spent the last week feasting on lion dung. Tracy recalls her father flinging the steak to the ground in sheer rage, like a lion with a nail in its paw.
At least they got to wind down the windows on the three-hour return trip to Dandenong.
The story has taken on a life of its own, because the boys ask Tracy to tell the story every time we drive past the old site near Bacchus Marsh. I think it helps. Tracy no longer shudders. But I think she still misses Chrissie.
Anyone recall a day trip into hell?