Reaching over to the nightstand, I wrap my hand around the wristwatch and silence its wake-up call. 5:45am, again. Still tired and sore from yesterday I slowly swing my legs over the bed and repeat the morning ritual. Kettle: check. Heater: check. No snakes: check. Unzip the tent, step out, inhale the morning air, grab my camera, snap a beautiful sunrise, and remind myself… Remind myself… Remind myself… What is it I’m supposed to remind myself? Oh, yes…
I get to walk with lions today!
My right knee seems a little bruised and sore, and it takes a minute to remember that I’d forgotten to push our beds together before falling asleep last night. At some point as I rolled over I went falling through, smashing my knee while Kim slept on blissfully. I should really speak with the cleaning ladies – we are “man and wife,” after all. Absorbing as much comfort and caffeine as we can from the instant coffee, we head out and muster at the volunteer lounge to see what’s on for the day.
First item on the agenda: walking the P’s!
In the day-and-a-half since we’ve arrived, Paza and Penya have been moved from behind the vol/staff blocks to the enclosure opposite our tent on the river, so along with Sonia (Ireland), Nicky (Australia by way of South Africa), Liz (“We’re getting the team back together, maaaan!”), Peggy, Gillian, and our guide Tom, we leave the vol block, pass through the kitchen area, cross the expansive lawns of Antelope Park, up and over the footbridge near our tent, hang a right, and then a few more yards on until we reach the cubs’ enclosure. Good morning, ladies! Eeoww!
The P’s come galloping out of their enclosure, pausing only briefly to say hello to us before sprinting up the hillside in a tumble of paws and fur. The cooler mornings mean that all the lions here are more active first thing, before the sun wheels itself fully into the sky and the heat of the day descends. Penya and Paza make the most of this as we trot our way up the path to the fence line near where we were picked up yesterday on boundary patrol.
People ask us how we tell the difference between the cubs. It’s hard. Really hard, at times. In fact, it’s taken over a day now just to get their names properly cemented in my poor excuse of a brain, and it will take much longer before I’m able to readily discern who’s who. Both Paza and Laili were brought up from South Africa, and their coats are slightly darker than their respective roommate’s (a common trait in South African lions, I’m told). With Laili more than a month older than Lewa, there’s a size difference between them as well. Lewa’s face, and nose especially (in my mind, at least), is longer and not quite as round as Laili’s, who starts looking more and more like a proper lioness with each day. The tip of Lewa’s nose (known as the nose leather in domesticated cats and dogs) also appears lighter and more defined to me. Lewa also has a lovely pair of mutton chops when you’re viewing her face straight-on.
Socially, Laili seems much more tuned into the bush than Lewa, and takes a far more active interest in any surrounding wildlife. Lewa, on the other hand, is the first to the dinner table when they’re fed; quickly snatching up her portion of meat and, ears back and teeth bared, hurries off into a far corner of the enclosure before tucking into her food. It’s a trait she shares with Penya. You never want to get between a lion and its food, and in the case of Lewa and Penya: that goes for other lions, too.
Penya and Paza are a little more difficult for me to differentiate. Besides a slight difference in the shade of their coats, Penya also appears to be slightly smaller, but not by much. Of course, a lion’s whiskers are the dead-on identifier, as they’re unique to each lion and never change from birth to death. But trying to figure out the whisker pattern on each cub is easier said than done, and I’m starting to find that the easiest way for me to recognize them is by watching how they behave, with us and with each other.
Case in point: Penya’s penchant for cheeky behavior.
We’ve been sitting with them on some boulders when we decide it’s time to head back to camp. Walking through the bush, I feel a tap on the back of my foot but keep moving ahead, assuming it’s another vol’s walking stick accidentally hitting me from behind. About 10 seconds later I feel it again. Turning around, I say, “Alright, whose stick keeps…” when Penya trots past me with her ears pressed back and a cheeky smile on her face. I’ve been ankle tapped! (Something she’ll keep trying with me in the days to come.) Why, you little… “Aiwa!” For most of the walk back to camp I make a point of staying directly behind Penya, gently knocking one of her back feet across the other from time-to-time while she’s in mid-step to show her I can play the ankle tap game, too.
On our way back we crest a rise and in front of us is an enormous umbrella tree I haven’t seen before. Like so much of the landscape (and wildlife) here, it catches you unaware. For me, this is one of the iconic African images, and while I’ve seen plenty of umbrella trees since arriving, this is the first time one has really stood out and demanded my attention. It will become a totem for me during our stay.
The P’s safely returned to their enclosures – “Thanks for the walk, ladies!” – we queue up for breakfast outside the dining hall. All the meals here are cooked over wood fires, and every time we stand in line to be served “the forecast” the smoke inevitably blows straight into in our faces. Heads tilted back as far our necks allow, plates thrust out in front as far as possible, we signal our food choices while our eyes burn and tears stream down our faces. The cooks must think we’re all very, very odd. “Wakapusa mukiwa! Always crying when the meals are served!”
As we finish up our food I notice Mr. Conolly seated nearby, and as he stands up and tucks his morning paper under the nub of left arm the doctors (and offending lion) left him with, I walk over and introduce myself. “Good morning, Mr. Conolly!” “Good morning!” he says. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I just wanted to introduce myself and my wife, Kim, and say thank you for allowing us the opportunity to volunteer here. This is our honeymoon and this is exactly where we wanted to be, and I just wanted to thank you for the honor. It’s an absolute privilege to be here!”
Mr. Conolly’s eyes light up and he seems genuinely moved to discover we’ve come here on our honeymoon, probably knowing full well the dirty and unglamorous work that awaits us each day (lion walks aside). It begins a short-but-sweet volley of “Thank you! The honor is mine!” “No, thank you!” “No, no, thank you!”
We talk for a few minutes about our backgrounds and how we came to choose Antelope Park and ALERT for our honeymoon. Mr. Conolly is embarrassed to discover Kim’s an architect. “Please, I apologize for our buildings! When I designed them I was walking off the distances to measure the walls by foot!” It’s a great couple of minutes, and everyone seems flattered by the conversation. Out of the corner of my eye I can see some staff members attentively watching us. It’s almost a “No one ever talks to Mr. Conolly without being talked to first!” vibe. In the other direction some volunteers are also watching, but their looks are more of, “Who’s that old guy they’re talking to?” Both sets of expression confirm a few things for me. Mostly, I find my appetite whetted. When I was publishing a certain former magazine, what I loved most was not writing about the music, but talking with artists about the passion and inspiration that drove them. I detested questions like “tell me about your new single!” as much as I’m sure they hated being asked it. Instead, what I always tried to do was start a discussion on art, life, politics, people, power, emotion, ego, personality – influences and motivations the music was a byproduct of. In the end, the interviews became the music for me, and in Mr. Conolly I can see a great interview.
Wishing each other a good day, we part company. From here on out, whenever I see Mr. Conolly he will always greet me warmly by my first name, something I’m pretty sure doesn’t happen with many of the other volunteers. Sometime later Dan will ask what we talked about. “Mostly the fact that you don’t tuck your shirt in.” I’ll let him hang on it for a few seconds before showing my smile, and then say that Mr. Conolly reminded me a lot of my grandfather, and that he seems the type that, if you have a firm handshake and look him in the eye, are articulate and intelligent, and don’t waste his time, he’ll respect you and treat you accordingly. Of course, I don’t work for him – which is exactly the look that Dan appears to be giving me in return.
Kim and I head over to the vol lounge and our next session. Along the way we pass JB, and I let Kim go on ahead while I stay to talk with him. She gives me a funny look, asking, “What, can’t I talk to him, too?” “Dude talk. Sorry.” When she’s out of earshot I pass JB a large wad of cash and instructions on what I’d like him to do – hoping that the former will speed the latter and I’ll have my sweetie properly outfitted for our honeymoon in the next day or two.
Second session is BPG, which for vols means scooping lion poop and picking up leftover animal bits and bones from lion feeds. Shovelin’, shovelin’, shovelin’. Mackay loads us up in a truck and we go up to the enclosures at the main house. First order of business is to fill up the water troughs of the two enclosures we’ll be cleaning, so we take a few minutes to top off the first one, which conveniently has a water spigot right outside it. But the second enclosure doesn’t, so we spend 20 minutes trying to find the one wheelbarrow that has a 55 gallon drum on it, and then another 20 minutes filling it up with water. Mackay seems nonplussed about it all, and I find myself being properly introduced to the zen koan here known as TIA: This is Africa. Or, for those of you trying to spice up your Shona a little: Indioinonzi Africa.
We wheel the water over to the second enclosure we’ll be cleaning, and after I suck on the hose to start the water flowing, fill up the second trough. That completed, we head back to the first enclosure, and after moving the lions to an adjoining management enclosure (a smaller holding space) we head inside and Mackay immediately tells me to start shoveling the water out of the trough that was just topped off minutes ago so it can be scrubbed. “But… Uh…” “It’s okay, we’ll fill it back up again when we’re done!” TIA. We spend the next few minutes shoveling up lion poo, picking up the left over bits, bones, fur, skulls, and other leftovers, and, of course, emptying, scrubbing, and refilling the water trough. When we’re done, we have several wheelbarrows overflowing with cow skulls.
As we’re finishing, Leigh Ann drives up and says there’s going to be a “client lion feed” in a few minutes, and invites us over to watch. “Client lion feed” does not mean what you might think. Sadly, the only thing getting thrown to the lions during one are hunks of animal from the cold freezer, which clients pay to watch because, as we’ll shortly find out, seeing five adult male lions racing to the end of an enclosure to grab a rack of cow ribs is an impressive thing to witness. AP has a reefer where they keep meat that’s donated from area ranchers (usually in the form of dead cows or fetuses), or from abattoirs (in the form of scraps that have been deemed “unfit for human consumption”), and it’s where we come to collect and prepare any meat going to the lions or the cubs – something that is a messy, smelly business.
Mackay pulls open the trailer doors and goes climbing in over piles of animal corpses in various states of dismemberment and decomposition, while the rest of us stand back and brace ourselves against the stench. For the next several minutes he throws ribs, heads, legs, and other parts out the freezer, all of which make a grizzly thunk as they slam against the loading dock floor. Climbing back out, he throws them in the back of Leigh-Ann’s truck, then casually washes his hands using a patch of dirt nearby. No gloves, nothing to cover his nose and mouth, climbing over piles of rotting flesh – the man is superhuman, as we would discover most of the staff are when working in the cooler.
The lions being fed – known as the Five Boys – get moved into their adjoining management enclosure at the far end, while the meat is unloaded and set near the fence at the opposite end, approximately 70 meters away. The clients arrive and everyone takes up positions along the fence. You can see the Five Boys at the other end, pacing relentlessly up and down their management enclosure – waiting in anticipation. Everything in place, everyone ready, the call goes up and the boys are released. Watching all five sprint towards us, it sounds like a train rumbling down the tracks and is, indeed, an impressive thing. Very impressive. They all come slamming into the pile of meat in a rush of roars and dust, hurriedly grabbing a hunk of meat before running a few yards away to start eating. Any lion that they think comes too close to their food prize gets chased off in a show of teeth and roars. I’m not sure what the Shona translation for “fucking awesome!” is, but there you have it.
We catch a ride back down to camp for lunch. Two new vols have arrived over the past day: Bruce, a retired teacher and avid wildlife photographer from New York; and Michael, a young Malaysian who, along with Carielle (New York, who was already at AP), are spending an all-expenses paid year being voluntourists, having won the 2011 Your Big Year award, out of an applicant pool of almost 45,000.
The first time I meet Bruce, he’s carrying around his Canon with a 100-400mm lens attached, and we start discussing photo gear. He’s here as part of ALERT’s Photography project, and is going to be spending most of his time photographing the Ngamo Pride – something I’m very jealous of. (Note to self: next time sign up for the photo project and bring a bigger lens. More photos, less cow fetuses and lion poop!). He’s surprised no one else signed up as a photography volunteer, probably because it’s a recently new volunteering option. At the same time, he’s very territorial about it; happy he’s the only one here officially photographing. Understandable. As we’re talking a client walks by in the distant, carrying a camera equipped with a telephoto lens. “Who’s that?” Bruce asks, immediately on the defensive. “Are they part of the photo program?” “I don’t think so,” I reply. “Good! Good!” Bruce is a great character, not to mention a fantastic wildlife photographer.
When Michael arrives, he tells a story of being taken aside by plainclothes CIO officers at the Harare airport, and asked repeatedly, “How was China? We know you have drugs!” Somehow he’s able to convince the secret police he really is Michael and he really is from Malaysia, and they let him go. Welcome to Zim, Michael. He seems to spend most of his time with his face buried in his laptop, or otherwise using his pocket camera, pocket video recorder, and pocket voice recorder, recording himself; oftentimes forgetting to look up and enjoy the world around him; many times forgetting that volunteering actually means getting your hands dirty, not just recording yourself with the work as a backdrop. I find myself wondering if he even knows where he’s at, much less knows what the work here is about.
Kim and I have also been spending time with a Dutch couple, Chris and Sharon – both wonderful. Chris is surprised to hear I know a thing or two about football (not American throwball), and even more surprised to hear I’ve brought one along. We spend some time after lunch kicking the ball around, huffing and puffing, but generally enjoying ourselves as we relive memories of when we were both younger and fitter. Gooooaaaaaaalllll!!!
After lunch, Kim, Peggy, and myself are back up to BPG for “enclosure maintenance” – which is a clever way of saying “hole digging.” Several enclosures are being updated with a second, four-foot fence around their perimeter to provide an extra layer (and a few more feet) of safety. Our job is to dig holes every two meters, something other vols have worked on earlier in the week (and will continue to do so). All that’s needed are some digging tools. After the obligatory TIA wait of around 30-40 minutes, Mackay appears from the motor pool armed with a pick axe and a two-meter tall metal rod. He then disappears and leaves us with another worker. The pick axe seems pretty pointless, as the hole needs to be about 75 centimeters deep and only six or so centimeters across. So we set about using the rod to pulverize the dirt about two inches at a time, which we then scoop out by hand. Apparently, no one here has a proper post hole digger, much less has ever heard of one.
Peggy seems convinced that the dirt is to blame and that we should pour water over the ground to help soften it up, unwavering in her viewpoint when I tell her that it’s not going to make any difference. Slamming a quarter-inch steel rod into the ground is, unfortunately, the best way we’ve got to do this – because it’s the only way we’ve got to do this. TIA. Peggy heads off to find if there’s any better tools to be found (there aren’t), and after about 20 minutes of hammering the rod against the ground, i send Kim off to find some water. The worker and I take turns, and I’m sure he’s thinking this would get done faster without us around. At times, it seems the vols are just being babysat by the workers here, who would probably prefer us to not be around so they could actually get something done – or not get something done, as the case seems to be at times. TIA. An hour and innumerable sore muscles later, we’ve got six holes. Not bad, I think, all things considered; but definitely not a vol record.
For the late afternoon session JB is taking all the volunteers on a game drive. We pile in the back of one of the Land Rovers and spend a glorious late afternoon driving around the park, photographing the various wildlife. We pass by AP’s four orphaned elephants, its nine giraffes, an assortment of vultures and other birds, various antelope species, zebra, some warthogs, and a herd of wildebeest that stampede across the road behind the vehicle (see the slideshow below). Nicky is a great source for identifying the various species of antelope and birds we see, and it’s a fun, relaxing way to wind down the day. Somewhere along the drive I say aloud, “Wouldn’t a piña colada be really nice about now?” I don’t know why. I don’t even care much for piña coladas. It just sounds refreshing!
After the evening vol meeting, we file over to the dining hall for food and I discover that Grafton, the bartender, has some Johnnie Walker black under wraps behind the counter. Delicious! Ingonyama, a Zim traditional song and dance troupe, with hints of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in their repertoire, are here to perform after dinner. As they sing and dance, I nurse a second scotch while writing in my journal. The last thing that gets penned for the day: “Most beautiful sunset of the trip tonight! Need to write less – less shovelin’!”