When the circus business lost its shine, the Bullen family put the tiny Queensland town of Yatala on the map promising adrenaline-fuelled safaris for the brave.
For almost two decades, thousands of people flocked to the Bullens African Lion Safari park between Brisbane and the Gold Coast to get up close to lions, elephants, bears, Australian animals and other exotic creatures including a liger.
Instead of big cats pacing back and forth in cages, visitors drove through large enclosures alongside the pride.
The only thing between them and a pack of 200-kilogram killing machines was the glass windows of their family car.
Jennie McIntosh visited the park as a child and says her Scottish husband could scarcely believe something like it existed.
“You drove through this massive paddock really slowly … it had long grass, almost like the plains of Africa, but in Yatala.”
Safari parks followed circus act
Queensland history buff and Lost Brisbane creator John McDonnell said before there was a lion safari, the Bullen family ran a travelling circus.
Alfred and Lilian Bullen started their shows in 1920 and travelled around the country with performers and exotic animals for almost 50 years before the popularity of circuses began to wane.
The next generation, brothers Stafford and Kenneth Bullen opened the family’s first two African safari parks — one at Warragamba, New South Wales, in 1968 and another at Yatala, Queensland, in 1969.
The Bullen family would go on to open eight drive-through safari parks in total.
Mr McDonnell said the park was a huge hit in its heyday, even though seeing some of the animals required you to swelter inside your car with the windows and doors sealed shut.
“Incidents occurred over the years where people were clawed and one of the handlers was attacked and killed by the lions.”
Scary place to get a flat tyre
Close to closing time on a sweltering afternoon in 1978, Ralph Coles took his wife and two young children, both under the age of three, through the park in his 1966 Ford Falcon.
The unthinkable happened.
One of his car tyres went flat in the middle of the lion enclosure.
“There was a sign up front saying if you’re in trouble, toot your horn,” Mr Coles said.
“We started tooting the horn … and then the battery went flat.
Mr Coles said park rangers eventually came to tow his car and scare away the curious lions away so his wife and children could ride back to safety.
Unsurprisingly, it was the family’s first and last visit.
“My wife would not have a bar of it after that.”
Living next door to lions
Darlene Costello’s mother ran the Yatala Post Office in the 1970s and 80s and her father’s barbed wire-ringed property was across the road from the boundary of the park’s lion enclosure.
“We had to get out and open up a wooden gate to get into the property and we’d always check there were no lions before we got out of the car,” she said.
The family was so close they could hear the lions’ thundering roars day and night.
“It was pretty scary … it was like they were right outside the door,” Ms Costello said.
“My husband had to make a trip to the thunderbox in the middle of the backyard one night at two o’clock in the morning.
His concerns weren’t completely unfounded either, according to former park employees.
Several said they recalled water buffalo and other exotic animals, including the occasional lion, escaping from the park.
A female Indian elephant named Jumbo also regularly broke out at night to pilfer bananas from a nearby garden and graze on grass between the lanes of the old Pacific Highway.
Terrifying close encounters
At a time when there wasn’t much else in the area except for dairy farms, cane paddocks and a few small stores, Ms Costello said living near Yatala’s lion park was a real thrill.
She visited the park’s amusements and gift kiosk often but it took her several years to pluck up the courage to see the lions with her father and his girlfriend’s family.
“Her little brother started screaming, he was hysterical because the lion jumped up on the bonnet of the car,” she said.
“They were right in your face and looking at you through the windscreen.”
Safari staff didn’t sugarcoat their safety warnings for tourists either.
If large signs warning people to stay in their cars and keep their windows wound weren’t enough, Ms Costello said a fake skeleton hanging from a tree at the entrance of the lion enclosure got the point across.
Feeding the lions
Peter Uwins was just 15 years old when he left school and started working at the park full-time.
He started out picking up rubbish and mowing the park’s lawns, but by the time he was 17 he was inside the metal feeding cage serving up chunks of meat to hungry lions through a chute.
“You’d be in the cage with cut up liver and heart and have the lions climb up on the cage and slowly walk along with it as you fed them,” Mr Uwins said.
“It was a bit of a show for the parked cars witnessing everything.”
Anytime a horse or cow passed away on a nearby farm, park employees would collect the carcass to feed the animals.
While working at the park, Mr Uwins was almost crushed by an elephant, but he said letting the lions out of their night cages was the riskiest job he ever did in his two years on the job.
“You would park the safari car blocking the doorway, open the sliding gate and run back into your car to reverse back to let them out,” he said.
“Some mornings they were more keen to come out than others.”
These days when Mr Uwins isn’t running his pest control business he’s helping manage a group on social media where people share their memories of the park.
What’s left of Bullens African Lion Safari?
After the park was closed in 1988 the land was bought by developers and subdivided.
Today the site is an industrial estate and the only evidence of its wild history is an old Lions Park Industrial Estate sign and a street named Lions Park Drive.
Craig Bullen, the grandson of Alfred and Lilian, followed his family’s footsteps and works as an animals trainer for the film industry along with his wife, Zelie Bullen.
He’s credited for his work on films such as Red Dog: True Blue, Australia, Storm Boy and Charlotte’s Web.