There are no pretty paths or fancy enclosures at the rebranded Kingdom of Zion park. But there is the chance to get face-to-face with big cats.

A special holiday price has attracted increased patronage at the troubled Whangarei park which reopened three months ago after a bitter ownership dispute, numerous court battles and the death of popular handler Dalu Mncube, mauled by a tiger in May 2009 as horrified visitors watched.

Since then the Department of Labour has enforced a strict "no handling" policy to ensure the safety of keepers. Lion Man Craig Busch is back running the park after a three-year absence, but visitors no longer get to see him wrestle or cuddle the park's 35 big cats as he did in the popular TV series.

Back living on site - his house is next to the enclosure of his "favourite cat" and park namesake Zion - he is on hand to chat to visitors.


Visits to the park are by guided tour only and range from a walking tour for $60 to an $850 all-day look behind the scenes.

During our family visit, all that separated us from the powerful cats was a strong but basic chain-link fence. It meets OSH requirements and we felt safe but this is a close-up and interactive encounter.

One lion, Abdul, marked his territory as he lifted his tail like a neighbourhood tom and sprayed a row of unsuspecting visitors, while white tiger Rewa charged her enclosure with fence-shaking force.

We were warned not to look at the agitated tiger but like rubber-neckers at a car crash we did and Rewa put on an impressive display of the power and unpredicability of these beautifully wild animals.

Our party's five- and three-year olds learned just how rare the big cats at Zion are and that most have been driven by hunters to extinction in the wild. Even some of the rarest lions and tigers are still bred in some countries to hunt for sport.

The unique experience was not lost on the girls who were in awe of the big cats and bought two cuddly roaring lions in the small gift shop. The drive back to Auckland was reminiscent of our encounter at Zion - filled with deafening roars.