On a nightly basis our room was literally abuzz with activity. Silence the noisy fan from pushing hot, Zambian air in circles over our bodies and you’d hear a lizard scurrying behind the dresser. Turn on the light and one, if not several, rain spiders would freeze in silence on the ceiling, carefully watching us with their many eyes. I was always happy to see our roommates because it meant I knew where they were and so didn’t have to worry where they weren’t, unlike some of the other creatures that came party crashing into what was called the White House.
A dilapidated former farmhouse that was previously occupied (and still currently owned) by the proprietors of the high-end guest lodge located next door to Lion Encounter, “rustic” would be a compliment to its current state but certainly not meant as a derogatory description of our accommodations there. With four bedrooms that slept between two-to-four people each, and a single indoor bathroom housing a toilet and shower, it made for some difficult end-of-day jostling to see who could get to it first to enjoy the meager water pressure and cold water temperature. In our three weeks at Lion Encounter I can’t think of a single time I enjoyed even the slightest hint of warm water while showering. Which, truth be told, was actually a refreshing thing on most days given the oftentimes stifling heat in southern Zambia. There was an outdoor bathroom attached to the house that also had a toilet and shower, but without a sink and constantly filled with buzzing mosquitos it was routinely avoided except when the situation proved dire. About two weeks after we left Lion Encounter a Mozambique spitting cobra was discovered in the inside bathroom, apparently having come up through the shower drain. Lucky us for having missed it.
In the back was a locked kitchen where the cooking staff prepared our meals. Our morning meetings, to go over the day’s schedule, were conducted in a small living room located between the kitchen and a dining area at the front of the house. On the White House’s front door leading into said dining room hung a “wanted” sign with the picture of a baboon and some firm language about what happens when you leave the door open for the neighboring wildlife to come in and fix themselves a bite to eat and pull their best Keith-Moon-in-a-hotel impersonation. Our room sat to one side of the dining area, with an office bordering its other. There was a small lawn out front with a ramshackle metal fence running its perimeter, and it was here where Kim and I spent most mornings and evenings watching the sun come and go. A lot of the vols kept themselves locked away inside the house when not on activities, which always puzzled me. While the lawn was not plush by any means it was still outside under the African sun, and we took every opportunity to soak in as much of it as we could. Even if the grounds were lacking, the sunrises and sunsets rarely did.
The meals that were served were basic and sometimes left a lot to be desired, but the cook staff meant well and tried their best, so it was difficult to fault them. File under: TIA. A small fridge inside was kept stocked with soda and beer, and I probably drank enough Zambezi lager to float a small navy. Correction: I’ve been told I drank enough Zambezi to float the Armada Invencible.
About fifty meters north of the White House is the home of ALERT’s COO, David Youldon, the west end of which was used for storing and preparing the lions’ meat – an interesting combination of living and recently living quarters. About 100 meters east of there stood a series of structures called Bristol, comprising Lion Encounter’s main office, the lion handlers meeting area, staff housing, and more volunteer accommodations. Another 200 meters beyond Bristol lay the lion enclosures; two of them to be exact. One remained empty for most of our stay, with the other the home to ALERT’s three sets of walking cubs at Lion Encounter Livingstone: Zamfara and Zaria (the Zs), Dendi and Damara (the Ds), and Madoda, Munali and Zambezi (the 2MZeds).
When taking the lions out for walks we’d generally start off heading north to northeast further into the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, sometimes stopping at the “fake baobab tree” (actually a chestnut tree that is often mistaken for the woody African icon) before continuing on to a sausage tree – named for the huge fruits that hang down from its branches on long, rope-like vines. After a stop at the sausage tree it was on to one or more of the three beaches along the Zambezi that the lions enjoy, where all of us would take a well-deserved siesta and enjoy the beautiful view across the water before winding our way back home.
Since Lion Encounter (along with the neighboring Thorntree River Lodge) sits inside a national park, wild animals roam freely. And by freely I mean that one morning I woke up to find elephants had somehow squeezed their way under the stucco arch leading into the White House’s lawn and left behind definitive proof of their presence. Troops of baboons and vervet monkeys continually patrolled the grounds looking for freebies (see aforementioned “wanted” poster). Hippos were also spotted after dark, along with buffalo, various antelope species, and the occasional cobra that was sometimes waiting outside your door (see aforementioned “lucky us”). Because of this, we weren’t allowed to wander freely after dark without a guard accompanying us, even if it was to travel between the White House and Bristol. We could take a taxi into Livingstone, which became more of a weekend thing to do, but mostly there was really nowhere to go after hours besides the bar down at Thorntree, and they were rarely keen on admitting any of us scruffy lot for fear of scaring off their paying guests (which, strangely, they never considered us to be even as they took our money). All of which is why we spent so much time parked on a bench under a tree on the lawn at the White House drinking prodigious amounts of Zambezi lager.
Mornings and evenings were also particularly dangerous times of day as many of the animals, most notably elephants, would head toward the Zambezi to sake their thirst. This often led to delays in taking the lions out, as you don’t want to get caught between a herd of elephants and the water. They’re particularly fidgety around people in these parts due to the high human population concentration nearby and the history of human/elephant conflict as a result, so we’d patiently wait for them to shuffle on, sometimes helped by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) rangers who would fire off a round or two into the air to scare them off. We were always accompanied by at least two ZAWA rangers on our walks. One generally carried a high-powered rifle, while the other toted around a Kalashnikov; which seemed to be a bit absurd, really, in my mind. Not absurd in being armed against potentially dangerous animals, but absurd in carrying around an AK47 to shoo them away with.
About a twenty-minute drive north of Lion Encounter across Zambia’s M10 lies the Dambwa Forest, where ALERT keeps their BPG lions (Nyika, Subi, Rundi, Toka, Tswana), along with their Stage Two release pride, the Dambwa Pride (Kela, Kwandi, Leya, Loma, Rusha, Temi, and His Majesty King Zulu). Also in Dambwa is Hero (aka Dynamite), an old wild lion who had been run off his patch in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park in and who traveled a ridiculously long distance that included swimming across the Zambezi (an incredible feat for any lion, especially one of his advanced age) to find himself in Zambia where ALERT have given him temporary sanctuary while his situation between the two countries is being sorted out.
We’ll talk more about the goings-on up at Dambwa in future posts, including an update on Hero, but right now there’s a Zambezi lager waiting for me and I need to make sure ALF hasn’t moved from his perch on our curtain rod.