It’s a hot, lazy morning for the P’s and they spend most of the time posing on boulders for us. But we’re happy. It’s just good to be outside in the beautiful morning light with two gorgeous, camera-ready lion cubs. We’re never quite sure what the cubs will be like in the morning. On the one hand, they’ve had all night to sleep, and the nights and early mornings are usually cool, so sometimes they bound out of their enclosure with energy to spare. Other times, it’s clear they’ve been awakened earlier than their internal alarm clock and all they want to do is find a place to nap. Either way, it’s beneficial to get the cubs out in the bush. The more time they spend out of their enclosure, the better prepared they will be for life as part of a release pride.
Enclosure cleaning is on the schedule for us after breakfast. That means scooping up poop and old bones. On the enclosure cleaning agenda are the Gum Tree and Bush enclosures, followed by Paza and Penya’s enclosure, and then Lewa and Laili’s. The cubs enclosures generally aren’t too difficult to clean. The cubs are small and the poop and bones are proportional. The bigger lions are a whole other story.
We start at the Bush Enclosure with the MK’s: Meeka, Moyo, Mara and Kali. We’re with JB and he asks Craig to man the gate to the management enclosure while he encourages the MK’s to go in there so we can come in inside the main enclosure to do some cleaning. The girls all willingly move in, but Moyo, the “fake lion,” won’t hear of it. After several minutes of trying, JB decides it’s okay for the clean team to go into the enclosure while he keeps an eye on Moyo to make sure he stays out of our way. It’s a bit scary. Moyo, at about two and a half years old, is a good-sized lion, and technically we are not allowed in there with him. But, as I said, he does have a reputation as the “fake lion,” and with JB at the helm everyone cautiously walks inside. Except me. JB says my job is to guard the main gate to the enclosure and make sure Moyo doesn’t get out. We can’t lock the gate, in case the humans need to suddenly escape. I wonder if I’d actually be able to hold the gate closed against Moyo’s strength, and hope I won’t have to find out.
For the most part, Moyo stays in a corner of the enclosure near the ladies, who now are in the smaller management enclosure. The cleaning is focused on the opposite side. Moyo will eventually move to another corner, and the team will move away. The movement allows the whole enclosure to be cleaned and it all goes off without a hitch. Enclosure is cleaned, humans get out, lionesses go back in, and we bid them adieu.
We’re supposed to head over to the Gum Tree boys next, but JB gets a message on the radio that we need to make a detour over to meat prep. Once there, we back our pick-up truck up to the meat cooler. A note about how we get around at AP. We are often riding in the back of pick-up trucks. The preferred spot, at least for me and Craig, is to stand up next to the cab. The other option is sitting down in the bed. While illegal in the US, I now have many happy memories of standing up in the back of a truck going through the bush. With the wind rushing by, the sun beating down, dodging the thorny branches of the acacia trees, it’s another feeling of freedom to me that will forever be imprinted in my memory.
But I digress, although there is a point to it. The doors to the meat cooler open and one of the staff climbs right in and starts throwing out cow heads into the back of the truck. 16 to be exact. 16 cow heads in the back of the truck where we are all currently standing. This is how we roll at AP. It is no place for the squeamish. Once the cow heads are in the truck, dead eyes staring up at us and flies swarming the heads, we all crush up near the cab in the hopes of not having cow heads roll into our legs. No one wants to sit in the truck bed, now or ever. Previously, we’ve seen meat put into a trailer, but we now realize that it’s also sometimes in the truck we sit in. The truck with the porous plywood bed. Since I think standing in the truck is more fun anyways, it just means I now need to be more aggressive to defend my preferred position. With that, we’re ready to go to the Gum Tree enclosure; and instead of cleaning the enclosures, we now get to feed the lions!
There are two enclosures at Gum Tree, each with four lions. We get to the first one and get the lions into their management enclosure. Once it’s safe, JB opens up the gate and asks Craig to back the truck into the enclosure. He warns him that there are no brakes. Craig gets into the truck and, after backing in and failing to easily stop, confirms that, “Hey, there are no brakes!” Welcome to Zim. JB tosses the heads out and then asks us to move them further into the enclosure and spread them out a bit. Eight total, two for each lion. With work gloves securely on we pick up the heads and move them around. They’re heavy, and I’m pretty sure I stick my finger through an eye. Craig decides it’s easiest and least distasteful to pick them up by the ear. I begin to do this, but because of how heavy they are I’m sure I’m going to be left with an ear in my hand and a cow head on my feet.
After we finish, with blood-streaked legs, we leave the enclosure and let the boys back in, which JB gives Craig the honor of doing. And you can tell it’s an honor by the way Craig grins from ear-to-ear when he opens up the management enclosures to let the Gum Tree boys back in. They are anxious, being completely aware of what we’ve been doing, and all immediately grab a head. Some will claim two right away by grabbing one head with their mouth and then lying on top of another. It’s always an incredible sight to see the lions eat. They are very possessive of their meat and you can really see who’s the boss. We then repeat the process in the other enclosure. Same laying out of the cow heads, same result of happy lions.
After lunch we’re back with the P’s again, this time for behavior enrichment. I’m assigned data collection. At every cub walk, behavior enrichment session, and night encounter, someone in the group is assigned data collection. There are forms to be filled out for the various activities noting the behavior of the different lions and that information is later entered into a computerized database. This data will help them make decisions about what lions to place together, who is a hunter, who is a follower, and which lions may be the best candidates to be part of a release pride.
Paza and Penya look hot and sleepy when we arrive but keep a watchful eye on Craig, who is making a toy for them outside of the enclosure. We’ve brought some snot apples with us and we toss them around for the P’s to chase, but they don’t seem particularly impressed. What’s a snot apple, you ask? It’s a fruit that looks somewhat like an apple, is really hard on the outside, and looks like, well, snot on the inside. And they make great lion toys – when the lions are interested, that is.
Craig makes his way into the enclosure with some elephant dung tied onto a stick with bark and grass. Penya plays with the elephant dung and knocks it off the stick and then walks over to the water trough with it in her mouth, threatening to drop it in. Both cubs then sit in the shade for a bit. Paza now has the elephant dung and lies with it between her paws, while Penya does the same with a snot apple. They’ve laid claim to their prizes, but don’t have the energy to take advantage them.
After about an hour we start tossing the fruit into the water trough and Penya discovers a new game – bobbing for snot apples! She bats them around and grabs them in her mouth. It’s loads of fun. Paza, not to be left out, also joins in the game. At one point, Penya has elephant dung in her mouth and simultaneously tries to get one of the snot apples out of the water. They have renewed energy now that the day is slowly starting to cool off.
And that is how we spend time with the cubs. Much of the time they’re sleeping or lazily meandering around looking for a belly rub. Moments of action are few and far between, although always exciting, eliciting oohs and aahs from everyone watching. But even when they’re not doing anything, they’re just precious to watch and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. You have to kick yourself each time and say, “Kim, famba ne shumba! Craig, famba ne shumba!” It is such an honor.
With my data collection sheet ready to turn in, we head back to the vol lounge in time for our Shona language lesson. Virginia, our teacher for the evening, is bubbly, enthusiastic, and speaks beautiful English, Shona, and Ndebele. Her main job at AP is working in the laundry room, but with her outgoing personality and language skills she makes a great instructor. She teaches us by sound and suggests we write down words phonetically as we hear them. That’s hard for some of us that are visual and want to see the words spelled out, so when asked she’ll give us the correct spelling and I then write a phonetic translation. At a certain point I’m not sure anymore which words are correctly spelled and which are phonetically spelled, but we end up learning basic greetings, the numbers one through ten, the days of the week, animals, and some of our favorite Antelope Park phrases, such as:
“Walks with lions” – famba ne shumba.
“Make a plan” – ita zano.
“You’re gonna die” – uchafa.
“I want beer” – ndi noda doro.
“You are beautiful” – wakanaka (which also can mean “beautiful one”).
“This is Africa” – indioinonzi Africa.
With the lesson over we’re off to dinner, which is to be followed by a pub quiz for the volunteers. Teams are selected randomly by drawing names out of a hat. The categories are AP facts, lion facts, music, movies, and animal sounds. The prize is a round of drinks. My team is in the lead after the first two categories. While I think we have a chance with music and movies, I silently put my money on Craig’s team, as he’s the master of “Name That Tune,” and David is also on his team. David is a DJ and bartender and organizes pub quizzes, so I’m thinking between the two of them they will rock these categories. At this point, the game is already moving at a snail’s pace and the next two categories are excruciating. Maybe it’s because they’re long, maybe it’s the terrible movie and music choices, but one team out-does us all by a long shot. They think it’s because they’ve got not one, but two Americans on their team. Does being American mean you know bad movies and music? Craig and I debunk that myth right then and there, as we’re unable to answer most of the music and movie questions put to us.
It’s now been over two hours since the pub quiz started. Everyone’s getting tired, drunk, or both. I look over at Craig and he looks annoyed. We have one last category to get through: animal sounds. Hege is on my team and she fancies herself an animal expert, often telling the guides and managers here how to do their job. Even though I don’t believe in her expertise, I am hoping she will come through for us. It’s our only hope, as animal sounds in real life do not necessarily sound the way you think they might.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, while Hege confidently gave us an answer for each sound, they were almost all incorrect; with the exception of some obvious sounds, like lions, which we are all quite familiar with at this point. It’s actually Craig’s team that wins the round, because they have Nicky on their roster and Nicky really does know her animals. She’s just much more humble about it. Craig is not around to know his team won that round, however, as he left partway through; apparently having had enough.
In the end, the team with the two Americans wins the game. As for their prize? Well, the pub quiz went on so long that the bar is now closed.
Over the course of the remaining week we’ll see Virginia around the park and she will always shout out, “Mamuka sei.” Or, “Maswera sei.” Which mean “good morning” and “good afternoon,” respectively. With much embarrassment, Craig and I will never remember the correct Shona response. I feel like all I need to do is sit down with my notes for 15 minutes and I could memorize some basic phrases, but we never have a free 15 minutes. When we get back to our tent each night and finally shower I’m so tired that several times I’ve literally fallen asleep while writing in my journal, trying to keep track of what we’ve done on each of our busy days. But Craig makes Virginia a promise. He promises that he will write her a letter in Shona (or at least with a few key Shona words and phrases) when we get back home, and I suspect that letter is stewing in Craig’s head even as I write this.