Another day at the office

Monday, January 11, 2010

From the Twitter feed:

Day 211: Another day at the office: walk with lions, pet them, hold their tails, full English brekky, helicopter ride over Vic Falls. Ho-hum.

I think I deserved it. After my two and a half days off at Kande Beach we had three long driving days to get to Livingstone, Zambia. That’s three more days of very early morning starts (sometimes as early as 5:30am). And three more days of bouncing around on the dusty truck, trying to kill time. And three more days of dirt and mud and tents and cold showers. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m fed up with the whole routine.

Now, though, we’re finally in Livingstone and I’ve bounced down my last kilometre of African road in the big orange truck and flapped my last plate. We’re at a campground / resort on the banks of the Zambezi river, and if you peer to the left from the bar you can see the mists of Victoria Falls in the distance. So even though the upgrades are really expensive, and the beer is somewhat expensive, and the food is not included, it’s nice to have landed. (The other drag is that the place is a $10 cab ride outside of the city, and we are strongly discouraged from walking in to town because we’re almost certain to be mugged on the road. It’s a real hotspot…. charming.)

But all that doesn’t matter, because this morning I got to walk with lions! Real African lions, that I walked with, even holding onto the lion’s tail like a leash, and actually got to touch and pet. This is all because I paid a whack of money to participate in one of the 9 zillion tourist activities that are offered all over Livingstone, including: elephant rides, quad biking, river cruises, helicopter rides over the falls, microlight rides over the falls, rhino walks, crocodile farm visits, bungee jumping, gorge swinging, zip lining, whitewater rafting, jet boating, canoeing, horseback riding, paintball, village volunteering, safari walks, golf and, of course, clay pigeon shooting. (Actually, the clay pigeon shooting is not available right now because clay pigeons are out of season. They’re really making an effort to preserve Africa’s native clay pigeon population by carefully regulating the recreational clay pigeon hunt.)

I picked the lions/helicopter combo package, though I was really torn between lions and elephants. In the end I decided it was likely that I might encounter elephants again in Asia, but the chance to get up close with a lion would probably not be repeated.

The day started with a 6:15am pickup from the campsite – I was going with Terrence (the truck surfer) from my Dragoman group. (It’s a bit strange that we’re not doing things as a whole group anymore – everyone is off to do their own things, though we are having dinner together tonight). We got to the Lion Encounter centre and had a brief safety talk – don’t wear anything dangly, don’t crouch down, don’t touch their face or ears, don’t panic, don’t run, stand your ground (yeah, right!). Then we were off to meet the lions. Our group of ten was divided in two, and each fivesome had a guide. We walked for a bit, and our guide pointed out hippo tracks and elephant dung and stuff, and then we caught up to where our lions were waiting with the handlers.

Our lions, Rusha and Rundi, both females about 14 months old. And yes, we were that close.

Our guide, Lacken, showed us how to approach the lions and then invited us over, one by one, to pet them.

Me, petting a lion. Seriously. You all need to quit your jobs and come do this.

The “walk with lions” encounter is run by a group call ALERT the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust. It’s a very new program – only started a year ago. Their aim is to produce completely wild lions, even whole prides, to introduce all over Africa. They plan to do this in four stages, only the first of which is operational so far.

  1. In Stage One, lions as young as six weeks are taken on walks to allow them to build their confidence in the African bush and allow their natural hunting instincts to develop; a necessary part of their pre-release training.
  2. In Stage Two the lions are given the opportunity to develop a natural pride social system in a minimum 500 acre enclosure. They will have plenty of game to hunt and will remain in stage two until they are socially stable and self-sustaining.
  3. The pride in stage two are released into a larger managed eco-system where they will have to deal with competitive species such as hyena. The pride will give birth to cubs that will be raised in a wild environment, within a natural pride social system and with no human contact; making them effectively wild lions.
  4. When old enough, the cubs born in stage three can be released into the great wilderness of Africa with all the skills and human avoidance behaviors of any wild-borne cub.

So we were walking with Stage One lions (Stage Two’s fence is still under construction). And walk we did. Strolling along with out guide, two lion handlers, and two volunteers with the ALERT program (there was also a man with a gun who went on ahead to prevent us from running into anything unexpected, like a wild elephant or a hippo or mugger). The guide had us all walk behind Rundi and hold her tail, which seemed a bit weird, but here’s the picture anyways:

Goofy expression, but what do you expect, I’m walking holding on to a freakin’ lion’s tail! (Photo by Terrence)

The walk went on for about an hour. We had lots of chances to take photos, and touch the lions, and I had to keep reminding myself to stay alert and on guard because they really were docile. The guide explained lots about them, and showed us their teeth and their claws.

Terrence’s shot of the lion’s dewclaw and paw and the guide’s hand. Apparently the paws continue growing for their whole lives. The largest ones ever found were on a monstrous male lion and were about the size of a dinner plate.

After the walk we went back to the Centre and had a nice full English breakfast, and they tried to sell us the DVD they’d made of our walk. Terrence and I both decided not to pay the $35 USD for that, on the grounds that is made us look fat. Also it was pretty cheesy, though it’s impressive they could turn them around in the time it took us to eat our beans and toast.

Gratuitous lion photo, this one is also by Terrence, who has a much nicer camera than me and even knows what lots of the buttons do.

And that was the morning. Blah blah blah. After a break at the hotel, Terrence and I were off again at 2pm for our afternoon adventure – a 15 minute helicopter flight over Victoria Falls. (Hell, in for a penny, right?). It will likely be the most expensive 15 minutes of my trip (about $120 US, bundled with the lions the package was $210), but it was an amazing perspective, and I’d never been in a helicopter before, and it seemed like another one of those can’t-do-it-anywhere-else things, so I went for it.

Our heliocopter – it was a tiny 4-seater, which was perfect, because it meant all three passengers got a window seat.

I liked flying in the helicopter – it was really smooth. I almost couldn’t tell when we’d lifted off – it was almost more like being in the hot air balloon than being in a fixed-wing aircraft. And the view was pretty great. I had no real idea that Victoria Falls looked like that – it’s nothing like Niagara or those kinds of falls – it doesn’t just fall over an edge and then continue on straight from there. The river falls over a cliff into a deep gorge that runs at right angles to it, making a sharp left turn. And the whole area upriver of the falls is dotted with islands, including the famous Livingstone Island, named after David Livingstone, who “discovered” the falls. (That is to say that he was the first white guy to see them, though they’d really been there all along. The natives in the area called the falls “the smoke that thunders”.)

You really can’t get THAT view from anywhere else.

Was it a $120 view? I’m not sure, but I also don’t regret going. The microlight might have been able to get closer, but you can’t take a camera with you on those flights, which really made up my mind.

And that was my day. Now I’m off to try and get this blog posted, and then to have a shower and head into town for a last dinner with the gang. I leave for Jordan on Thursday, so I’ve still got two more full days here; stay tuned from more expensive and fun activities. I’m planning on doing some of the fling-yourself-over-a-precipice kind of things, and I may try to get out to Livingstone Island because it really does perch right on the edge of the falls, which would be another can’t-do-it-anywhere-else thing.

It’s just really too bad about the clay pigeons.


Kathryn said...

Wow, Pam! That WAS a well-deserved day!!! You look pretty comfortable with that lion - you should think about getting one! hee hee. And the Falls are stunning. I once did a helicopter ride over Maui which (through my sheer terror) was ridiculously breath-taking so I can imagine how you felt.
You have, however, seemed to have regressed 100 days in your postings!

jst1203 said...

OH MY GOD! Worth every bumpy mile.

Mitch said...

Wow, I just watched a documentry on CBC with Ian Hanomansing about the demise of the African Clay Pigeons! There was a guest spot with Bob MacDonald (of course Bob had little cardboard models of the clay pigeons) and Peter Mansbridge! They were talking about the surrounding eco-systems, and that the Clay Hawk population was going to suffer! They were waiting for Brian Stewart to land and properly investigate the whole claytastrophe! They are saying this might become the next clay-gate/claymageddon!

Really looking forward to hear your reports on Jordan!
Keep it up!
Mitch & Laura

Unknown said...


Mouse said...

You might think it is a goofy expression. I see it as excitement, and pure delight. It's not everyday you can walk with lions. Woo Hoo. Loved this one.

Lisa said...

You looked so comfortable..perhaps a little of Henry's spirit was there in the lions...

Keep on truckin' (Oh wait, that part is thankfully over!)

Phoebe said...

Hi Pam,
I come to your blog by way of Kathryn...and I am finally current! I have enjoyed reading so much. Thank you for sharing your experience. I was looking at the 'big picture' and noticed that this leg of your journey is the only planned section of the trip to take place in the southern hemisphere. Care to comment on that? Of course apart from water draining in the other direction'-) I am curious about Stargazing...have you seen the southern cross? Any other constellations that are notable?

Cheers ~PJ

FLF said...

For what it's worth there are no national laws governing the keeping of exotic cats in Canada. Just need to check with your own municipality!!
What a day Pam...

Unknown said...

You're in one of the places at the top of my "to go to" list, so I'm hanging on your every word. I saw via Twitter that you probably went swimming in the Devil's Pool at Victoria Falls -- awesome! I came to your blog via Thanks again for sharing your journey with total strangers; I'm enjoying it immensely.

Unknown said...

WOW, my most favourite day for you to date! Freakin' lions. I would have been out of my mind giddy. Worth every penny.
The falls are gorgeous. Keep enjoying this amazing journey Pam!

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