Walking With Lions

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November 4th 2006
Published: February 8th 2009
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Twin 5 month old cubs
Zimabawe is a beautiful nation which has the capacity to be self sufficient. However, under the rule of its current dictator, Robert Mugabe, who lines his owns pockets with extorted wealth, the supermarket shelves are empty and his countrymen and women are forced to eat scraps from rubbish dumps just to survive. Meanwhile rich government officials act as the mafia to local businesses. This is why I don't condone travel to Zimbabwe with the current situation. Inflation at this time was around 2000%, but now (2009) it is about 100 times that and typhoid fever is rife with no medicines the treat the masses. Despite this, my tour started in Victoria Falls, rather than in Livingstone, a couple of kilometres away across the Zambezi in Zambia, which would have been preferable.

One can be forgiven for assuming the main attraction in Victoria Falls is the waterfall. While the thunderous might of the falls are impressive, it doesn’t compare with experiencing a lifelong dream whilst in town. With some time to kill before my main camping tour to Cape Town commences, I visit the tourist centre. There is a plethora of tours to choose from, ranging from joy flights and elephant
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Me patting Tamgunge
rides to bunging jumping off the striking Victoria Falls Bridge. Far from being an adrenalin junkie, I want something more sedentary and after noticing the cute lion posters on the walls it doesn’t take long to decide. After fantasising about my favourite childhood movie Born Free, I excitedly rush back to camp clutching my 'Walk With Lions' pamphlet. At dawn the next day I travel by minibus with a small group of tourists to a conservation park about an hour away. Over a fabulously strong coffee, we are given a tedious lecture on lion behaviour and safety. I start to day dream and wonder if my tourist dollars are going directly to the conservation of wildlife or into the pockets of corrupt government officials. Suddenly some one thrust a big stick into my hand as everyone moves to dutifully follow the guide through the scrub over meandering dirt tracks. Perhaps we need the stick to steady ourselves in case things get rugged.

The guide points out various footprints the different wild life make along the way. After twenty minutes and no sign of any lions, my impatience is exacerbated by the ever present flies becoming more intense with the
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Victoria Falls
heat of the day. The stroll is frustratingly punctuated as the ranger finds elephant faeces. With incredible fascination the guide dissects it with his bare hands and imparts facts on pachyderm cuisine. I get increasingly agitated as I think the offending elephant is eating through my quality lion time as. Also tiring of the David Attenborough style documentary, the group continues the search as we negotiate our way through the unforgiving sharp, thorny acacias swishing away flies attracted by the moisture forming on everyone’s brow. My mind wanders to colonial explorer, Livingstone, and the hardships he must’ve endured as he slashed his way through the ‘dark continent’. What was with those ridiculous pith helmets anyway? My corduroy hat gets hopelessly stuck on a sharp thorny acacia and I take great care to extract it lest I stab my finger. My persistence pays off as the animated ranger elatedly exclaims ‘there’s Tamagunge and his twin brother.’

The delightful five month old cubs trot side by side towards us. They take refuge from the encroaching heat and rest in the shade of a small scrubby bush. The whole group swarms around them and act like panthera paparazzi as everyone’s shutter clicks
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Guide explains elephant feaces
in unison. The cubs patiently wait as everyone has their turn in having a picture taken with them. It is my turn next and I am instructed to stand behind the cubs. Eagerly, I crouch down behind Tamagunge to pat him. Unlike my furry feline friend back home, I’m surprised to feel his rough and very coarse fur. In contrast to the other tourists, the young predator loses patience and upon my vigorous caresses he takes it as a cue to be playful. He becomes particularly mischievous and starts play biting my wrist putting his paw on my forearm to gain leverage. Suddenly, the wise words of the authoritative park ranger emerge from my subconscious, ‘One playful swipe from a five month old cub can cause some serious damage’.

I don’t know what to do. A smack on the nose like my pet cat's mother might cause him to get vicious and make the situation worse. Desperately I try to channel the infamous naturalist, Joy Adamson’s persona to gain control and confidence. It is useless, I am starting to panic and remember all too well ‘they can smell fear and prey on the vulnerable’ warning as I ponder imminent mauling. Luckily the capable guide springs into action and calmly motions me to put my stick across his scary incisors to prevent serious injury to my limb. Phew, that was close I thought and sigh in utter relief. Back at the lodge the adrenalin induces a wild hunger, making me fully appreciative of the hearty cooked breakfast awaiting us in the open air viewing deck. After refreshing the palate with a platter of cold tropical fruit, I digested the events of the previous hours and tried to recall if Joy Adamson ever had a stick for protection. I bet she didn’t. Sipping on freshly brewed coffee and overlooking the fresh African dawn I reflect further. I gained a healthy new respect for the continent’s ferocious big cats but maybe tomorrow I should book the fishing tour instead. I’m sure they don’t have Piranhas in Africa.


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