Bullens African Lion Safari was “like the plains of Africa, but in Yatala”

When the circus industry waned, the Bullen family put the small Queensland town of Yatala on the map by promising adrenaline-filled safaris for the brave.

For nearly two decades, thousands of people have flocked to 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.

A lion called Big Charlie begs a ranger for lunch in the feeding cage.(Provided: Chris Browne)

Instead of big cats pacing in cages, visitors walked through large enclosures alongside the pride.

The only thing between them and a pack of 200-kilogram killing machines was the windows of their family car.

Jennie McIntosh visited the park as a child and says her Scottish husband could hardly believe something like this existed.

“You walked through this huge enclosure very slowly… there was tall grass, almost like the plains of Africa, but in Yatala.”

Safari parks followed the circus act

John McDonnell, Queensland history buff and creator of Lost Brisbane, said that before there was a lion safari, the Bullen family ran a traveling circus.

Alfred and Lilian Bullen started their shows in 1920 and toured the country with performers and exotic animals for almost 50 years before the popularity of circuses began to decline.

Red and yellow carts parked on a lawn in a park with people milling around them.
Bullen Circus pitches its tent in Musgrave Park, South Brisbane, in 1958.(Provided: Queensland University of Technology)

The next generation, brothers Stafford and Kenneth Bullen, opened the family’s first two African safari parks – one in Warragamba, New South Wales, in 1968 and another in Yatala, Queensland, in 1969.

The Bullen family would open eight safari parks in total.

Four small elephants stand on the grass as a crowd forms on a slight hill.
Crowds watch the Bullens Cricus elephants in 1958.(Provided: Queensland University of Technology)

Mr McDonnell said the park was a huge hit in its heyday, although seeing some of the animals required you to suffocate inside your car with the windows and doors closed.

“There have been incidents over the years where people have been scratched and one of the handlers has been attacked and killed by lions.”

Scary place to get a flat tire

Near 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 tires punctured in the middle of the lion enclosure.

A lion lying on the ground behind a parked classic car.
Families parked in the lion enclosure at Yatala for hours to watch the lions.(Provided: Warren Dunk)

“There was a sign out front saying if you’re in trouble, honk your horn,” Mr Coles said.

“We started honking…then the battery went dead.

Mr Coles said park rangers eventually came to tow his car away and scared away the curious lions so his wife and children could return safely.

Unsurprisingly, this was the family’s first and last visit.

“My wife wouldn’t have had a bar of it after that.”

Live next to lions

Darlene Costello’s mother ran the Yatala Post Office in the 1970s and 1980s, and her father’s barbed-wire property was across the boundary from the park’s lion enclosure.

“We had to go out and open a wooden gate to enter the property and we always checked for lions before getting out of the car,” she said.

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The family was so close they could hear the thunderous roars of the lions day and night.

“It was pretty scary…it was like they were right outside the door,” Ms Costello said.

“My husband must have had a thunder trip in the middle of the backyard one night at two in the morning.

His concerns weren’t completely unfounded either, according to former park employees.

Several said they remember water buffaloes and other exotic animals, including the occasional lion, escaping from the park.

An Indian elephant named Jumbo also regularly came out at night to steal bananas from a nearby garden and graze on the 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 dairy farms, sugar cane paddocks and a few small shops, Ms Costello said living near the park to the Yatala lions was a real treat.

She often visited the park’s attractions and gift kiosk, but it took her several years to work up the courage to see the lions with her father and girlfriend’s family.

“His little brother started screaming, he was hysterical because the lion jumped on the hood of the car,” she said.

“They were right in your face and looking at you through the windshield.”

A building with a sloping roof surrounded by a large paved area.
Visitors could browse the gift shop, ride a camel or elephant, and see native animals like kangaroos and emus.(Provided: Gold Coast City Libraries Local Studies Collection)

Safari staff also haven’t watered down their safety warnings for tourists.

If large signs warning people to stay in their cars and keep their windows rolled up weren’t enough, Ms Costello said a fake skeleton hanging from a tree at the entrance to the lions’ enclosure got the message across .

Feed the lions

Peter Uwins was only 15 when he left school and started working at the park full time.

He started picking up trash and mowing the park’s lawns, but by the age of 17 he was inside the metal feeding cage serving hungry lions chunks of meat through a chute .

“You would be in the cage with the liver and heart cut out and the lions would climb onto the cage and walk slowly with it while you fed them,” Mr Uwins said.

“It was a bit of a show for the parked cars watching everything.”

Whenever a horse or cow died at a nearby farm, park employees picked up the carcass to feed the animals.

A photograph from a postcard showing a liger walking beside a chain-link fence.
Peter Uwins says the park liger, a lion-tiger cross, was “extremely friendly” because it was hand-raised.(Provided: Chris Browne)

While working at the park, Mr Uwins was nearly run over by an elephant, but he said letting the lions out of their cages at night was the riskiest job he had ever done in his two years of work.

“You would park the safari car blocking the door, open the sliding door and run into your car to reverse to let them out,” he said.

“Some mornings they wanted to go out more than others.”

These days, when Mr. Uwins isn’t running his pest control business, he helps run a social media group where people share their memories of the park.

What remains of the Bullens African Lion Safari?

After the park closed in 1988, the land was purchased by developers and subdivided.

Today the site is an industrial area and the only evidence of its rugged history is a former Lions Park Industrial Estate sign and a street named Lions Park Drive.

Gold and red enamel pins with a lion's head on the front
Jamie Lye’s father received these enamel pins at a reception at Safari Park, near Beenleigh, in the 1970s.(Provided: Jamie Lye)

Craig Bullen, Alfred and Lilian’s grandson, has followed in his family’s footsteps and works as an animal trainer for the film industry with his wife, Zelie Bullen.

He is recognized for his work on films such as Red Dog: True Blue, Australia, Storm Boy and Charlotte’s Web.

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