After I decided to volunteer at Antelope Park in Gweru in Zimbabwe many people asked me if I really wanted to go there. Everyone is afraid of something; I was afraid of big dogs. That is partly why I wanted to travel there – to test myself and overcome my fears. ‘Where else in the world’ – like the motto of Antelope Park says, can you walk with lions?
When I reached Zimbabwe for the first couple of hours I felt afraid – not about the animals I would soon see, but about everything around me. Bulawayo airport, if I can even call this blue metal box an airport, is probably the creepiest airport in the world. It is like a magazine with two entrances without any doors; the only signs are two handwritten ‘departures’ and ‘international arrivals’. We landed on grass, but nevertheless it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced.
‘You look scared’ the woman who was sitting next to me said, looking at my facial expression.
‘I am…’ I admitted.
‘Don’t be. You will see how great and friendly this country is. You go to South Africa, you could be robbed, you are here and you can feel safe here’ she smiled at me.
The bus from Bulawayo to Gweru was surprisingly much more comfortable than all the American Greyhounds I have ridden. Sam – the manager for the Lion Volunteer Project picked me up from the station with his truck explaining to me everything about the handlers working in the park. He described their funny names such as Lovemore, Jealous and Bigboy. In Zimbabwe even ‘Iloveny’ was a name given to a child after the parents saw one of the famous American ‘I love NY’ T-shirts.
When Sam introduced me to other volunteers from all over the world (United States, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, France) he said ‘This will be your new family for the next two weeks of your stay’. The age of volunteers was widespread. The youngest volunteer was 18 and the oldest 65. Upon meeting the other volunteers and staff, I realized how nice and accommodating this place actually is and my initial fears were not grounded in reality.
The morning I woke up in my wooden bed with a feeling that I was not alone. After hearing all the stories about African cobras I became quite scared. Something was under the quilt near my legs; I could feel it. Something long, so I thought it’s a snake. I didn’t want to scream, because Vicky – the woman I shared a room with was still sleeping. I uncovered myself from the quilt… fortunately it was just a stretched out ginger cat bundling at my feet.
At 6:30am, it was time to walk with lions for the first time. I was assigned to walk with the ’2Ds’ – Damisi and Dakiya, the largest and the oldest lions in the Park. When I arrived at their cage surprisingly I felt absolutely no fear. People around me were petting them, treating them like cats, so why should I be afraid? I just started doing the same thing.
It was a typical Sunday morning in the African bush. Two lions – a male and a female, are hiding in tall grass enjoying the sun. They look like they are enjoying the views of a cloudless blue sky and tall grass. Suddenly they realize the presence of zebra and start running for her. ‘Damisi, Dakiya! Come back here!’ I find myself calling the lions. A male lion turned his head in my direction. Their hunting stopped. Lions were coming to me. It was simply amazing! It’s an unforgettable feeling when the lions returned and started behaving like kittens – touching me with their heads and walking around my legs without leashes. There was no fear, because they were not going to bite, they were listening to people. Perhaps these lions knew of the struggles they would face in the wilds if left to go free in Zimbabwe.
At 8:30, after a walk, we enjoyed an English style breakfast prepared by Zimbabwean women. The coffee was unpleasant, but I drank it anyway following the African rule of ‘TIA’ – ‘This is Africa’, which simply means that it could be much worse. After breakfast, at 9:30 I had another lion walk, this time with ‘MKs’ a set of cubs – Kali, Moyo and Mika. These three lions each had different characters, but all of them were playful and full of energy.
In Antelope Park all work was fair game. The last sessions for the volunteers was usually the dirtiest type of work such as chopping up a cow to feed the lions – my group went to clean the Elephant enclosures. I couldn’t have imagined doing this before, but it was just like cleaning after your own dog in the park. It is just a wee bit bigger. Where else in the world can you see such an International group of people shuffling animals’ poo and enjoying it? The prize for a clean enclosure was an elephant ride, but elephant rides are available everywhere in the world, even in a circus. But only in Antelope Park can you be a victim of a sneezing elephant. It is definitely unforgettable, especially for your clothes!
Clothes weren’t lucky in Zimbabwe that day. Fence making and painting helped destroy them even more. Although nobody was complaining, all of us knew what we were going to do when we signed up for this program. Zimbabwean people are working there no matter if it’s raining or is incredibly hot. They work a minimum of twelve hours a day sometimes with only a 10 minute break for a lunch. Long hours of hard work for just 100$ a month. I asked if they can go on strike to get more.
‘We can’t complain, because it’s too hard to find another job in Zimbabwe.’ Lovemore explained. They might have been afraid that one day they could lose their jobs and wouldn’t have any money to feed their families. They certainly had a reason to be afraid of this, but they never voluntarily talked about this.
‘And you never ask for the tips’
‘No’ he added. ‘All the volunteers give us something’. For them 10$ means a lot, for us it’s just another coffee and a muffin from Starbucks.
Before dinner I had to take a shower; for obvious reasons I felt like I smelled really ‘fresh’. We had dead cow and poo perfume on our clothes and bodies. When I was washing my hair with my eyes closed I heard Sarah, the other volunteer, asking me if I need a lighter. ‘What for?’ I asked surprised, opening my eyes. I opened them, but it was still dark. The lights went out, because of the electricity cuts.
After I washed in the dark I went for dinner: Impala steak, rice, potatoes, apple crumble. Impala was quite good, much better than Zimbabwean chewy beef. And I must mention the Zimbabwean typical dish: sadza. It’s a corn pap similar to Italian polenta or semolina porridge. After we ate we felt quite tired after a full day of activities, so we just sat around the fire pit drinking Amarula – a South African liquor made of Amarula fruits which tastes similar to Baileys. Although Zimbabwean traditional alcohol is Scud, after trying it – I can’t really recommend drinking this yeast based booze. Sam was playing guitar and everybody was singing ‘In the Jungle, the mighty jungle, the lions sleeps tonight. In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lions sleeps tonight…’ Believe me, around 10pm I was glad I could just go to Morpheus’s arms.
On Saturday there were no lion walks. We had to be ready for the “Day Encounter Section” of our volunteer work at 5AM which involved taking the lions for a hunt. We heard them roaring in the dark, but couldn’t see them. Everything was silent. No cars, no human sounds. Only lions were roaring before their breakfast. Later on we started preparing the trip to go to a local orphanage in Gweru. We were quite surprised when we discovered that we were actually going to ride in a big green meat truck. There were some mattresses on the truck, but it didn’t provide much comfort against the terrible road conditions. As we pulled into town – we were the biggest attraction for the people in Gweru – a group of white people on a meat truck, moreover holding green vegetables which we picked from the garden before!
A visit to the orphanage was great, but sad as well. Some kids approached us smiling and started playing with the bubbles we gave them. Some of them were not confidant at all. We all knew how ill some of them were, with no chance of recovery without money for treatment. It was sad yet uplifting to see their spirits… where else in the world can you see people so happy about their lives even if they only have a shed to live in. Those orphaned kids were so happy when they met us – enjoying their moments despite all the poverty and the situation they had been dealt.
On the way back to the orphanage our unusual transport provider was hit by a bus. Fortunately nobody was hurt. It was then quite hilarious to observe the passengers after the accident; they started putting on sunscreen, because we were standing in the sun. You would have thought they would have had more important things to worry about! There was no stress, no fear.
By this time, we probably stopped being normal – I mean after-all, who is normal who walks with lions? We then spent almost 2 hours sitting under tree on the truck in front of the police station, just waiting. Everything would be all right if it didn’t start raining. Not to be – instead of rain, it was a big storm with thunder! Again, nobody really cared about the frightening weather and loud claps of thunder. Instead we sat outside and ate a pizza – all the while, laughing at the situation. Even when thunder hit the roof of the gas station we were under. On the way back it was raining cats and dogs; while driving we were drinking beer from the opened cans, trying not to completely freeze.
In a situation like this you can be angry or just laugh. Following the Zimbabwean example we chose to laugh. ‘TIA’ – and everybody’s carefree and happy in Zimbabwe.
When I was leaving the marvelous Antelope Park and Zimbabwe I went to say goodbye to the lions. Mika greeted me for the last time. I had a feeling they knew when people were leaving the Park. I hugged her once again completely forgetting I was petting a wild animal. I treated her as a friend, not like an animal I should be afraid of. I didn’t want to leave Zimbabwe, but I believe that one day I’ll be back. To the place where there is no fear and everybody’s happier than anywhere else I have been.
And I’ll visit my new friends, the lions.