"Pumbaa, are you nuts? We're talking about a lion. Lions eat guys like us." Part III: Zimbabwe

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Africa » Zimbabwe » Victoria Falls
September 21st 2008
Published: September 21st 2008
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Simba means "lion" in SwahiliSimba means "lion" in SwahiliSimba means "lion" in Swahili

It's all fun and games until he's got your neck in his mouth.
“The political, social, economic, and security situations in Zimbabwe are volatile and could deteriorate quickly without warning."
-U.S Department of State website

"Where you're going is the only place in the world where the geese chase you."
-Ian Malcom, The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Finally I reached the third and last crusade of my Indiana Jones-saga spring break adventure. The day after rafting, we woke up early and crossed into Zimbabwe from Zambia and entered that infamous country, the same country that once upon a time had one of the strongest economies in Africa, and had the second largest white population outside of South Africa. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, now a corrupt, power-rabid ruler, was once knighted by the Queen of England and even received an honorary degree from Michigan State University, both of which have since been stripped from him. Additionally, Zimbabwe has produced some great citizens of the world from Nick Price, a former PGA and British Open champion in golf, to more recently Kristy Coventry, a female swimmer who won 4 medals for Zim in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (South Africa as a country only won 1 medal the entire Olympics). Danny Archer, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character
Hakuna MatataHakuna MatataHakuna Matata

Nice lions...nice lions...
in Blood Diamond, is also from Zimbabwe, but he is neither real nor a great citizen of the world, but if he helps you think of Zimbabwe, so be it. Despite this history, the hyper inflation, political corruptness and crime is real, so we knew we had to keep our eyes open when we entered the country.

We went to a lion sanctuary just outside of Victoria Falls (the city) to walk and pet lions. The lions at the sanctuary are part of a lifelong process that breeds the lions and prepares them to be released into the wild. The sanctuary is part of a national park and the entire time I thought about Jurassic Park, from when we pulled up in our van and saw the green 'Lion Encounter' sign ("What do they got in there, King Kong?"-Ian Malcom) to the fact that we were walking beside and petting real lions that were, at their core, wild animals and kings of the jungle ("A T-Rex doesnt want to be fed, it wants to hunt." -Dr. Alan Grant.) Don’t worry; they didn’t have a goat chained to a pole behind an electric fence feeding them.

First we were briefed on the entire sanctuary's mission on how they raise the lions. While in their youth, the lion cubs are raised like pet dogs with the park staff feeding them and training them. Eventually the lions are slowly taught to hunt and eventually hunt down their own prey within the park. The word 'taught' I thought was very subjective, because I figured the lions inherently know how to hunt and that they'd recognize what to do if they saw prey in the wild. The staff slowly weans themselves away from the lions over time and eventually the lions are released into the wild.

We then set out on our Jurassic Park-type trail into the sanctuary. The guides handed us long, skinny sticks to "distract" the lions should the lions come near us in a not-so-neighborly way. The guides warned us that lions’ sense nervousness and are drawn to the smaller, feeble humans: natural selection at its finest. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t nervous, and I wasn’t the smallest nor feeblest in my group. You know you're heading into some place wild when a scout guide walks a few yards ahead with a rifle, just in case some of the animals "get too curious." (Kind of like Muldoon in Jurassic Park searching for raptors). Life tip #1: If you're ever approached by a lion in the wild, stand still, as you would a T-Rex in Jurassic Park. Lions aren’t necessarily blind to non-moving things, as Jurassic Park portrays T-Rex's as being, but lions wont view you as a threat if you aren’t moving. Life tip #2: If you are charged by an elephant in the wild, run in a zigzag pattern away from it. The elephants are so big and build up so much momentum when they charge that they can’t shift as easily and their knees would give out. When my brother and I used to play football with our Beanie Babies before I left—I mean, when we were younger—I used to have my elephant beanie baby at left guard, which in hindsight was the correct spot for it, although I could have used it as a downhill running back ala Mike Alstott or Jerome Bettis. An elephant wouldn’t work at the tackle positions because the defensive ends would be able to spin around them. I know I'm on a tangent here, but don’t come crying to me one
The Smoke that ThundersThe Smoke that ThundersThe Smoke that Thunders

"The Smoke that Thunders" is what the locals call the falls.
day when being charged by an elephant and you're thinking to yourself "Now, what position did Kyle's beanie baby play? Tackle? Center? Damn it!"

We finally approached two young lions that were 18 months old. They didn’t look like 18 month old human babies though, they looked like teenage lions with their manes about halfway grown in and they still had spots on their paws. Young lions are born with many spots on their paws and as they mature the spots go away. After 18 months the lions become too big for people or the trainers to control with certainty, so they are no longer allowed to walk with people. The lions were bigger than some of the yellow Labradors in my family we jokingly compare to lions. Haley and the late Chet would have loved playing with them, but I don’t think they would have fared too well. A dog versus a lion is the zoological equivalent of Grand Valley State playing LSU in college football; a little out their league. Simba from the Lion King, based on his size, was probably only a couple months old when he was a cub in the beginning, and I don’t think he had spots on his paws (I haven’t seen the movie in a while, so correct me if he does.), whereas Roary, the Detroit Lions' mascot, is an adult lion because he doesn’t have spots on his paws.

Again, I’d learned my lesson twice in Africa about applying previous experiences to African experiences, so even though I’d swam with dolphins and ridden donkeys before, I respected the lions and pretended I’d never petted an animal in my life. I crouched down behind the first lion and had my picture taken. We crouched at its back leg, pretty much the farther spot from its head. I wasn’t nervous but I did keep my fingers crossed that the lion wouldn’t go Siegfried & Roy on me. The stick was important for the pictures as well because if the lion decided he wanted to taste you, you tapped your stick on the ground so it would be distracted by the motion (similar to how Dr. Grant throws the flare away from the T-Rex when they break out of the electric fences). The lion's fur was a little coarse, not as soft as a dog's, and their manes were still rough, more like Scar's mane in the Lion King as opposed to Mufasa's big royal mane. Additionally, we got to walk beside the lions while they took our pictures, stick in hand. Again, I wasn’t nervous, maybe because I knew Muldoon was walking ahead of me with an automatic. If I ever become a famous Las Vegas headlining magician, I don’t think I'll have a pride of lions living in my mansion though. Both of the lions (they were brothers) wrestled with one another and one of them was being a little stubborn and refused to walk by us. They're all cute and cuddly until they grow into Mufasa, then exhibit changes from walking with lions to running from lions.

After the lion encounter we went to a traditional Zim market where our trip guides told us we could trade things. I brought my gray study abroad satchel to trade since they gave them to us for free at orientation. In the words of renowned western philosopher Foghorn Leghorn, "There's something kinda eeeeeh about a boy carrying a gray satchel around," so I thought I could trade it, and I traded it for a hand carved drum. It is a small drum and there are still wood splinters inside it where the sander didn’t hollow it out properly (I wonder if they used DeWalt or Craftsmen?), but since I got the satchel for free and traded it for the drum, it is essentially a free drum, so that’s cool. For all I know, the Zimbabwean sellers went Thomas Friedman on me and outsourced their drum carving to a sweat shop in China and the drum isn’t even authentic. Hell, the entire market is probably contracted out by Wal Mart, so the entire thing probably wasn’t even authentic. Anyways, for $5 I obtained a $5 billion Zim note and a lion's tooth necklace that I'll either carry in my pocket like Dr. Grant's raptor claw or someone can have as a souvenir if they want. The $5 billion dollar Zim note is worth less than Monopoly money in the US but its cool to look at, and according to everyone I asked, including the South African guides on our tour, they said the lion tooth looks authentic, but I remain skeptical. I'll probably see the same thing hanging on a shelf in Target when I get home.

The most authentic part of the market was the people themselves. As whites, we were instantly swarmed by people trying to sell us various goods. Most of the goods were hand carved statues of animals or wooden plates; all of which seemed very nice and well crafted, and the people begged us to trade anything, from our socks to our backpacks. Now these Zim sellers are very shrewd and a combination of used car salesman, telemarketer, door-to-door salesman, seven-year-old-lemonade-stand-salesman, and bum trying to sell you tickets outside of a baseball stadium. The seller asks for your name, and out of politeness you tell him, or you pretend to be Indiana Jones or James Bond and give him a fake name. Regardless, the seller then becomes your best friend. “Okay, Kyle, my friend. Pick out anything you like. Pick out anything from my shop that you like, because you are my friend. Kyle, you are my friend, and I want you to pick out something from my shop.” But if you have no money left, as I did, you say “I’m sorry, I have no money,” but that doesn’t stop the seller. No, he’s got a little Wiley Coyote in him and keeps persisting. “That is okay Kyle, my friend. Your shoes? I will give you the giraffe carving for your shoes.” You apologize again and then he goes to his bullpen for his reliable closer: his starving family. “Please Kyle, my friend. You see, my family has no money. My children, they have no shoes. Please, I’ll give you the giraffe statue for your shoes.” Eventually you just leave in silence, but you have to admire their persistence.

As we left the market we were mobbed by little kids with cups begging for money and older women begging for food. It was kind of like the scene in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear is trapped in the claw machine in Pizza Planet and the alien toys all surround him and try to pull him away from the claw, only this wasnt as light-hearted and there was no claw to rescue us. Instead we made our way onto the main street towards Victoria Falls National Park, where there was more security and the people eventually left us. Of all the experiences down here I've had, from sharks to rapids to lions, the mass of people surrounding us trying to trade with us was the most overwhelming but one of the most authentic as well.

Like I said, we arrived to Victoria Falls National Park where there was more security, mostly because it is a world heritage site and its one of the biggest tourism spots in Zimbabwe. The phrase 'security in Zimbabwe' is kind of an oxymoron but Victoria Falls is generally a safer spot. The falls themselves from the Zim side were unbelievable compared to the Zam side. It was almost as if we were looking at an entirely different set of falls. You could feel the mist from the view points and rainbows formed at the base of the falls. The roar of the falls was deafening compared to the Zam side and you got to see a whole view of the falls coming down, not just from the sides. Zimbabwe definitely scored the better end of the geographical deal with Zambia.

So I survived Zimbabwe with my money, passport and limbs in tact, and heavy one drum, a Zim note and a lion's tooth (you can cue the Jurassic Park theme music if you want), and that also concluded my spring break adventure. Spring break will never be the same. While MTV and American culture stereotypes the dream spring break as “coeds gone wild,” I literally went in the wild for my spring break (Note: I am not, by any means, saying “coeds gone wild” is a bad spring break choice).The problems in Zimbabwe are real, as are the issues in South Africa, but the negative news stories that you hear don’t occur on a daily basis and the countries aren’t war-torn no man's lands of anarchy. I've experienced a renaissance for Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Lion King, and ironically Jurassic Park has come cross as the most accurate of all the movies. But now, just like Indiana Jones, I'm back at school, working on two essays and waiting for my next big adventure, or waiting for Steven Speilberg to call me to film a sequel.


21st September 2008

You are awesome!
22nd September 2008

OK, Like I said before, if you don't follow in Mitch's footsteps, you will have lost your calling. Well, maybe that is a little too harsh but PLEASE find a niche for writing somewhere in your future. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your Zim adventures. Love, Grandma
24th September 2008

Kyle, this my first read through and it is just incredible! What an amazing experience and I can't wait to hear the stories first hand.
23rd December 2008

Great blog! Thanks for all the advice on what to do when confronted with a lion or charging elephant... I'm sure it will come in handy one day! (As will knowing what position to place beanie babies on a football team!)

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