If you are tired of your humdrum existence within the four walls of your house – or heaven forbid- your office cubicle, if you are after a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a little bit of African sun, then you know it is time to head to Antelope Park in Gweru, our final stop on the road trip around the World of Wonders that is Zimbabwe and on our way back to capital Harare. I took you all to Antelope Park last weekend and got you to hang out with the elephants before the three Ks’ evening game hunt which turned out to be more of an evening game looksy, but today we’re upping the ante and taking a walk on the wild side. Incidentally, Day 12 in Zimbabwe is also the day yours truly gets called a ‘good girl’ , gets a ‘belly rub’ (All courtesy of Danial!) and gets the wild idea to return to Antelope Park in 2012 to work as a volunteer. Well, I did say it would be a walk on the wild side.
Day 12 begins at around 6am as we are all ready and all ears for our safety talk before walking with 2 Ls – Laili and Lewa – two cubs which, despite having both had their first kills only a month ago, looks as cute and domesticated as house cats. But don’t be fooled: no dangling bags, cameras or hands allowed on this walk, or you may get the snack treatment and come back to base missing a bag, a camera or a hand. Lion Walking 101 – quickest lesson ever, it turns out, as we are all in a haste to rid ourselves of any dangling objects which may get mistaken for toys.
“Where else in the world can you walk lions?” asks Antelope Park’s publicity material, and as we hit the road with the 2Ls – at this stage Lewa has already taken a shine to me and doing her best to rub against my non-dangling hand as I do my best not to keep the said hand steady – it is clear the answer is Gweru Antelope Park. Lewa and Laili are picture perfect – golden coats shimmering under the Zimbabwe sun and blending in with the golden grass, they are all sleekness and swagger as they saunter down the track right by our side… until they catch the scent of a nearby herd of antelopes and it’s all hunter instincts – ears raised, eyes focused and lean, mean bodies tensed like arrows ready to hit bulls eye. We’re not in the luck though, as the antelopes prove just as quick to catch our pair’s scent and dart across the plain.
“Good girl!” Danial turns around and says by way of encouragement, only to find me behind instead of Lewa and hastily adds, “Oh sorry, Sinem, I didn’t mean you of course.” What the heck, I think, can’t a man give a compliment without taking it back a second later?
After a short break petting the lions and feeling like the kings and queens of the jungle – if only momentarily- before taking heed not to dangle any hands, we are promised a “belly rub” by Danial. Of course, he means the lions again! With that we head to the watering hall. Here we can catch Lewa and Laili’s attention only briefly to get the promised belly rub, for soon after they spot the birds, and unlike the almost hunt of earlier, this is play time as the cubs take off running in the wake of the birds’ flight.
With that, we leave the two Ls behind heading for an alfresco breakfast – by now Kwame has joined the infirmary of invalids that consist of David, Henry and Marc – and for a change, taking it easy with breakfast while the rest of us dig into possibly the best full English we’ve had on the road. Perhaps it is the knowledge that this is our last breakfast on the road or it is the fresh air, but whatever it is, we are tucking away with joy.
After breakfast, Felicia suggest a group photo and we line up in two rows on the bench tables much in the format of a class photo fit for a school trip – while the sensible lower row is ready for the photo, the upper row seem to constantly distracted by each other as we fiddle, faff and fidget around, with barely enough poise to strike a pose. Photos best laid aside, it is time to hang out with elephants again. By now, there have been so many elephants in my chequered Zimbabwe past, I do not know which one is my favourite as I hop from one’s back on to the other’s, but heck, what is a girl to do when there will come a time there will not be a pachyderm in sight?
Following our elephant interaction,it’s once again time to check out and head back on the road, final destination Harare in five hours – but not before Danial and the team take us to see the lions feeding. Not a decent sight by anyone’s standards, with animal entrails covered with flies, neither too flagrant, let me tell you, but it is definitely a sight to behold, seeing these lions dart out of their cages and pounce on their breakfast with sheer hunter’s savagery. Danial tells us that the feeding patterns they observe and monitor during the earlier stages of the rehabilitation helps ALERT to decide which big cat is likely to be the leader of the pack.
Before we hit the road again it is time to have a glimpse of the lions in the second stage of the ALERT programme. While Stage One takes the cubs through a programme which develops the cubs’ natural hunting and social skills as members of their pride and Stage Two sees them as female adults of three to four years of age and male lions of seven years of age minimum grow up in a monitored (only for research purposes) self-sustaining semi-wild environment where there is no human contact, it is Stage Three, also a self-sufficient 10,000 acres ecosystem with no human contact and in the presence of other competitive species such as hyena,which constitutes the nucleus for the final stage where once grown up, these offspring of the captive bred lions will be in the wild.
Sufficiently wowed by ALERT’s work at Antelope Park and our early morning walk with cubs Laili and Lewa, we’re back on the road to Harare, but not before attending a nearby wedding, courtesy of our tour leader Felicia whose brother is tying the knot in a white an blue themed wedding. Sadly, there is no time to sit down and enjoy a plate of sadza but we manage to get a couple of shots of the beaming bride and groom and their families before we are finally on our way back to the capital.
It is dusk by the time we reach Harare and everyone is too tired to even make small talk around the dinner table at Rainbow Towers (Richard opts to dine at nearby Meikles Hotel which is fully booked to accommodate us for the evening while Henry is off to see family). At around 9pm it is confirmed that our next day flight back to London is delayed by two hours and we’re almost ecstatic, already dreaming of the extra two hours of sleep before the 10-hour journey back.
As my head hits the pillow to the lullaby that is the sound of African music from Mandoza to D’banj playing at the pool party downstairs (Oh, to be 20 once again and enjoy a night of partying by the poolside before boarding an early morning flight after a 10-day long road trip… But no, at 33, I know my limits!) I reminisce on the 12 days in a World of Wonders.
From the luminescent smiles of impeccably dressed children and young adults we have met at schools to the breathtaking creations of Mother Nature that make you believe in a higher power, from the enchanting wildlife that makes your heart skip a beat when you cross paths with a rhino or come eye to eye with a giraffe to the man-made grandeur of Great Zimbabwe, this much overlooked and oft vilified (at least in the mainstream press) gem of southern Africa is full of promise, potential and plenty of moments that will make you go “Wow!”