It’s 5:45am – but I know that already because I’ve been dreading this moment our entire trip. Our last day at Antelope Park. This is the part of the story where I’d like to say that I spent the night dreaming of lions. That King Milo came to see me, and beside the river outside our tent, amidst the roars of the other lions in his kingdom, we sat and talked about a great many things. Secrets that the wind has shared with him that he’s now sharing with me. That Wakanaka came up and, rubbing her head underneath Milo’s chin, turned to look at me while asking her father, “Does he have to leave, poppa?” “Yes, beautiful one,” the lion king purrs in reply. “But we will be holding his heart for him until he returns.” Then, noticing the heart in my outstretched hands, she asks of the offering, “Will that make him sad not to have his heart?” “Yes, very sad. But also happy, because he will always know who he has left it with, and where he must journey to again in order to reclaim it.” “Eeoww,” the cub says, her big ears and doll eyes framed beneath her father’s noble face as I slowly fade back from the dream and into wakefulness.
Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That’s what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death.
-Peter Godwin, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.”
This is the part of the story where I’d like to say I had those dreams, but it would be untrue. I didn’t dream at all last night. In fact, I don’t even remember hearing the lions roar while I slept. I’m sure they did; it’s just that I’ve gotten so used to them that, like police and fire sirens back home, I’ve started subconsciously tuning them out. Looking down at my hands, they’re empty; but in the quiet of the morning I can hear my heart beating loudly in my chest, a sign of how afraid I am to let this day begin. Unzipping the tent, I open it hoping to find Milo waiting for me. Instead, and almost as surprising, a grey tabby, one of the six or so domestic cats that make AP their home, sits patiently outside looking at me. “You’re a long way from the warmth and comfort of the kitchen,” I tell him. “Have you come to deliver my heart to the lions?” Declining to answer, the tabby instead pads inside the tent, has a sniff around, and hops up on the bed to position himself in front of our space heater, while I step outside to take in one of only two sunrises we have left to enjoy here. It’s funny: we still have another adventure waiting for us in Sabi Sands when we leave here, but this feels like the end of our journey in Africa. I guess, because, this place has always felt like our journey.
The first session of the day has us taking Penya and Paza out for a walk, and it’s hard to watch every little thing they do without feeling our hearts break a little. Romping in the fields while chasing and jumping on each other; scrambling up a tree and suddenly stopping with very perplexed “oh crap, how do I get down now?” looks on their faces; snoozing on a rock in the warmth of the sun. It’s also one of the last lion walks we’ll enjoy with some of our fellow volunteers, so we all gather for a group shot behind the P’s – everyone, that is, except Hege. She’s been keeping herself distant this morning; whether because that’s how far we’ve drifted apart in the two weeks since arriving, I’m not sure. But as we gather in for the photo, no one in our group insists she joins us – something I feel a twinge of guilt over, but not much. Mackay is also along with us this morning, and I ask him again, “Meat and beer, huh? No sadza?” “No sadza,” he laughs. “Definitely some beer.”
With some sadness we drop Penya and Paza back off at their enclosure. “Thanks for one last walk, ladies! Be good while we’re gone!” Kim and I have been scheduled for an elephant ride after breakfast – finally being able to spend a proper session with them – but I’ve decided not to go. We have an early departure tomorrow and have yet to pack, and I want to take some time getting things sorted so it doesn’t end up being a last-minute packing frenzy in the dark tonight after dinner and a few drinks. So while Kim goes off on the elephant session, I stay behind, scratching my head and wondering why I decided to buy a chess board and pieces, and how exactly I’m going to pack the thing without having it end up broken when it finally makes its way back to Seattle. As well, it’s looking like the walking sticks JB carved for us are not going to fit in our luggage, and I’m not sure what the solution is.
So I head out in search of JB, finding him seated on a bench in the courtyard outside the vol lounge. As we discuss my walking stick predicament, Sanjana comes marching up, interrupts our conversation, leans over towards JB and proceeds to greet him in Shona; following her salutations with the traditional back and forth of polite replies the language requires. Finishing up, she looks directly at me and proudly grins like the Cheshire cat. I’m not sure what to do here – it’s been a long time since I’ve had to play out this kind of juvenile drama. So I do what I usually do when I can’t be bothered with someone: I look directly at her with no emotion or expression on my face, waiting for her to break eye contact, silently judging her the entire time. It’s a look family and friends know well. In a few moments her smile is gone and she’s looking uncomfortable, and shortly thereafter she walks off and JB and I continue our conversation.
At lunch, Chris is wanting to drum again, so we approach the kitchen staff and ask. They’re a little less enthused about having us riding their drumming coattails yet again, and the session reflects as much. However, a couple of staff members dance while we play, smiles on their faces. And even though the drumming isn’t as good as it was yesterday, it still ends in laughs. Over lunch, Kim regales me with tales from her elephant ride, giggling about how fun it was to feed Amai and spend the morning with her and the rest of the pachyderm gang. Kim’s retelling of the session makes me regret not having gone out on it with her, but at least now most of the packing has been dealt with. Except for our honeymoon walking sticks, which I can’t bring myself to mention to her just yet.
Following lunch, JB takes a number of us who are leaving over the next few days out on one last game drive to say goodbye to the park and all the animals. As we head towards Lewa and Laili’s enclosure, we pass by the horse stables. Kiara is there, still healing from the lion attack. Her foal was brought down to her from the main house several days ago, and it’s heartwarming to see them both together, clearly very much in need of the other’s company. There’s sad news to report about Savannah, however; news that I’ve avoided bringing up for a few days now. The veterinarian determined the day after the lion incident that Savannah’s wounds, though self-inflicted, were too egregious, and she was in more pain and discomfort than any medicine or care could hope to cure. So she was, sadly, put down, and her body and that of her unborn foal buried on the grounds at AP in a place and in such a way that no predator will be able to get at it. It was very sad to hear, and many of the staff who’ve known Savannah were visibly upset. So we take a moment to pause and reflect on Savannah, and then find the happiness to say goodbye to Kiara and her foal.
At the L’s enclosure, Lewa and Laili come bounding up. “Goodbye, ladies! We’re going to miss you terribly. Write often, okay?” Some scratches behind the ears and pats on the backs, and we’re off again; the L’s looking confused as to why we’re leaving after only a few minutes. Up at BPG we make the rounds. “Goodbye, Big Boy! Goodbye Lulu!” Lulu rubs up against the fence, letting me touch her face one last time. Big Boy, true to form, snarls at us, never breaking eye contact, quietly judging us the whole time. Gonna miss you, Big Boy! On our way out we bid farewell to the meat trailer, the skulls and poo, the fence post holes we dug, and the lion ramps we spent hammerin’, hammerin’, hammerin’.
Next it’s out towards the main gate to see the Gum Tree boys, looking handsome and resplendent as always. David decides to rile a couple of them up. I’m not sure it’s the best way to say goodbye to the boys as they come roaring up to the fence, teeth bared, looking for a fight. Then we cross the length of the grounds at AP, heading for the Bush enclosure and passing the usual assortment of impala and zebra along the way, as well as the park’s giraffes and the elephants, saying goodbye to each. By the time we arrive at the Bush enclosure we’re saying goodbye to the sky, the sun, the grass – even the beat up old truck that doesn’t have any brakes.
We greet the MK’s, but one of the lionesses is not at all happy to see Nicky and mock charges her from the other side of the gate. The rest welcome us, however, by rubbing up against the fence. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since the early morning encounter we took them out on several days ago. Moyo looks his usual bashful self, and I take a minute to talk to him. “Goodbye, Moyo. You are no longer ‘the fake lion,’ understand? You’ve earned your stripes. Never forget that. I hope to see you again when your mane is as big and flush as Milo’s. Take care of yourself, shamwari.”
As we make our way back to camp we pass by the Umbrella Tree, bidding it a fond farewell. I haven’t written much about the Umbrella Tree here (its name purposely capitalized), but during our time at AP the tree became a very special totem for me – one that’s difficult to explain. I could always feel its presence whenever we were near it, and I was convinced at times that I could hear it whispering koans to us. I half-expected that if I snuck out at night and hiked up to it that I’d see its branches lit up with an assortment of otherworldly lights, and would catch elves dancing around its trunk in a revelry of fairy delight. Or, better yet, I’d find Milo resting beneath its limbs, smoking an old pipe and regaling Wakanaka with bedtime stories of distant places and exotic peoples while absent-mindedly pawing at the heart I’ve left him. Goodbye, Umbrella Tree. Goodbye, Wakanaka. Goodbye, Milo.
Back at our river tent another of the camp’s cats is waiting for us – this one a Siamese. It seems all the domestic felines here have waited until our last day to pay us a visit. “Have you come to deliver my heart to the lions?” I ask, but she just rubs against my leg and purrs. While Kim starts to pack her things, I sit outside the tent with a cup of coffee and pen some final thoughts in my journal; the cat in the chair next to me, napping contentedly. I look out at the river watching various birds prune, preen, and dance across the water; their flapping wings the only sound breaking the silence as they enter and exit my field of view. I think on all the guests who’ve stopped by to visit us over the past two weeks: Silver Dime and his stable, the elephants, some nervous impala, our vervet monkey pranksters, frogs, and, of course, the roars of the lions. I feel at ease. I feel at peace. I feel at home.
With the sun starting to slip its way down the western edge of the sky, I take a walk across the grounds and catch Mr. Conolly seeing off some his family members on a carriage ride. Pulling my thank you letter from my journal, I share a few words with him before passing it along, thanking him again for a fantastic honeymoon and letting him know how much this journey has meant to us. Kim joins me and we sit on a ledge quietly enjoying a final sunset at the park. Blues shift to yellows, yellows drift into orange, and orange gives way to deep reds as the dying embers of the setting sun fall behind the horizon, pulling the starry blanket of night up over its head.
Across the grounds we see new faces. One here, a few there. Over the past two days a new group of volunteers has arrived, almost 20 in all, and it’s become hard to find room amongst them. We’ve been watching them intently – staring, sniffing, stalking. “They smell so fresh,” Alynn remarks. Sniff… fresh, yes. They stand out like lambs amongst us wolves with the way they smell, their clean clothes, their innocence. Have we been out here in the bush so long that we’ve become animalistic enough as to recognize the new class by how innocent and fresh they smell. Sniff… yes.
Nathan and Dan approach in the darkness, asking if Chris and I are going to be joining them for the pre-dinner drum session. Sniff… yes. I mean, yes! We gather around and the kitchen staff lead off into a passionate set of rhythms. Nathan immediately lays into his drum, picking up the beat with earnest devotion. Dan follows, with me and Chris right behind. It’s heavier, deeper, more tribal than any of the previous sessions I’ve played in. I let go and give in to the sound as it swallows us up. A crowd draws around us, and suddenly Kay and David jump in front and start doing their patented “Shovelin'” dance, chanting: “Every day I’m shovelin’, shovelin’ / shovelin’, shovelin’.” More people start dancing and even one of the cooks – whose name I sorely never remembered but who was the nicest person at AP besides Grafton – jumps in and starts giving his all while grinning from ear to ear. It’s a celebration, a blessing, a thanks giving. Our prayers complete, we laugh and smile and line up for dinner.
Food in hand, Kim and I search amongst the tables for an empty seat, but find none. From corner to corner in the dining hall the new vols have quickly taken up any available places, and so we walk from one end of a long set of tables to another and back again – finally finding a tiny table at the back of the hall that we share with Nicky, Sharon, and Chris. Cozy and intimate, it’s nice to break bread and enjoy conversation with people we’ve grown to know and love. Chris and Sharon are headed off to Victoria Falls later in the morning tomorrow; finally getting to spend their five days there before flying home to Holland. Nicky is on her way to volunteer at ALERT’s Victoria Falls location before heading back home to Australia. We laugh, reminisce, and savor the friendships we’ve made – promising to keep in touch and make the effort to travel and meet again in new and distant corners of the globe. We’re each other’s support group, after all; because it’s become evident to us that no one who hasn’t been here is ever going to truly understand just how deeply we’ve been cut with the magic of this place, its lions, of Africa.
As we’re finishing dinner, I excuse myself and walk over to the tables just outside the kitchen where the staff and guides at AP take their meals and warmly shake each person’s hand while thanking them for a wonderful experience. It’s been unpleasant at times, both with the work and the occasional friction between various personalities, but never unfriendly. At the end of the day the people who work here put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears, literally, into trying to do some good that will hopefully one day make a real and sustainable difference – something for which they get little in return. Little pay, and little thanks. Without them, ALERT’s Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Program would fail, utterly; and they deserve massive props for the righteous cause they fight for day in and day out. To that end, it’s the least I can do to give a humble thank you to them all in person and shake their hands. Tatenda!
Following dinner, Kim and I spend some time around the fire – drinking, sharing laughs, and trying to avoid the inevitable goodbyes. David has brought along some Romeo y Julieta cigarillos from a trip he took to Cuba earlier in the year, and is kind enough to share them with me. So I enjoy a smoke while watching some of the new vols attempt to break their way into the conversation of this motley lot, trying in vain to figure out what madness we’ve all been struck with. By the time Kim and I get up to leave, they’ve all deserted the fire pit.
At last, the dreaded moment. The time has come. Goodbyes are said, hugs are shared, and we take our leave of this fine bunch of people who’ve come from all over the world to this distant corner of Africa. England, Ireland, Holland, Norway, Sweden, America, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia. Many people, one purpose. Penya, Paza, Lewa, and Laili are all looked on as our children now, and it’s terribly sad to leave them. But each of us looks forward to the day when they have grown in confidence and ability and are able to join a larger pride that helps re-establish Africa’s lion population. A day when we can say, “I was there. I remember Penya when she was a cub. I remember when the zebra taunted Lewa. I remember Moyo when he made his first kill and never again was called ‘the fake lion.'”
On our way back to the tent I take a quick detour to the volunteer lounge. The vols who are leaving have written goodbye notes on the board, sharing their email addresses and encouraging others to keep in touch. I look at the board for a minute and then decide to leave a different message – one that will hopefully encourage people to see beyond the skulls and scat, the fence hole digging and the road repair shoveling.
By the time I get back to the tent it’s late, and as I crawl under the covers I realize that the cleaning staff have once again separated our beds. It makes me laugh. “Happy honeymoon, sweetie!” A few minutes later I start to drift off, only to jerk myself back awake, having heard something in the distance. What was that? Whuh whuh whuuuuuuh. Whuh whuh whuuuuuuh. Thank you! Tatenda! Listening to the lions roaring in the distance, I close my eyes and drift off into sleep, wondering if I’ll dream of Milo and Wakanaka. In my head I see Philip’s smiling face. He’s asking me, “Do we have contentment?”
To all the new vols: the work is hard, it is hot, it is dirty, it is dusty, it is smelly, it is bloody, and it never ends. But it is wonderful. A blood-red sun that bookends each day. Lions roaring through the night. Cubs bouncing precociously up the path in front of you. This is Africa. It is beautiful. May it forever change your lives in positive ways.