Remember a special road trip to a tourist attraction you've never forgotten?
It might have been travelling to a theme park somewhere, a weekend trip to the Blue Mountains or South Coast maybe, or even an adventure to the then new destination of Timber Town on the north coast.
But decades ago, there was a very different and memorable road trip right here in the Lower Hunter, still attracting an average of 1500 visitors a week to the very end. But it wasn't enough.
Here's a hint: it was within a lion's roar of the Pacific Highway, just north of Raymond Terrace. This once exciting adventure destination lasted only seven years, but left indelible memories among a generation of Novocastrians now mostly middle-aged.
This once exciting adventure destination lasted only seven years.
I'm talking about the once much-loved Raymond Terrace Lion Safari Park, which now exists only in memory. On a 30-hectare bush site nine kilometres north of the town, it was one of only two drive-in lion parks in NSW in the late 1970s.
The park, with eventually many exotic animals, opened in April 1974 and then quietly closed in September 1981 as the novelty of lion parks gradually declined.
People with keen memories might recall there was a sign outside the long cyclone wire fence perimeter warning "Trespassers will be eaten!". Others take particular delight in recalling a sign near a gate reading "Pommies on push bikes - welcome!"
Former visitors, often child passengers in family cars, remember the double-gated safety entry to the lion park, patrolled inside by white jeeps with large zebra stripes. There was a bridge suspended over a small lake outside and a playground timber stockade called Fort Courage near picnic tables.
Families would line up in their cars with windows firmly wound up to gain entry into the heart of this bushland park. On entering, the cars would be very slowly driven around by their owners in order to see wild African lions casually strolling by outside. Sometimes they would even jump on a car's bonnet.
Some car occupants were startled when a hungry lioness leisurely came by, stopped and then decided to lick the vehicle's windows. Feeding times for these languid, yet menacing, lords of the jungle were at 2.30pm Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. They deliberately weren't fed on Mondays and Wednesdays.
At the time, the lion park's chief game warden and manager, Leo St Leon, said this was done in an attempt to re-create the lions' natural feeding habits.
The prowling predators, about 28 of them initially, were fed each day when the park first opened but "this was stopped when they became too fat and lazy". In the wild, after lions made a kill, they would eat ravenously then digest the food for about two days, the late St Leon once said.
At the peak of the popularity of the lion safari park, the sight of a pack of hungry lions trying to claw their way through heavy gauge steel bars on raw meat trailers attracted several thousand people to the park each weekend.
Often fighting each other, the lions became competitive at feeding time, with several carrying scars from the encounters.
The first adult lions, both male and female, to arrive at the park in 1974 came with cubs with plans to add camels, donkeys, water buffalo, American bisons, alligators, goats and emus and other Australian fauna plus a large collection of Australian birds.
St Leon once said running a lion safari park was just "another part of show business". For until then, in the late 1970s, the normal showplaces for exotic animals were travelling circuses that gradually began to fade out.
The ever-smiling St Leon (1934-2018) a craggy-faced gent with a big personality, was certainly in the position to know. His family had been in show business for four generations. His great-grandfather, Matthew St Leon, had opened his first circus on the Sofala NSW goldfields in 1851. He went on to set up a dynasty of circus riders and acrobats, according to a 2018 obituary written by a relative, Mark Valentine St Leon.
Leo St Leon, once a bareback circus rider, was remembered as one of Australia's great circus performers until an injury ended his active circus career.
According to Mark St Leon, changing public tastes after television arrived even spelled the end of Wirth's Circus, a national icon, after 80 years in 1963. Permanent lion parks, possibly eight in all, suddenly emerged nationwide in place of many touring circus big tops.
Mark St Leon wrote that his cousin was then offered the task by the Ashton circus family to develop and manage the new lion safari park in Raymond Terrace.
Leo St Leon later went on to run a Newcastle theatre restaurant, a five-star restaurant in Sydney and other ventures before drifting back to his first love, the circus.
During his park tenure, the number of lions rose to 38 on site (in 1977). But by late 1981, as the park was forced to close because of financial difficulties, its new manager said homes had been found at other zoos for its animals.
By then, the park had seven lions, a tiger, a puma, four water buffalo, four deer, eight kangaroos, plus emus, sheep, goats and geese. The lions, however, were still the main attraction.
One person who remembers the now lost Raymond Terrace Safari Lion Park well is Geoff Greaves, 80, of Cardiff.
A former NBN TV reporter and foundation ringmaster of the Circus Fans of Australasia, Greaves says St Leon was "Mr Nice Guy" whose personal scrapbooks helped fill in valuable gaps in Australian circus history.
"His lion park was well run and he was very safety conscious. No lions ever escaped. They bred their own cubs and even trained animals up there for elsewhere," Greaves says.
"Leo's first lions came from Ashton's other lion safari park at Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. Ashton's also had a third park outside Brisbane, but it was Ashton's rival, the Bullen family, who had NSW's other lion park. It was at Warragamba near Sydney. It closed in 1991."
And that's the forgotten story of the Raymond Terrace Lion Safari Park, believe it or not.