This post is from events that occurred on 4-7 April, 2015.
We had another long day in the truck driving today towards the namesake for this country – The Great Zimbabwe Ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site – one of the four stone monuments in the world with Machu Picchu, The Great Pyramids of Egypt, and The Great Wall of China. This represents the only medieval ruins in sub Saharan Africa and the ruins themselves combine with the rocky natural landscape in a way that is very similar to Angkor Wat – a place that has grown symbiotically with trees.
Unfortunately, I will need to do more independent research on the story and history of this place since our tour guide had such an incredibly strong and difficult to understand Zim accent – I barely grasped a quarter of what he said. The parts that I did understand included learning about the structure of society for the 12,000 or so inhabitants of the city in the 15th century, that the boys entered long initiation classes to teach them how to be warriors and hunters, where the young women received classes on how to be good wives (I know, shocking, right?) The stones themselves that were used in the construction of the city were granite and forged with fire that when cracked, formed straight cuts that allowed for the bricks to be layed one on top of the other without cement – though far less accurately or aethestically pleasing as the stones used by the Incas in Peru, in my opinion.
Climbing to the summit of the city – we learned how the king in those days would have to show his uncommon and worthy strength by wrestling a crocodile, bring the crocodile to the ceremonial plaza at the summit, and proceed to have royal incest with his sister on top of that crocodile – all in an effort to prove that he was worthy of ruling over his kingdom.
Archaeologists are still struggling to excavate and uncover more artefacts at this site, but our guide told us that the last attempt to work on the ruins resulted in the scientists abandoning equipment in the depths of the buildings due to being terrified by the spirits that haunted ancient caves and cellars.
It was an enjoyable evening and we even had the opportunity to observe families of baboons, blue balled monkeys (yes, you read that right) and rock rabbits. Plus, we camped only a few minutes’ walk from the grounds, so after preparing dinner for the group, it was a simple process to roll into my tent and collapse asleep.
From there, we were heading to Gweru, the home of Antelope Park – a private Game Reserve where they are attempting to breed lions and then raise the captive lions, teach them how to hunt, allow them to reproduce, and then take their descendants to release back into the wild, in an attempt to increase the numbers of lion populations that are rapidly dwindling.
Based on initial impressions, Antelope Park looked like it was going to be a very expensive zoo experience. However, after initially listening to the sales pitch with extreme skepticism, we were impressed by the passion that the research scientists showed for the conservation of the lion, and their attempts to also involve the local community in their efforts to save the lions by providing jobs, community investment into schools and orphanages, and also charging for some pretty unique animal experiences that are not available anywhere else on the planet.
I decided to sign up for the lion walk, a horse riding safari, a night encounter experience, and the lion feed.
Our first day at the park was marred with a tragic episode. It was Easter weekend, and a huge Christian delegation had descended upon the park and were busy in their festivities – we were in for a lot of prayer, singing and families picnicking in large throngs. We were being given a tour of the facilities and grounds when the air was pierced with a scream that could only signify something very bad had happened. Hundreds of people began gathering around the pool, and we looked on, horrified to see that a little girl had just been pulled out of the pool, lifeless and not breathing.
Luckily, several of the guests were doctors and performed CPR on the girl for the next half and hour while everyone waited for an ambulance to turn up. People prayed, held hands, and looked on, unable to tear their eyes away.
Our orientation canceled, we spent the next few hours hearing the crowds of worshippers praying, and singing for the recovery of the little girl. We later learned that she did die – and it certinaly cast quite the shadow over our arrival. I was reminded of Jennifer – the girl who drowned on my diving trip to the San Juan Islands 5 years ago. It was horribly sad – especially when we considered that the girl’s mother failed to watch her kids in the pool, despite knowing that there were no lifeguards on duty and that the girl was not a strong swimmer.
The sadness from the day before was magnified by a very distinct change in weather on the next. The rainy season was now in full force and we had a night of very heavy rain and even a thunderstorm. The rain, however, didn’t dampen our spirits as we went out to watch a Lion Feeding.
The activities were well worth the money that was charged. We got to watch Lions being fed an entire cow carcass, being released from their enclosures in a large group that then literally charged towards us and the meat, the only separation between us being a thin chicken wire fence. I can’t tell you how it felt to see these king of beasts charging seemingly right at you as if intent on taking your head off. I managed to get really great video footage by poking my camera through the fence, dropping it however, a few moments later when one of the Lions literally jumped right at us onto the fence and I shrieked in an autonomic response of adrenaline fuelled fear.
The weather was unabating and we enjoyed a game of South African Trivial Pursuit in the bar that afternoon while the heavens unleashed a deluge on our already water logged tents. We did manage to catch a peak of the “resident” elephants swimming across the river, and emerge literally right in front of the lodge bar where we were playing. It was amazing to be this close to these magnificent creatures.
The cubs that are raised from the breeding efforts are taken from their mothers when they are very young so that they “bond” with the trainers as if they are the lions’ parents. The cubs are then walked each day at least twice, as a way of the beginning process for teaching them how to hunt. We were invited to walk with a couple cubs who were about 10 months old at dawn. The cubs were adorable, playing with one another as brother and sister, chasing each other, rubbing against our legs and generally behaving like cuddly kittens instead of the wild powerful animals that they are. I got the chance to walk alongside the lions, pet them and be photographed with them, and it was wonderful. Something I will not soon forget.
Since the game reserve was also well stocked with other game – giraffe, springbok, antelope, impala, waterbuck, zebra, wilderbeest and other deer – I opted to go on a horseback safari since I’d yet to go on a horse ride, and this opportunity also afforded me the chance to get super close to the animals as well as enjoy being on horseback.
What I didn’t realize, until we were already well into the bush, is that the horses we were riding were trained thoroughbreds, and mine had also competed for years as a professional polo horse. This horse, named Waverunner, had an interesting personality. He only liked to amble slowly, and then would trot to catch up to the other horses. However, if the other horses decided to go fast – he was intent on outpacing them almost immediately.
We cantered several times and Waverunner almost broke into a gallop on several occasions, manoeuvring around bushes and trees with the dexterity of a polo horse. It was quite a challenge just staying in the saddle.
It was also unique being able to get so close to the wildlife. At one point, we came across a small herd of giraffe, and my horse was comfortable approaching one of the older males to within a few feet of him. Craning my neck upward to see his face, so close to my own, was very special.
The highlight of our three day stay, however, was the Night Encounter. Basically, the slightly older cubs (in our case they were 24 months old) are released from their enclosures once a week or so (that’s how often Lions’ typically feed) and will follow their “parents” in the safari vehicle as they are led out at sunset to view the game, and hopefully make a kill and get their supper served extra fresh.
I had low expectations despite the trainers telling us that we had a 50/50 chance of seeing the lions’ efforts meet with success. Just seeing the lions following us in the truck was a thrill in and of itself. I will never forget the trainers ‘ thick Zim accents cajoling the felines with “Come, come , come, come come! Come, Lions! Good, Lions! This way, Lions!” It was hilarious..
The three lions also played with each other and at one point had a little tussle that resulted in a catapult-like jump mid-air right in front of our open air vehicle. It was a scene directly out of The Matrix, and we all held our breaths when we saw it – feeling that we had already got our $95 worth.
We were in for a real treat. As the sun was setting, our truck came across a herd of wildebeest and zebra and we watched the lions create their hunting formation, splitting into 3 separate tracks as they began a super exciting chase that we got to watch as the sun was setting. It was incredible, and I really got the feeling that we were also on the hunt…side by side with the lions.
Unsuccessful, the lions looked tired and a little discouraged. Driving on, it got really dark, and the trainers “helped” the lions by using a red beam light that when scanning the horizon, immediately picked up any sign of life by illuminating the glowing eyes of any unfortunate prey that was around.
Soon enough, our truck crew spotted a single creature – an impala, who was by himself – indicating that he was probably one of the weaker members of his group, since he’d been left alone by his herd. We circled around the creature until a clear path was established that the lions could take to make their approach to the lone animal.
We watched, our breaths held, as the lions disappeared into the tall grass. What seemed like only a few seconds later, we saw the impala take a giant leap into mid air, only to then disappear into the brush with a lion attached to its neck.
“We have a kill! We have a kill!” our driver yelled out, and we revved into high gear as the land rover drove within a few feet of where the lions were in the process of the rather gruesome task of killing and eating their dinner.
One of the lions had it’s teeth in the poor impala’s neck , while, rather surprisingly, the two other lions proceeded to lick the impala’s body. Asking what this meant, we were told that the lion was just figuring out the softest spot for its first mouthful.
After what seemed like a very long time indeed, and unfortunately, a long while after the lions had begun their chewing, the impala died and we watched in awe while they feasted. It was disturbing, but at the same time, completely mesmerizing.
Even more surprising, the trainers leapt from the truck once the majority of the kill had been consumed, and dared provoking the hungry lions by pulling the carcass away from them, shooing them away, and putting what was left of the kill in the back seat of the truck! We were told that it was important for the lions not to finish completely, as the carcass would split into 3 and the lions might be “lost” in the reserve to the dark night. Instead, they would obediently follow the truck back to their enclosure where the remaining carcass was thrown for them to finish off.
And they did. Which was quite remarkable.