It’s official: we’re returning to Africa!
Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.
Destinations picked, deposits paid, flights booked. The luggage that has stood empty in the corner of our house, mocking me daily since our return for unpacking it in the first place, can rest easy; they’ll soon enough be called up for active duty. We’re going back! Now I just need to go dig up the zip-off pants from out back in the garden where they’ve been buried since a failed attempt to burn them. I simply had no idea they’d be so difficult to set fire to.
After many weeks of heart wrangling we’ve decided to recommit ourselves to volunteering for ALERT, but this time instead of returning to Antelope Park we’ll be spending three weeks at ALERT’s lion conservation program located in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, just outside of Livingstone, Zambia. It was a very difficult decision to make and one that we spent a lot of time discussing and fretting over. The short list of destinations we drew up included the Big Cat Research and Conservation program in Namibia, the Masai Mara Big Cat, Wildlife Research & Conservation Project in Kenya, the Large Predators Research & Conservation Project in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and ALERT’s Antelope Park and Livingstone lion conservation programs. We put those programs to a peer vote on the Wildlife Volunteers Support Network Facebook group, but the votes were as varied as our choices. After further research and consulting various oracles high and low, Namibia soon fell down in the rankings; as did the Masai Mara project, which surprised us. The program itself looks amazing, and we very much want to visit the Mara some day, but when we added all the pieces up we felt it just wasn’t the one for us. Some day, but not this time around.
That left us with the two ALERT projects, and the KwaZulu-Natal project located on the Thanda Private Game Reserve near Durban, South Africa. Thanda really appealed to us because of the opportunities to collect data and conduct research on wild lion, leopard, and cheetah populations. As well, they have a resident wild dog pack, and I’ve discovered this past year that I have a massive soft spot in my heart for the inganyana. We’ve also read and heard great things about the reserve itself. However, the project only allows volunteers to onboard in two-week increments. We felt that two weeks wouldn’t be long enough to fully immerse ourselves in a/any program, and we sadly had neither the time nor the money to afford four weeks or longer. So Thanda will also have to wait for another opportunity. Some day, but not this time around.
Of the three lion conservation program sites run by ALERT, the one at Victoria Falls never really appealed to us for various reasons (which is why it’s gone unmentioned until now) – and so our struggle to choose between Livingstone and Antelope Park. The latter was a known quantity and we could easily imagine ourselves slipping back into the familiar and enjoyable groove we found there. The park is beautiful, the lodging and food fantastic, and we’d made many friends, all of whom we’d love to see again. As well, several volunteers who were there with us last year were planning on returning again at the same time we’d be on the continent, and seeing so many familiar faces would be a wonderful thing. At the very least, it would make meat prep a lot more enjoyable. And, of course, there were the lions; some of whom have now been indelibly inked on us. How could we pass up reuniting with Penya and Paza, and Lewa and Laili? It would be the only chance we’d get to walk with the Ps before they reached 18 months and were graduated to the next stage of the program. Lastly, there was Wakanaka, Milo, and the rest of the Ngamo Pride, now flush with a crèche of adorable new lion cubs. What were we thinking passing up the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the daily life of the pride?
What were we thinking indeed!
Weeks passed, and Kim and I talked and talked and talked; convincing ourselves we were going back to Antelope Park one day, then finding ourselves committed to Livingstone the next. Yes, we were spoiled for choice; but it certainly didn’t make deciding any easier, and decide we must. After we sifted through our feelings and sorted through the options, one question kept nagging me: Were we going for ourselves or for the lions? There was nothing wrong in choosing either destination, but it felt like there was something more to be gained by stretching ourselves towards a new experience. Know languages, know countries, know people. I just hoped Wakanaka and the rest would forgive us for our decision.
Livingstone provides us with an opportunity to further fulfill our conservation work with ALERT. It’s a chance to immerse ourselves in a new culture and country, to meet and make new friends, and to work and fall in love with a new group of lions. Livingstone is also home to the Dambwa Pride, who were first released into Stage 2 of ALERT’s Lion Release Program at the outset of our last journey to Africa, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to study Zulu and his harem of lovely lionesses up close. Mosi-oa-Tunya Park also has wild elephant, buffalo, and hippo populations, and we will be spending time observing them as well. 10 minutes away is the city of Livingstone, with Victoria Falls just across the Zambezi. Botswana is a stone’s throw away, and we’re hoping for the opportunity to do a multi-day safari there. Last, but certainly not least, we’re hoping the kind managers at Livingstone afford us the opportunity to travel to Antelope Park for a couple of days and reunite with our lion and human friends – not to mention a certain umbrella tree that was a totem for me during our last stay. While the visit would be brief, it’s a chance to see everyone, enjoy a final walk with Penya and Paza, and humbly kneel before Milo’s throne to ask forgiveness from the king for not staying longer while imploring him to continue to keep our hearts safe and looked after until we can return again for a more deserving length of time.
A difficult choice – but the right one, I think.
When told about our confirmed destination a friend asked, “What do you know about Zambia?” “Uh, let’s see. Formerly Northern Rhodesia. Had a peaceful election recently after which a white Zambian was appointed as vice president; which was a first, I believe. Uh, um. Oh, yeah, their soccer team just won the Africa Cup of Nations! Er, don’t know much else about it, really. Ask me about Zimbabwe! I know lots about Zimbabwe!”
It was an embarrassing reminder that Kim and I have a lot of study ahead of us, which is good and something we’re looking forward to as we’re extremely curious and driven people anyway. But it was also a bittersweet moment of realization. Of everyone we met and everything we experienced last time, it was Zimbabwe, with its mix of ugly beautiful and crazy magic, that we fell in love with most. Such courageous people and such an amazing country, both of whom deserve so much more than they’ve been given in recent times. Sandwiches don’t taste the same any more without Dixon preparing them while smiling his broad, toothless grin; and car rides have felt dull and boring since that morning Anne Williams was behind the wheel and we nervously rolled through the darkened streets of Harare at 5am. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m longing to take an omnibus ride with a soldier toting an AK47 while we’re in Zambia, but there is something heartwarming and uniquely special about Zimbabwe that’s hard to contextualize if you haven’t experienced it first hand.
So while we look forward to our upcoming Zambian adventure, and are very excited to once again be volunteering with ALERT, the choice didn’t come easily – which is a good thing, I think. It’s a sign of the respect we have for both program sites; the people who live, work, and volunteer there; and the lions they’re wards for. It’s also a reminder of just how much Kim and I are still in love with Africa.
And so the journey continues…