As we walk out of our tent this morning, we look out at our lovely view and see Silver Dime in the river. The scene is so picturesque, and yet it’s with a heavy heart that we walk over to the vol lounge. We know our days here are numbered. We’re trying not to think about it and just enjoy every minute of our remaining time at Antelope Park, but it’s hard not to think in terms of “lasts.” Will this be the last time I see Silver Dime during one of our last mornings on our way to one of our last cub walks? This feeling is further fueled when we cross the road between the kitchen and vol block and see a couple of staff members seeing off Michael. He is the first of our group to leave and, despite his quirks, it’s sad to say goodbye. He did provide us with loads of amusement, and it’s a reminder that we too will be leaving in just a few days and saying our goodbyes. As we near the vehicle Michael is loading his luggage into, Craig reaches out to shake his hand and wish him safe travels. Despite what Craig has written, and unlike some other vols, I think he’ll miss Michael. Much to his surprise, Michael takes Craig’s hand in both of his and gives it an earnest shake. We wish him well, and then head off to take Penya and Paza out for a walk.
If I had a hammer / I’d hammer in the morning / I’d hammer in the evening / All over this land / I’d hammer out danger / I’d hammer out a warning / I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters / All over this land.
-Peter, Paul, and Mary, “If I Had a Hammer.”
The P’s are very tired this morning, and the walk, as far as the lions go, is pretty uneventful. The main event of the walk is when David, who is diabetic, falls ill. Although we’re out in the bush, we do have radio contact with camp, and a truck arrives impressively fast. We all note with surprise and relief that TIA was not an issue in this situation. But the medical facilities in Zimbabwe are dubious at best and we’re all a little nervous about what comes next. However, after David is in the truck and on his way back to camp, his wife Julie walks over to us to continue on our lion walk. She feels certain he just needs sugar and sleep, and her going back to camp will not be of any help to David. They’ve been intentionally keeping his sugar levels high so he can go out on our long walks. No one quite knows what went wrong today, but we wonder if it didn’t have something to do with all the African beer he was drinking with Craig and several others last night around the fire pit. Craig is fully aware of how many beers were drunk, as he has been feeling as lethargic as the cubs this morning.
After breakfast, Craig and I are scheduled for ramp repair. We go into the vol lounge to see who we’re teamed up with, and it’s a good thing we check because our schedule has changed. We’re now going to clean the Gum Tree enclosures. That’s fine by me, I love the beautiful Gum Tree boys. We feel a bit perturbed though. What if we hadn’t double-checked the schedule? There seems to be some tension in the air and we notice a few people are walking back and forth looking for the vol manager, Lauren. We get wind that some people aren’t happy with what they’ve been scheduled to do and are asking to have their tasks switched. Apparently, our schedule is being affected even though we haven’t requested to change anything and no one has asked us if it’s okay, or at least informed us of the change.
I think the issue is that the majority of us are leaving in a few days and that reality is hitting everyone and it’s hitting really hard. Antelope Park is a magical place and no one wants to leave. Everyone wants to make sure they get to do the fun activities on their last couple of days, and not the dirty, smelly activities. The vol managers, to their credit, are trying to accommodate this. But poop still needs to be cleaned, ramps need to be repaired, meat needs to be prepped. Ultimately, we’re going to miss the lions more than they’re going to miss us. Life will go on for them, new volunteers will arrive, and it doesn’t matter to them if it’s your first day or your last. In light of that, Craig and I make no argument. Gum Tree it is. Oh, but wait a minute. We happen to look again, because the subtle chaos around us seems to be increasing, and now we’re back on ramp repair. Hmm, well we’ve now had three changes in 15 minutes without anyone informing us. When we mention this to Lauren and she just laughs.
So off to ramp repair we go before they can make another change to our schedule. There are four of us: myself, Craig, Nicky, and Liz. We are handed one broken hammer and two bags of nails. We hop in a truck along with other volunteers scheduled to clean the BPG and Gum Tree enclosures. Because there are multiple groups to be organized, we are left standing around without anything to do for quite some time. Finally, we are taken into one of the lion enclosures along with the cleaning crew and told we are to repair the wooden platforms that the lions sit on by hammering any nails that are popping out and adding nails if we find loose boards. Since we only have one hammer, and Liz has laid claim to it, the rest of us busy ourselves by checking the boards of the platform to see which one’s are in need of repair. We determine it’s actually in fairly good shape and just needs a few swings of the hammer to tighten everything up, which Liz undertakes with gusto. We joke that she has found her calling in life, and I’m pretty certain this joke will go on and on for as long as we know Liz. With the ramp in good shape, we’re ready to get into another enclosure so we can keep working. For safety reasons, they like to keep all the vols together, and cleaning the enclosure is taking much longer than hammering a few nails, so a couple of us help pick up bones, while a couple of us say hello to the lions in the adjacent enclosure.
Finally, one of the lion handlers decides to let us into another enclosure after making sure the coast is clear for us. Once again, we four enter with our one hammer. This platform is in need of more serious repair. It has some missing boards, and we discover a pile of wood that we can use for this purpose. You have to understand that these aren’t nice straight pieces of milled lumber that we would buy in the States. These are very roughly hewn small tree trunks cut in half that need to fit tightly and securely atop other very roughly hewn trunks. The platform needs to support up to four lions at a time, each weighing several hundred pounds. It’s so difficult to get the nails into the boards that it really does almost take four of us with our one hammer. But Liz is on a roll. She is working fast and furious and doesn’t want to give up. I make sure to document this important life-changing time in her young life with my camera, in-between handing her new nails to replace the ones that she destroys beyond recognition. She does finally give in on a particularly stubborn board, and Craig manages to fit everything together, but not without some serious effort. It’s amazing how difficult this seemingly simple task is, and we can’t help but wonder how much more we could have gotten done if we had the tools to have more than one woman hammering.
Towards the end of the session, JB rounds up all the volunteers to get into the truck and go back to camp. The bags of poop and bones go into the truck with us, and on our way back we stop off at Vulture’s Restaurant to dump out the contents. Vulture’s Restaurant is a clearing in the bush within Antelope Park where poop, bones, offal, and various dead animals and dead animal parts are taken that are not fit for lion consumption. The vultures and other birds are happy to help clean all this up, and they eagerly wait in the tree tops for their meals on wheels delivery. The remains lying on the ground in varying states of decay and rigor mortis are not a pretty sight, and it doesn’t smell good. As I’ve said before, this is not a place for the squeamish. You begin to realize that seeing death and animal parts is all part of life in the bush. In the words of our friend Michael, “This is Africa! This is real!”
When we get back to camp for lunch, it looks like the staff are getting ready for some big shindig on the main lawn. There are banners up, tables out with AP swag, the Ingonyama dancers are waiting in the wings, the staff are dressed up in their best khakis, and the elephants are wandering around. Elephants? We’ve never seen them in camp before. This must be something really big. We learn that the clients due to arrive are coming from a very swanky, high-end train that well-heeled tourists can take to explore the continent. Clearly, AP is pulling out all the stops today.
It’s an interesting dynamic when the clients do arrive. They wander around camp all fresh, relaxed, and ready to participate in the activities AP has on offer. We are sweaty and dirty in our work clothes, and probably smelly too after visiting the vultures, picking up bones, and chopping up meat. Yet, we’re all paying to be here. As volunteers, we’re paying and working. I suppose the thought is that most volunteers don’t have large bank accounts and the tourists do, but I wonder how true that is. Couldn’t a volunteer have money but still want to get their hands dirty? If I was rich, I’d spend the rest of my life volunteering and giving away money. Of course, many of the volunteers are quite young, but not all. And as a tourist, couldn’t you have been saving up for years to come to Africa, and this is you’re once-in-a-lifetime trip so you have no other money to spare? Yet, every time tourists come in the staff go into schmooze mode.
It’s not a criticism, as it’s what any non-profit has to be, and it’s especially urgent when you’re trying to save a species in a place that seems to put little value on such things. It just changes the mood at AP, and it also creates a bit of an us versus them vibe between the vols and clients, where I would think it might be beneficial if we interacted more. Craig has tried to engage several clients in conversation since we arrived at AP, and we find it’s most often him asking the questions. Most of the tourists we’ve met don’t appear to be so interested in our stories, or how we came to volunteer here.
After lunch, we say goodbye to yet another volunteer. This time it’s Bruce, who was the sole volunteer in the AP photography project – although, needless to say, not the sole person with a camera! Bruce is off to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe before heading home to New York City. As we say goodbye, we make promises to see each other when Craig and I head to New York next year.
Next up is road repair. The roads in the park are dirt and they get deep ruts in them from constant use. With the rainy season fast approaching, they need to fill in those ruts so the roads are navigable. As usual, our road repair crew gets taken out with other groups doing other activities. We’re running late before we even start, with a whopping 30 minutes left for actual work. Our first job is to shovel dirt into the back of the truck. We’ve got three shovels and seven people, plus JB, so we take turns. It’s hard work and it’s in the heat of the afternoon. It doesn’t last for long, though, as we need to get over to the road in need of repair, which is near the entrance to the site of the Ngamo Pride. This patch of road is in urgent need of repair before the rains start or the researchers won’t be able to enter the site. When we arrive, we shovel the dirt from the truck into the deeply rutted tracks in the road. We make only the tiniest dent in the project. You can’t do much road repair in 30 minutes time. All we can say is TIA, and hope AP “makes a plan,” because at this rate these roads will not be repaired come the rainy season.
When we get back to camp we check the board for our next activity but there’s nothing on the schedule for any of us. We wait. And wait. And wait some more. 15 minutes after we should have started, there’s still nothing. Finally, Sam, one of the vol managers, comes along and we ask him what’s up with the schedule. He shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn’t know. And with that, we leave. We hate to miss out on a potential lion walk, but there seems to be no one around who knows what’s going on, so we decide to use the time to take a shower and relax for a bit.
After a shower, Craig decides to go out and watch the sunset while doing some writing. I stay back at the tent and have an incredibly amusing time with some vervet monkeys. I’ve never been a huge fan of monkeys – they kind of freak me out – but the vervet monkeys are pretty cute, really. There are several in the trees above our tent, and they use our tent as a bridge to get across from one tree to another. I attempt to take some photos, but not a single one turns out. One reason is that they’re just too high in the trees for my camera’s abilities, but one monkey in particular is taunting me. He knows I’m trying to photograph him and he is determined to make it hard for me. He peeks around the branches, giving me a sly look, and as I lift my camera up he hides back behind the branches. This is repeated over and over. I’m cracking up and having so much fun with this monkey. He’s really messing with me, but it’s all in good fun. I think to myself for the millionth time since I’ve been here, how much I love this place and how I never want to leave. And then I remember it’s one of my last days.
I finally do leave the monkeys and head to the vol lounge for our evening meeting. I’m cautiously excited because at last night’s meeting we were told that there would be another night encounter tonight for the train tourists, and they said there were five seats open if any of the volunteers were interested. At this point, every volunteer has been out on at least one encounter, if not more, and everyone has seen at least one kill. Several of the volunteers would say they’ve seen one kill too many. After I saw my first kill, I didn’t necessarily feel I had to witness another one, but when the opportunity was offered Craig and I jumped at the chance. After all, this is what the lions are supposed to do, it’s how they’ll survive, and it’s a rare privilege to see them hunt and kill no matter how difficult it is to observe. We think we’re going out tonight but it hasn’t been confirmed yet with all the scheduling chaos, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and have candy bars and extra layers of warm clothes in my backpack just in case.
At the vol meeting, it’s confirmed we’re on the night encounter, so Craig and I each wolf down a candy bar, since we’ll miss dinner, and head over to the trucks. The clients are already seated with blankets on their laps, and there are only a few random seats left, so the five of us are all dispersed amongst the clients. Craig sits in the front seat with Liwale, who is our spotter, and I’m in the back between a foreign couple, whose language I can’t identify, and one of the lion handlers. JB is at the wheel. Tonight we’ll be going out with the three K’s. Two females: Kutanga and Kenya; and a male: Kufara. It’s overcast and there’s a strong wind, which JB uses to guide the lions down wind of potential prey. That being said, it seems like with all the encounters of the past couple of days the prey are onto us and are wisely keeping out of sight. In the meantime, we can hear Mr. Conolly on the two-way radio checking to make sure the horses have been safely stashed away at the main stables. Despite the affirmative answer, he asks again several times, ensuring there will not be another accidental horse tragedy tonight.
As we’re all eavesdropping on the conversation and looking out into the darkness, the truck suddenly starts racing through the bush. The K’s are chasing something, but I can’t even see the lions, let alone the prey. A few moments later we witness the lions, led by Kutanga, very quickly take down an impala. It’s interesting to note amongst both myself and everyone around me that this quick and clean kill doesn’t seem to have the same emotional impact on us that the last couple of kills did. We excitedly watch the lions eat, and it’s quite a sight. There is plenty of blood and guts, and you can hear the lions ripping into the flesh and breaking the bones. After awhile, it’s time to take the lions and the people back to their respective beds for the night, and it’s amazing to see that, when the lions get up, there is no evidence whatsoever that any animal has been anywhere near where we are. An impala isn’t a huge meal for three hungry lions, and they completely polished it off. Nothing is left to waste in Africa, that’s for sure.
As we drive back to camp, I find myself lamenting that this will be our last night encounter. I also think about how proud I am of these lions. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, and tonight they are one step closer to life in the wild. Despite all the death and inefficiencies I’ve witnessed today, my final thought for the night is that, when I’m around these amazing animals, I am happier than I’ve ever been.