A client, or tourist, is someone who comes to visit Antelope Park for a day or more. Individuals are welcome, but more often than not we saw larger groups coming through, including several overland truck tours, and two groups taking swanky train tours through Africa. Even the Pakistani cricket team was supposed to come for a visit, which caused great excitement amongst both staff and volunteers alike, but they got delayed en route to AP and weren’t able to make it. Welcome to Zim.
The client groups stay at the park and can participate in activities of their choosing, which are all individually priced; including lion walks, lion feeds, night encounters, elephant rides, horseback riding, and more. ALERT relies on these tourist dollars to help fund the breeding and release program, but one unfortunate fact is that when there are a lot of clients in camp everyone needs to perform and earn their keep. The cubs are expected to go out on more walks, and the staff are more dressed up and spend their time schmoozing the clientele. As volunteers, we just need to let the clients get in line for their food first. Oh, and let them have all the photo ops on lion walks.
So this day included three cub walks for us. The first in the morning with the P’s; the second in the early afternoon with the L’s, who weren’t much more energetic than the P’s were; and a third walk with the P’s again, who spent their hot afternoon lying in poop (zebra, I think), and napping and grooming each other while lying in the poop.
Between cub walks #1 and #2, we went on a snare sweep. Poaching is a huge problem throughout the continent and Antelope Park is not immune. Snares can easily and inexpensively be made with a simple piece of wire, and they become practically invisible to both humans and animals unless you’re really paying attention. AP performs regular snare sweeps with the volunteers, in addition to having a professional anti-poaching team on board. A group of about 10 of us, led by Nathan, drive up near a stand-alone lion enclosure we haven’t seen before, called Gum Tree. There is an old trailer that apparently was once used as a butchery by Mr. Conolly, a remnant of an old family business. It’s since been abandoned, but sometimes they find evidence of poachers here. Nathan tries to open up the door, but to no avail. After some struggle, he figures if he can’t open it hopefully no one else can either.
We then go over to meet the big, beautiful Gum Tree boys. After spending a few moments saying hello, and oohing and aahing, we find a clearing in the bush and line up with each person about two meters apart from the other. Nathan stands at the center of the line. We are told to look at the person to our left to make sure we stayed aligned and stay at the correct distance from one another. Craig is at the very far left, and it’s his job to make sure we continue to follow our marker, which is the fence at the boundary of the property. Liz and Peggy are both to my left, and do not always do a good job of staying aligned. I can’t quite remember who is on the other side of Nathan, except for Julie and David (UK), because David thought he saw a snake, although he didn’t dare go back to confirm if he really did. Once we’re all lined up, we walk straight ahead, looking for snares, footprints, and things in the bush that don’t belong there and might have been left behind by poachers. We also walk past zebra, giraffe, impala, and a hole to a warthog den, but no warthog this time.
Everyone hated the snare sweep – I think most just thought it was a long, boring, hot walk – but not me. I loved snare sweep. You might ask why. After all, we weren’t with the lions, we couldn’t really chat with one another because of the distance between us, and we walked several kilometers through chest-high grass where, at some point, you just had to give up looking at the ground for snakes or baby acacia trees with their skin-ripping thorns because it was just too dense and you couldn’t see anything anyways.
So what was so great about it then? Exactly this: the feeling of being free.
I learned some things about myself today. Regardless of thinking maybe I should be looking for snakes, I didn’t feel fearful. Not even a bit. I loved walking through that tall grass, and despite our semi-rigid line up, and specific and serious task, I felt a freedom I never feel at home and that I have never felt before. Back home, even when I’m doing something I enjoy, there’s always the nagging feeling of what you should be doing later, tomorrow, next week. It’s not how I want to be, but it’s the reality of how I am. Sure, I’m on vacation and this isn’t real life, but if I were wandering around Paris, I’d be running around making sure I got to this museum or that monument. Here, I can simply be in the moment, and the silence and the task at hand enabled that to happen.
Every time I walk through the bush I will find that I feel this way – that I feel free. And, as I’ve suspected now for awhile, the weather is an important player as well. In Seattle, it’s always chilly and wet, I don’t stand up straight, and I’m always hunched over against the rain, rushing to get wherever I need to be. At Antelope Park, here in September, it is dry, sunny, and hot. I can stand up straight, and feel the sun and its warmth on my skin. This, too, feels like freedom to me.
I’ve always thought of myself as an urban girl and definitely not the outdoors-y type. Mind you, I like the outdoors, and have grown to appreciate it more and more living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. But mostly, Craig and I talk about doing outdoor activities more than we actually do them. We should go hiking, we should go camping, we should go kayaking. But maybe, as beautiful as it is there, it’s simply not the right environment for my outdoors-y alter ego to blossom. Maybe I’ve been waiting to be in the bush all my life. I felt like I could now answer my question: Yes, Africa feels like home and I belong here.
While we’re talking about the great outdoors, I will also publicly admit that I get zip-off pants now. I understand their design, their practicality, and their drab colors. The weather changed throughout the day and zipping on and off your pant legs was a quick and easy way to adapt. And blending into the environment with the colors you’re wearing makes sense – after all, animals do this by nature and the landscape and the animals here are anything but drab. So, while my dear husband may still be pondering burning his zip-off pants, I will do no such thing. I want to go back to Africa more than anything, and they will be the first thing that goes into my suitcase.
In the end, we never did find any snares, and that’s a good thing; except that I keep wondering if maybe we just missed them. But I did find my inner bush girl, so I deem the snare sweep a huge personal success.