The wind has been howling incessantly through the night. Whatever voice the lions might have given to their usual nocturnal roars have been stifled, and instead of the usual parade of vervet monkeys hopscotching across our tent, giant dragons have been jumping up and down on our roof and rattling its canvas walls with their bellowing, in an attempt to bring us, or at least our lodging, to its knees. I’ll huff and I’ll puff… All the usual suspects that have been serenading us throughout the night over the two weeks we’ve been at Antelope Park have rolled up in front of the storm. Even Silver Dime and his stable of horses aren’t anywhere to be found as we unzip our tent and head out for the morning session. The wind, and especially the lack of lions roaring, has put me on edge. We only have two days left at AP, and the inevitable pull of having to leave this place has left me feeling unsettled. I’m not good with goodbyes, and I’m especially unhappy to be nearing the end of this leg of our African journey.
He unfolds himself in the storm clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpools. His claws are in the forks of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane which, scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring. The dragon reveals himself only to vanish.
As we muster to take the L’s out for a morning walk, the storm appears to be more bark than bite. It’s still too hot and the humidity too low for rain to start falling just yet, and the wind has begun to die off a little. But we’ve been robbed of our sunrise, as apparently our overnight dragon departed without its gray overcoat; left hanging across the sun, all but forgotten. None of this dampens our attitude, however, because today is our “wish list” day. With our time here drawing to a close, we’ve put in a request to do some of the more fun sessions. No picking up cow skulls and lion poo, no shoveling dirt into ditches, no pondering the Zen-ness of four people and one hammer while doing ramp repairs, no arguing over whose hose it is to suck, no long rides out to Vulture’s Restaurant with a trailer full of offal sloshing around the back to check on the condition of one poor donkey’s angel lust and if, by some perverse chance, a bird might be perched there – today is our “wish list” day. A morning walk with Lewa and Laili, followed by a cub sit with Penya and Paza, then back after lunch to cub sit the L’s, wrapping up with an evening research session in the fine and distinguished company of the Ngamo Pride. More than a “wish list” day, it’s a proper honeymoon date for me and the missus. Even better, with the exception of the morning walk, the rest of the sessions today include only myself and Kim. “Kim + Craig, party of two: your day is ready!” No poo, no skulls, no gloves, no tools, no stomach turning smells, and no one else. Just each other and a few dozen of our favorite lions. What could possibly go wrong?
We’ve been joined by clients for the walk this morning, which means we stay back while they get to soak up Lewa and Laili’s affections. Walking behind the clients with my camera holstered is not what I’d prefer to have to do, but it is what it is. I introduce myself to an older couple in the group, both visiting from Australia. They’ve come to help assist an old friend of theirs, who originally came to Zimbabwe to spend a year working with abused children and 20 years on has yet to leave. It’s difficult work, they say, and very heartbreaking. But being out here, their hands in the dirt of Africa, so to speak, they can understand why their friend chose to stay all those years ago. “People, not possessions,” the wife says, her husband nodding. She is right. So very, very right. Listening to them talk with the same enthusiasm I’ve been keeping in my heart for Africa these past few weeks helps keep me warm against the wind.
With the morning sun held back by the clouds and wind, the L’s are in fine form, and we lead them out to “the tree” – the place where Kim and I took Lewa and Laili on our first official morning walk with them two weeks ago, and the tree where many of AP’s cubs learn and hone their climbing skills. Laili sprints up into the branches, while Lewa looks on in hesitation. After some coaxing from us and Laili, she finally musters an ascent. After a few minutes taking in the view around them, both work their way down; a little more cautious in their exit than when they went up. They then run off to another tree a few meters away, where they take turns chasing each other up and down its trunk. I close my eyes for a moment and try to imagine all the lions who’ve spent their formative months climbing these trees, scratching their names into the trunks and branches with their claws. Lewa was here. Laili was here. Kim + Craig were here.
As we walk the cubs back to their enclosure – “Thanks for the walk, ladies!” – the wind has finally died down and the clouds are starting to burn off, and by the time we finish breakfast and return back to the vol lounge the sun is out in full and it’s another gorgeous day in the company of the lions at AP. We rendezvous with Mackay and head out to cub sit Penya and Paza. Unlike behavioral enrichment, where you spend time trying to stimulate the cubs with nature-made toys, cub sitting involves simply being in their company and letting them acclimate to your presence. No elephant poo, no impala skulls. Just each other. By design, these sessions are pretty low-key and relaxed, and it’s something that Kim and I haven’t had the chance to do yet since our arrival here, so it seems like a no brainer of a “wish list” choice.
When we reach the bridge near the P’s enclosure we look back to discover that Mackay is no longer with us. Instead, he’s back on the other side of the lawns talking with some other staff. We give him a minute and then yell for him to get his feet shuffling; the cubs are waiting, don’t you know! We’re then surprised to see Dan walking toward us, having apparently replaced Mackay as our staff guide for the session. “Spend time with Penya and Paza for a few hours, doing nothing else?” He smiles. “Couldn’t resist!” We greet the cubs with the usual eeowws and settle in for the sit. As the P’s rub up against us, and then flop onto their back for a belly rub, we notice both have a number of ticks on them. Dan busily gets to work removing the ticks while Kim and I flatten and kill them. Engorged on lion blood, the ticks pop like blood-filled bubble wrap; not a particularly pretty sight.
We spend time removing ticks, rubbing bellies, taking pictures, and generally relaxing and enjoying our time, and at about the point we feel like we’re hitting our cub sit groove Lauren (US) appears at the enclosure along with Kirsty and Sanjana (NOR). Kirsty’s time as a research intern is fast coming to an end, and she wanted to say goodbye to the P’s. Sanjana, a young volunteer on the medical side of things at AP, returned yesterday with the rest of the vols who went to Victoria Falls earlier in the week. We’re not quite sure why she’s here. Lauren whispers something vague about a medical emergency with a member of her family, which would explain why I thought I saw her on the verge of tears at one point yesterday, but it strikes me as odd. If a member of my family was in a life-and-death situation, I would be on the next flight out of this country to be at their side, not playing with cubs. Last night I saw her happy and socializing, spending time around the bonfire and partying with everyone else. I even complimented her on how lovely and happy she looked. But who am I to judge how one should react to the news of a family member’s medical emergency? The fact that Lauren mouths “sorry” to us almost as if she’s saying she’s sorry for having brought Sanjana here specifically, and not for having brought more people in general, also is weird. Fine, whatever. More people? Sure. Kim and I are on our honeymoon date, and all is golden as far as we’re concerned.
It’s nice to catch up with Kirsty. I’ve been pestering her on a daily basis about the goings on of the Ngamo Pride almost since the day we arrived, and it’s nice to sit and chat. Like everyone else whose time is winding down here, she’s not looking forward to leaving; but a resumption of her university courses await. After 20 minutes or so, Lauren and Kirsty decide to leave, with Sanjana staying behind. Both of the cubs are tired and resting on the edge of the fence near the northwest corner of the enclosure, where Dan has also seated himself. When Kirsty and Lauren depart, Sanjana immediately turns her back to me and Kim, shifts in near Dan, and starts talking exclusively to him about how much fun Vic Falls was, about how much dancing and partying she did – about things I wouldn’t expect someone who’s grieving to go on about. It just seems odd. She has seated herself on the ground facing Dan and with her back to us, and is positioned in such a way that neither Kim nor I can interact with either Paza or Penya. She continues to talk on and on about this, about that, about blah, blah, blah. If I could use one word to describe her conversation it would be: ohmigod! On a couple of occasions Kim or I try to interject and find a way to gain admittance to the cubs, if not the conversation; but we’re both duly ignored. So we sit by ourselves, backs against the fence, staring off towards our tent across the river.
A half-hour later, we’re still staring at the river, uninvited and unallowed to participate in the session – our “wish list” session. I turn to Kim and say, “Happy honeymoon, sweetie!” The irony of my statement isn’t lost on her, and she replies with an “ugh.” I realize at this point that everything coming out of Sanjana’s mouth is being colored by my bitterness towards the situation we’ve found ourselves in. I look down at my arms and I see scales glistening. Looking at my reflection in Kim’s glasses, I see fire in my eyes and anger creasing the corners of my mouth. It’s time to leave. So we stand up, brush ourselves off, and simply say to Dan, “We’re leaving.” He looks at us, confused, then at his watch and says, “But the session isn’t over.” “Well, staring at the river and unable to interact with the cubs isn’t much of a cub sit for us, so we’re leaving.” Dan doesn’t pick up on the clues in our passive-aggressive behavior, and we bid each other goodbye. Sanjana doesn’t say a word and avoids making any eye contact with us, and as we walk off we hear her pick her conversation right back up where she’d left it.
Back on the grounds outside the kitchen, I’m fuming; absolutely angry over having our session bogarted. Kim does the only thing she can do when I’m like this: nothing; but it’s apparent she’s also very unhappy with what’s happened. It’s not that Sanjana showed up; we were happy to accommodate her or anyone else. It’s that we got cold shouldered off of being able to interact at all with the cubs, and the times we tried to interject ourselves so we could participate we were promptly ignored. I feel sorry for whatever family emergency she has, and because of that I feel conflicted about being angry, but at the same time it didn’t mean that we should’ve been bumrushed off our own session. I couldn’t care less about the “ohmigod, sooo awesomeness!” of partying in Victoria Falls, but I do care about not being able to spend any time with Penya and Paza during our session with them; stuck leaning against a fence in a cage – excuse me, “enclosure” – mindlessly staring out into the river as a result. Kim just nods at my ranting, raving, and overall indignation. “I know, I know. I’m not happy about it, either.”
Some minutes later we see Dan and Sanjana walking across the grounds, having returned from the P’s enclosure. As they near us, Sanjana veers off away while Dan turns in our direction. When he reaches us he says, “It sounds like there’s a lion feed happening at noon, which is in just a few minutes. Are you guys going to come along?” “Probably not,” I say, trying to wrestle my passive-aggressive dragon into submission. “Look, Dan. I have to tell you that I’m angry with how the session went.” Dan’s eyes widen, and he sits down next to us. I explain to him how we felt about things, and why we ended up leaving. “I realize Sanjana has some family stuff going on, but it really felt like we were vibed out, not to mention being unable to interact with the cubs, or even get close to them. We came all this way for our honeymoon, knowing it was going to be hard and dirty work, and we’ve been fine with that. But I just wanted to spend one nice day with my wife here – this day – enjoying a proper honeymoon with her. One day.”
Dan, much to his credit, takes ownership of the situation and apologies profusely. “I’m really sorry for what happened. It shouldn’t have, and that’s my fault. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you both?” It’s really nice and very touching to hear him say that, and I apologize for being a Big Boy grump while thanking him for his sincerity and contrition. “Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that,” I tell him, “It means a lot.” “So,” he says. “Are you going to come watch the lion feed? You know you’ll regret it if you don’t!” He’s right, and we stand up and head off with Dan to the vehicles waiting to take us up to BPG. With one vehicle is filled already with vols, Kim and I climb up in the client vehicle and grab the remaining two open seats.
Up at BPG everyone crowds along the fence line while the Five Boys pace in anticipation at the other end. The meat’s ready and the whistle goes up, letting the handlers know they can open up the holding enclosure and let the boys out. And here they come! A ton of tooth and muscle thundering across the enclosure as they race at full sprint towards the waiting food. As I’ve written before, it is a damn impressive thing to witness: the power, the speed at which they run, the scant few feet and simple chain link fence that separates us from them, the quickness of the lions making their claim and hustling off to a distant corner to dig into it. Awesome and unforgettable. Dan was right, it is something never to miss out in when given the opportunity.
The clients linger afterwards, taking more photos, but in short order the vols have loaded back up into their truck and are looking to head back to camp for lunch. Everyone’s onboard and someone shouts if Kim and I are coming along with them. “We’ll wait to go back with the clients,” we say, but they’re insistent. “There’s a seat here in the back and another in the cab up front. C’mon!” Kim climbs up in the back, but I notice that Sanjana is in the cab with Dan, and that would mean I’d have to be seated next to her on the ride back to camp. I just can’t do it. I know I’m unnecessarily creating more drama for myself in front of everyone else, but I’m still sore from having our cub sit bogarted by her less than an hour ago. Catching my reflection in the truck’s side mirror I see the dragon shimmering again in the heat of the day. “You guys go on with Kim, I’m fine waiting to come back with the clients. No big deal, really!” But they’re insistent. “No, no. It’s okay. I’ll wait!” I counter. “C’mon, Craig!” shouts Eva, “I’ll go ride in the cab and make room for you up here.” So Eva, bless her, climbs down and crawls into the cab and I haul myself up into the back amid a few cheers. “Thanks, everyone!” I say. In trying to avoid unnecessary drama by riding in the cab, I somehow have created more. Story of my life today, it seems.
Back at camp, Chris is trying to convince a few of us to go play drums with the kitchen staff as part of the pre-meal ritual here. When lunch and dinner are ready, the cooks and others from the kitchen sing and play djembes to announce the meal. There’s about a half-dozen or so of the drums, ranging in size from a large 14-inch-plus head, to diminutive seven-inch heads. All are in a poor state of repair, with cracked drum skins and, in many cases, holes in the head; some of which are fist-sized with the larger djembes. It doesn’t matter though because, broken gear or not, the staff can play. The heart and soul they pour into their rhythm and singing is hard to ignore, and even more difficult not to move your feet to. So while I’m hesitant to crash their pre-meal ritual, it’s also a unique opportunity to go native. “Okay, let’s do it!”
Chris, David, Kay, and myself walk up to the staff and ask if we can join them. They smile and say “sure,” and when the food’s ready we all sit along the low fence rail outside the kitchen area, pick up a drum, and start laying down some east-meets-west percussive honky-tonk voodoo. David’s to my right pounding away some furious 8- and 16-beat rhythms on a tiny djembe, and it’s all I can do not to stop playing and just listen to him have a go at it. I’ve got a larger drum, and am trying to keep a steady backing beat along with one of the women from the kitchen. Chris is in the middle of us all, and it’s hard to tell what he’s up to, but at some point during our percussive parade the kitchen staff, who are seated to his left, just stare at him and laugh. It’s a great time. People are filming and taking photos, and at some point a group of Asian clients (Chinese, I presume, because of their business and political ties with Zimbabwe) come over and film while one of them stands behind us, arms raised, trying to photobomb our session. It’s fantastic all around, and when we finally draw the beats to a close everyone is laughing and smiling. I suggest we start calling ourselves the “Arythmics” and tell Chris to begin planning a world tour.
After lunch, Kim and I head out to cub sit Lewa and Laili with Mackay again. This time he sticks with us the whole way, and it’s only the three of us for the entire session. The L’s are even lazier than the P’s, especially with the afternoon heat. Given that we’re not taking them out for a walk, nor have brought any toys to occupy their interest, there’s no reason for them to do anything but flop down and occasionally roll on their backs for a belly rub. It’s still a great time, though, and nice to be able to spend some quality time with both the cubs and Kim. Nowhere else I’d rather be. Nowhere.
During the cub sit I ask Mackay the same question I’ve been asking a number of the other local guides at AP: “What would your last meal be?” I’ve been asking it because, without fail, everyone has answered “sadza.” “Really?” I reply every time. “You can have anything you want to eat, and you want sadza?” “Yes, sadza.” I’m intrigued, though not surprised I guess, by the compulsion to choose a meal that has a lot of comfort and familial association with it. Mackay, however, is the first indigenous Zimbabwean to shake things up with his answer. “I think I would like some meat. And beer. Definitely some beer.” “Really?” I say. “No sadza?” “Mmm… no. Meat and beer. Definitely some beer.”
That’s what I love about Mackay. Well, that and his habit of always saying, “You gonna die!” in a deep baritone that sounds half-joking and half-homicidal. “Uchafa, Mackay. Uchafa.”
We bid the L’s farewell and wrap the session up a little early, as Kim and I need to be back by 3:45pm for the research session. Kirsty and Niki have a driver today, so the four of us are in the cage in the back of the Land Cruiser as we head into the Ngamo release site. We find the female members of the pride lazing about near a water hole in a part of the site that has been burned out by a recent brush fire. All are fast asleep, except for Wakanaka. Our favorite precocious lion cub is on her back trying to swat at some acacia branches hanging above her. At one point she even looks like she’s trying to lick them, and we let out stifled laughs when we realize what she’s up to. Waks rolls over and straightens herself up, looking at the research vehicle and then a little to her right before giving a big stretch and letting out a sleepy yawn. She then slowly picks herself off the ground – stopping several times in the process to stretch and yawn some more – before wandering over to where her mother and aunts are sleeping, only to pester them. “C’mon, Aunt Nala! C’mon, mom! Wake up! Let’s play!” The lionesses do their best to ignore Wakanaka, but she’s a persistent little girl and is soon climbing atop and clambering over various pride members, trying to get them to give her some attention.
In the distance we hear Milo start to roar. He sounds about a kilometer off, according to Kirsty, and is trying to locate his harem. Whuh whuh whuuuuuuuuuh. None of the ladies respond. Whuh whuh whuuuuuuuuuh whuh whuh whuuuuuuuuuh. Nope, still not answering. We all laugh. Apparently, none of the lionesses want to let Milo know where they are. It’s ladies night out here on this side of the Ngamo release site, and Milo is going to have to keep himself entertained for the time being. As we shift our attention back to Waks, it appears she’s following one of her aunts over to the waterhole and has a bundle of sticks in her mouth she’s dragging along with her. She passes a fallen piece of monkey fruit and a conundrum ensues: sticks or fruit? Sticks or fruit? She can only have one, but she can’t decide which, so she ends up losing both while trying to keep each. Athena and the other lions look on, bemused. Wakanaka is a non-stop bundle of energy, and really gives the Ngamo pride some color. Not that they were lacking any to begin with, mind you.
Milo roars again in the distance, and we all pause to see if anyone responds. Waiting. Waiting. Nope. Sorry, Milo; you’re on your own tonight. As the sun starts to slide down over the western edge of the sky, the lionesses slowly get up and start spreading out, and we pack up and get ready to leave as well. As we start to pull away we see Wakanaka under a small tree jumping up and trying to grab a piece of monkey fruit. We stop the truck. “I have never seen her do that!” Kirsty exclaims. It is ridiculously cute. There is a small pile of fruit scattered around the tree’s base, and Waks is jumping up in a desperate attempt to dislodge the last remaining piece. She gives up after a few tries and settles down amongst her prizes, which, having been burned by the brush fire, look like disfigured and charred Christmas ornaments. Kirsty comments that this is “the best” research session she’s been out on in her months at Antelope Park, and Kim and I once again offer up our “Good Ngamo Pride Research JuJu Services” to AP and ALERT – full time, cheap! Serious inquires only!
As we start up the truck again and pull away from the site, Waks suddenly spies us from among her prized monkey fruit, and for a couple a seconds it looks like she’s going to stalk the vehicle as we drive off. Ears back, eyes big, she springs up and gallops a few meters towards us before settling back down. Kirsty and Niki have been saying that she’s become very adapt at stalking numerous prey in the release site, but she still needs a few months of growing and watching her mom and aunts before she’ll be able to really hunt. But when that day comes, watch out! She’s going to be a heartbreaker when she’s fully grown, figuratively and literally. And even though we weren’t able to see Milo, Wakanaka’s antics have more than made up for it. It’s been a fantastic session for everyone.
Arriving back to camp late, we head straight over to the dining hall for dinner. A new group of vols has started trickling in today, and it appears there’s very little room inside the hall to sit and eat. Eva and Stan flag us down from their table and invite us over to join them. They went on the Vic Falls trip and we haven’t had time to catch up since they returned. As we start chatting, Sanjana suddenly appears at the other end of the table where, apparently unaware to us at the time, she had been sitting earlier. She sees me and Kim, and gives us the stink eye before whispering something to the people seated next to her. She then stands up and walks off. I take a deep breath, wondering if I’ll feel smoke and flames filling up my lungs, looking for release. But nothing happens, because Kim has put her hand on my arm and whispers in my ear. I exhale and relax. We catch up with Stan and Eva, who are great company as always, and after finishing our meal I excuse myself to grab another drink at the bar and chat with Grafton the bartender for a few minutes. When I return, Kim says that Sanjana came back to the table in my absence and made a point of asking everyone seated there an individual question – everyone, that is, except Kim. “Awesome!” I say. “It’s good to know that juvenile high school drama remains alive and well, even in the bush, and is the same the world over no matter how old you get!” She looks at me at says “ugh.” “C’mon, sweetie,” I say, “it’s our honeymoon day – let’s go look at the stars. I’ve been wanting to see the Southern Cross ever since we arrived in Africa, and I can’t leave without having seen it.”
We bid goodbye to Stan and Eva and walk down the lawn to the water’s edge with Nicky, our resident expert on all things flora, fauna, and celestial. We stare up into the heavens in awe of the multitude of twinkling lights. Hundreds of them, thousands, millions. Directly overhead the sky is awash with the Milky Way; its cloudy river stretching across the night’s horizon from end to end. Nicky points out what’s left of the Southern Cross. We’ve stepped out a little late in the evening to see it in full, having caught it just as it’s setting to the southwest of us. The night sky is alive with angels dancing, and I’m reminded how much I miss its magic. Living in Seattle, it’s a rare treat to view the heavens naked of any cloud cover – there’s too many dragons there covering it up. Here, the night sky is overwhelming with its beauty, and is another reminder of the many things that will break our hearts to leave behind. I look over at Kim, and seeing something in her eyes I pull her close and whisper: Lucky stars in your eyes.