After we’re picked up in Gweru, Nathan, one of the volunteer managers, drives us approximately 12 kilometers to the main gate of Antelope Park. We park the car and he gives us a tour of “camp.” The volunteer lounge, where we will meet before each activity throughout the day, where the work schedule is posted, and where we’ll have daily evening meetings; the open-air, thatch-roofed dining hall, where we’ll eat all of our meals and order local Zim beer and Fanta in bottles from the bar, looking out at the river view and socializing with the other volunteers while feeling somewhat superior to the other guests because we work here; the fire pit, which is the center of all evening social activity and where you can gaze at a sky full of stars; and the reception office, which houses a curio shop and not nearly enough AP swag, and where we can purchase internet access and pick up laundry slips.
Most volunteers stay in buildings near the volunteer lounge, known as the “vol block.” The accommodations are simple rooms shared by two-to-four people with bunk beds and dressers. Bathrooms and showers are communal. Since this is our honeymoon, after all, we have upgraded our living quarters to a river tent; one of several lodging options for tourists which, as stated above, we are not. We work here. As Nathan leads us to our tent, which is slightly removed from the heart of camp, we walk along the plush green lawn that follows the river and see the bridge that leads to larger guest houses across the way. We then arrive at our home away from home, Tent #1. We approach the tent from behind, which is concealed by a wood fence, and as we walk down the side of our tent we’re smacked in the face with a glorious view of the river and surrounding bush landscape. We also later realize that one of the cub enclosures is across the river, and we will sometimes see them in there. The tent is on a raised platform, covered in tile, which forms a deck off of the tent. We don’t know it now, but we’ll have little free time to sit and enjoy our view. But we will be greeted each morning by the extraordinary sunrise lighting up our view, and we will be delighted and surprised to occasionally see and hear AP’s horses or elephants in the water, along with all the bird life we’ll witness.
Inside, the tent is simple but has everything we need. Two twin beds with nightstands on each side, a dresser, a safe that doesn’t work (none of the safes on site work, we later find out), and beyond the canvas wall with a roll-up flap we have our own bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower! We also have electricity, although we will discover that there are power outages just about every day, and sometimes multiple times a day. You do get used to it, and it never poses a problem for us. All we use it for is to boil water for coffee to help with our very early mornings, and to turn on the very dim lighting. At night, we have lamps to read for the five minutes we can manage to stay awake before drifting off to sleep. The bathroom has a light only above the sink, not above the toilet or shower, so we bring a flashlight to make sure we’re not stepping on anything that is crawling or slithering. Speaking of creepy crawlies, our tent is secured to the platform and the “windows” have mesh panels so that nothing can really make its way in except through the main entry which we kept zipped shut, whether we’re inside or out. What it doesn’t keep out are all the spectacular sounds of the African night and early morning: the roaring of the lions, the chirping of the insects, the banter of the birds and the monkeys jumping on top of our tent. (When we’re gone, I will miss these sounds as much as I miss anything about our time in Africa.)
As Nathan leaves us to settle in and have lunch before our first induction session, I realize we are in a slice of paradise here in the Zimbabwe midlands. The bush is alive with wildlife, the brick buildings stand up proudly with their thatched roofs, the river is filled with birds looking for their dinner as you watch from a soft, green lawn. Everywhere is the affirmation of life – the birds, the insects, the people, the changing light, the drum beats calling you to each meal. And we haven’t even seen or met the lions yet!
Life is lived outdoors at AP. We work outside, we eat outside, we socialize outside. Nights and mornings are cold and brisk; the days hot, clear, and sunny. We add and subtract layers as needed during our long and full days. Each morning we wake up to a beautiful sunrise, make a quick cup of coffee, and report to the volunteer lounge by 6:25am for our first activity – usually a lion walk; sometimes horse stable or elephant boma cleaning. Breakfast is at 8:30am, and we are always ready for it after a long morning walk with the cubs. Even the instant coffee is a much anticipated treat! The next work session starts at 9:25am followed by lunch from 1-2pm. The afternoon contains two work sessions from 2-4pm, and 4-6pm. The late morning and early afternoon time slots focus on enclosure cleaning, maintenance around the site, meat prep, lion feeding, and behavioral enrichment for the cubs. The late afternoon activity is often another cub walk, and occasionally a special activity such as a Shona language lesson, a boat ride, or a game drive. Each day at 6pm we gather as a group for the evening meeting to review the day’s events and discuss the next day’s schedule. Then we watch the sunset, eat dinner, sit around the fire pit, take a quick shower and, usually, maintain a fairly early bedtime to get ready for another busy day in paradise.
Welcome to Antelope Park.