Our first evening at Antelope Park in Gweru in Zimbabwe was spent learning about what Antelope park does and what activities we were able to do the following day. We learned Antelope Park has a lion breeding program with the aim of releasing the lions into the wild. The program manager was a charismatic chap and explained that releasing captive bred lions in the past has failed miserably and thus their approach is entirely different. The reasons they feel releasing lions has failed in the past is because they release lions that are incapable to hunt for themselves and they have released single lions vs. prides. Their program is structured to breed the most dominant male and female lions and after three weeks of the birth of the cubs to take the cubs away and for the program manager to imprint on the cubs. They then teach those cubs to hunt on their own, and then place those cubs in an enclosure without any further human contact. These lions then breed within the enclosure and it is those cubs that are completely void of any human interaction that they will release as a pride. They are aiming to release their first pride within the next few months and hope to prove their innovative program works. If successful, the program structure can be applied to any predator such as tigers, cheetahs etc. The enthusiasm the program manager displayed for the program was infectious and I am very excited to follow its progress. They also rescue lions and have other activities with the lions that have human interaction. You were able to walk with the lions, go on a night encounter where you go hunting with the lions, or view an adult or cub feeding. There was also some activities with rescue elephants, you could go for a horse ride, go canoeing or a few other things. Chris and I settled on watching the adult feeding and the night encounter as we were keen to see the lions hunt. The lion walk did appeal to me but there is something I don’t like about interacting with a wild animal in an “un-wild” way if I can say that. After booking our activities for the following day we headed back to camp for dinner and a few drinks.
The next day I woke up early and handwashed both Chris and I’s laundry before heading out to watch the feeding at noon. They had two enclosures where they were feeding adult male lions. The first enclosure had an entire deceased donkey and calf. I will guarantee the smell is not one that does you any favors after a few drinks the night before. They released the lions and out of the 4 or 5 only two ran for the ‘prey’ and each selected one. The guide explained they are the dominant males in the group and the other lions let them feed first before going for the food. Both lions dragged their food away and assumed a protective stance. Neither fed, they both just licked the food a bit and whenever we got closer than they wanted they charged the fence and let us know. One of them pulled the intestines very gently out of its prey and licked the outside. Photo cred to Brad and ‘Rel!
We then moved to the adjacent enclosure to watch the second feeding and this time it was much more action packed. There was pieces of meat this time and no lion had established its dominance yet. They allowed us go crouch down at eye level of the lions and meat (they placed the meat as close to the fence as possible) outside the fence to get the full effect. They released the lions and they came full speed towards us at the fence and the meat. The adrenaline we experienced as the lions charged us was unlike anything else. They had a scuffle over the meat and there was a lot of noise but in the end they each got a piece and again dragged it away from the others and assumed a protective stance. We then had plenty of opportunities for photos and to try to not lose our breakfast from the smells. Thankfully after 15 minutes we headed back to camp. A very exciting experience that I highly recommend!
The afternoon was spent playing volleyball and passing the time in the sun. We were treated to elephants walking through the campsite before we started our game!
At 5:30 pm seven of our group headed to the open jeeps to head out on the night encounter. There were a lot of other tours at the campsite so it was a big group for the night encounter, 3 jeeps in total. They decided to take 4 lions, each around two and a half years of age, on the hunt as they thought it would increase our chances of seeing a kill. We headed out as the sky continued to darken and were excited to see the lions weaving amongst the vehicles. They teach the lions to think the vehicles are members of their pride so they follow them to the game. Each truck had a spotter with a spotlight who constantly was scanning the bush for a potential meal. The lions playfully weaved in between the vehicles, often falling behind as they practiced their hunting skills on each other. Our ‘pride’ stalked through the night and the anticipation was palpable in the air. The spotters found game several times but the lions were too far behind the vehicles so by the time they caught up the game was gone. At one point the lions found something on their own and ran off in two sets of two in pursuit of their meal, during which time we lost them and spent 15 minutes trying to find them again. Once we found them we all took a break, the lions laying quietly behind the vehicle while we enjoyed delicious hot chocolate. We could tell the crew really wanted us to see a kill, they were prepared to stay out as long as the lions continued to show interest in hunting. We spent a total of 5 hours on the trucks before finally calling it quits without seeing a kill. We were as hungry as the lions by this time as it was 10:00 pm and none of us had had any dinner. Despite not seeing a kill it was still a really incredible experience, there is nothing quite like being in the wild at night with predators capable of taking down big animals. I would definitely recommend it!
The next morning we headed to Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. Most of the group headed out on a rhino walk which Chris and I opted out of due to our incredibly close encounters with the rhinos in the Mhkaya Game Reserve in Swaziland. We chose to go for a run through the city, garnering the attention of the locals. They laugh at you as you run past, and laugh even harder when they see you running back the same way. Most of them see running as a mode of transport to get somewhere rather than a form of exercise. We relaxed the rest of the afternoon before an early dinner and evening. We were transiting very early the next morning to Hwange National Park where we had a game drive that afternoon. If you recognize the name of the park that is because it was the home of Cecil, the black maned lion that was lured out of the park and pouched by the [insert your choice of descriptive term here] American big game hunter. For the life of me I cannot understand the mentality of these hunters and how they possibly could derive satisfaction from killing such rare and beautiful animals. The rangers at the park discussed the loss of Cecil with us while on our game drive, pointing out that the Americans argument that he didn’t know that Cecil was wearing a collar was irrelevant as there is no quota for lions in Zimbabwe at all, meaning you can’t kill them at all irregardless if they are collared or not. My hope is this hunter is made an extreme example of, humans are the single greatest threat to the survival of the lions and killing them for trophies is simply unacceptable. While the lions are what has made headlines the past few weeks we didn’t spot any on our afternoon game drive. We were able to see both rona and sable antelope, both rare species of antelope. We then pulled into the watering hole in the soft glow of the late afternoon light and were treated to over 50 elephants from several different herds watering and cooling themselves. There were numerous babies in the herds, some as young as a few months old. We snapped some great shots and I was even able to get a good video of the elephants in the water, at one point one elephant even chased another, giving it a shove with its tusks. A great end to the game drive!
That evening at camp we were treated to a few visitors around the campfire. Several honey badgers checked us out over the course of the evening, getting increasingly close trying to sniff out any food from our rubbish. Brad and ‘Rel were able to get a few good shots, check them out below! I read an article in a ‘Wild’ magazine in South Africa about honey badgers and ever since have been hoping to see them. They are immune to most venomous animals such as snakes and scorpions as that is their food. They can be ferocious and are known as animals not to mess with. Their called honey badgers because of their love for honey and willingness to do anything to get it. Our cook told us they are delicious to eat!
The following day we hit the road early to make our way to our final destination of part one of our tour; Victoria Falls. Chris and I, Brad and ‘Rel, and Mr. Clemens (First name Mike but always referenced as Mr. Clemens) had been to Vic Falls before we chose to relax the first day we were there. Chris and I fit a run in before getting ready for our last dinner out as a group. We all went to the restaurant ‘In Da Belly’ (a play on the name of one of their official languages) which was located in our rest camp. Our crew gave a lovely goodbye speech and we had a delicious meal accompanied with traditional music. After dinner our crew began playing a few drinking games as it was our driver, Ian AKA Diamond Dog’s, birthday and our last night together. We had an absolute blast before heading to the local haunt, Shoestrings Bar and Backpackers. We stayed until close before climbing into our luxurious safari tents for the last time on tour.
The next morning we had to gather all our things, bring down the tents, and meet our new crew members for the rest of our journey. It was an ambitious morning for us all after a big night out. The afternoon was spent browsing the local markets where I purchased more souvenirs than ever before! I got a beautiful handbag and wallet that have proven very handy, and two tiny giraffe tree ornaments. The bartering that took place over the ornaments was very entertaining. The lady told me she would give me a very good price, opening with an offer of $20 USD. I almost keeled over from laughing considering I paid $10 for my big handbag. She told me the smaller the item the harder it is to make and thats why the price was what it was. After my continued laughter (and a few chuckles herself) she asked what I wanted to pay. I offered $1 USD. Now, you may think that is harsh but they definitely cost less than $50 cents to make so it was still a good profit. She matched me with $10 USD which made me laugh all over again. She wanted to know what I was willing to pay if it wasn’t $10, and I told her I was serious about $1! There was much back and forth and as I walked out of the shop she shouted $2 was fine. I obliged, despite still thinking it was too much it was a pretty good deal considering her original offer of $20. I enjoy collecting cloth tree ornaments as we travel as they are small and cheap, and I think it will be so fun to reminisce on our travels as we decorate our tree one day.
Later that afternoon our group had made plans to visit our cooks family and village. He was so incredibly proud of his family and home, and being Zimbabwean, so he was eager to share this with us. We picked up a ton of school supplies, balls and other toys to give to the kids and community. We took taxis the 20 km to the small village and arrived at Avels (our cook) home in no time. His wife and kids were so lovely and gave us a tour of their home. They had different rondavels for each component of the home; one for the guest bedroom, one for the main bedroom, one for the kitchen, and one for storage. The 4 huts stood several meters apart and all were enclosed in a fence, make the deconstructed house seem more like 4 houses side by side. There were a ton of other children from the village playing with Avels in the yard and were very pleased with their new toys. There wasn’t one of anything for each child, but without having to be told they distributed the toys amongst themselves and shared everything. I couldn’t help thinking what would happen if the same scenario took place in Canada. I am confident there would be many tears and fighting over the toys. The wife let some of the girls try to carry a bucket of water on their heads to the amusement of the children. Mr. Clemens also had a go at trying to chop down a tree, to which Avels wife said he wouldn’t qualify for a wife [to the amusement of our group this time]. We then walked further into the village where Chris was able to try his hand at pumping the water from the well, and we were able to try the local maze beer in the one shop. We were welcomed by the head of the village upon entering the shop, who was happy to chat with us. To end the afternoon we went to the home of Avels mother and met her, his sister-in-lawn, and his nephews. It was an enriching afternoon and we felt very blessed to have Avel invite us into his home and village.
We hurried back to town as we had to attend our pre-departure meeting for the second half of the tour. We were late and only caught the tale end of the meeting but found out the necessary information for the following day. We then rushed to grab a bite to eat and then head into the park for the lunar rainbow excursion. It was a full moon so we were able to enter after dark to view the falls and the inverse of a rainbow, the lunar rainbow. The cost for this was $40 USD and I have to admit it was a bit of a let down. The moon was stunning but it was tough to view the falls, and the lunar rainbow was so faint it could hardly be defined as a rainbow. It was neat to be in the park after dark but I think the excursion was too early in the evening, if it had been a bit later the moon would have been brighter and potentially made things more visable. I am still happy we went as otherwise we wouldn’t have known!
The following day we met up with Brad and ‘Rel to grab some of their amazing photos and use wifi. Together with Mr. Clemens we then headed to elephant hills to play 9 holes of golf. Brad and ‘Rel had played the last time they had visited the falls and had had a great time. The course is within the national park so the animals are free to roam. After tee’ing off on the first hole we spotted our first wildlife; warthogs happily grazing the course grass. I swear they were the only grounds keepers as the course was in rough shape. None of us had a stellar game but we had a lot of fun doing it and saw tons of impala, kudu and warthogs along the way. Two kudu were even locked horns rassling a few feet from one of the tee’s! We also had the rule that if one of the guys didn’t drive it past the ladies tee they had to drop their pants for their next shot, both of Mr. Clemens and Brad fell victim to this rule!
That evening Brad, ‘Rel, Mr. Clemens and Chris and I met for dinner at a restaurant called Carnivore where we were able to try a ton of game meat. Chris says he is going to cover what we tried in his own post [don’t hold your breath].
The next day we boarded our new truck with our new group to head to Botswana. I will cover the next part of our journey in my next post! Cheers!
*We booked our tour through African Overland Safaris, the Adventure Travel Division of Tshokwane Safaris, on behalf of Africa Travel Co. We experienced incredible customer service and were fully satisfied with the price we paid and the information we were provided about the tour. Find more information at: http://www.african-overland-safaris.com OR http://www.tshokwanesafaris.com.