“As easy as putting you on a bus,” I laugh. It’s mid-September and we’ve been standing around the parking lot of a Chicken Inn (Gweru’s de facto bus stop for private cross-country coaches) for over an hour now waiting to be picked up and taken to Antelope Park. I’ve finally turned my cell phone on, accepting that I’ll be paying a small fortune in roaming fees in order to get a connection in the middle of Zimbabwe, and I’m desperately trying to remember the right calling codes for the country. It doesn’t matter, because once I do get the number sequence down no one at Antelope Park answers. I call a backup number I have and get voicemail. Great. The sun is starting to set and it’s the end to a long day that began before sunrise twelve hours earlier in Zambia. Scratch that. It actually began some days ago when we first tried to coordinate the trip down here from Livingstone.
I am a patient boy,
I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait.
Kim and I had always planned on taking a side trip back to AP during our stay at Lion Encounter; see Penya, Paza, Lewa, and Laili, the lions we worked with last year; check in on Milo, Wakanaka and the rest of the Ngamo Pride; and catch up with friends who would be there. While we were busy publishing our ongoing profiles series in the lead-up to our trip, I was contacted by ALERT about doing a series of similar interviews with their staff. “Sounds great!” And never being one to pass up an opportunity to complicate things as much as possible, I suggested doing a full multimedia profile series that could be used, in part or in whole, in print or on the web. Filmed Q&A interviews, video of staff going about their day, B-roll of the lions in Ngamo and Dambwa, that kind of stuff. I work best when under pressure and this is just the kind of pitfall… er, I mean project, that I both love and hate getting stuck in with. Its pros are its cons and vice-versa, as it were. As well, it’s an excuse to stuff my ThinkTank Airport International to the gills with video, photography, and audio gear. Thirty-five pounds of carry-on gear, to be exact. Thankfully, South African Airways never forced me to put the TTAI on a scale before boarding any planes. And thankfully the suitcase never came crashing out of any overhead bins during our travels, as it probably would’ve seriously hurt whoever’s unfortunate head I had put it above. (At thirty-five pounds, I would never put it in an overhead bin directly above me. Never. Just common sense, really.)
When first discussing the trip we were told it would be “as easy as putting you on a bus,” except that from the start it was anything but. It took Lion Encounter several days to get pricing from AP and coordinate accommodations for us, and it pained me every time LE manager Nicola approached me with the latest wrinkle. Being sister organizations, you’d think both LE and AP would have an easier process for handling these types of intraorganizational trips, as we certainly couldn’t be the first people to do this. It’s even listed in their brochure as an option. I felt truly awful for putting her through such a mess, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when we got our itinerary finalized.
Dates and accommodations sorted, we’re up at 4:30am on the morning of our departure to meet the always-affable Iven, Lion Encounter’s resident taxi driver, and we head off to the Zim/Zam border. Waiting for the border station to open, along with several dozen Zambians who look to be heading across for day work, we watch a troop of baboons mob a semi that has just pulled up. The simian gypsies seem to know the morning drill here, and as soon as the truck comes to a stop they rush in from the south side behind the Zambian Immigration building, quickly climbing atop the rig and into the trailer to look for whatever treasure they can run off with.
At 6am the border creaks open and we shuffle through Zambian Immigration to get our exit stamp and a slip of paper that will allow us across the bridge over the Zambezi and into Zimbabwe. The bridge is a no man’s zone where many of the activities at Victoria Falls takes place, including this bungee jumping incident. If you walk across it takes the better part of twenty minutes. With it barely light out it didn’t seem a smart choice, so we hop into our second taxi of the day with our luggage strapped, literally, to the outside of the trunk with some string. On the Zim side I fret that immigration will search my TTAI, see all my gear, peg me for a journalist, possibly arrest me, and more-than-likely confiscate the thousands of dollars of equipment I’m carrying with me. The fear comes courtesy of Nicola’s husband Richard, LE’s other general manager, who implied that I should take care with my gear and think about leaving some of it behind instead of risk losing it at the border. “I’ve seen it happen.”
Thankfully, and in typical Zim style, they can’t be bothered to do anything more than take our visa money and stamp our passports, and we walk through into Zimbabwe where, after a short wait, we’re met by Joe. A staff member from Lion Encounter Victoria Falls, Joe had previously purchased our bus tickets for us and agreed to give us a lift from the border to Kingdom Hotel, where our bus would be leaving from. The five minutes we spend in his pickup speeding from the border to the hotel were the best of the morning. All around great guy, Joe. Thanks for the lift! And for those of you keeping track at home, that’s three rides and two countries so far. All before 7am.
Arriving at the hotel we bid Joe adieu, quickly use the bathroom, and queue up to board the first of two buses we’ll be taking. As we wait we’re approached by a bear of a man named Adam; an American formerly of California, now living for the past several years in Cape Town with his family. It’s nice to chat with a friendly face, and Adam seems very happy to meet some fellow countrymen. He drives overland trucks for a tour company and is really outgoing. He’s also scared shitless to be a passenger on another person’s rig, which is part of the reason he needs to keep talking to someone. Adam doesn’t like it when someone else who he doesn’t know is behind the wheel. It makes him nervous. Really nervous. I get it, but there’s not a lot that can be done, so I smile a lot during our conversation while simultaneously shrugging my shoulders.
We pull out of Vic Falls and begin the four-hour journey to Bulawayo, stopping briefly at the Hwange Safari Lodge. Arriving in Bulawayo, we board another coach after a ninety-minute layover and leave Zimbabwe’s second city for the remaining four-hour journey to Gweru, where we subsequently disembark in the parking lot of a Chicken Inn. Or maybe it’s a Chicken On the Run. It’s definitely a Chicken Something, and has the fast food menu to match. That’s two taxis, two countries, one ride from Joe, a four-hour bus ride from Vic Falls to Bulawayo, and another from Bulawayo to Gweru. Twelve hours in total since we set out, and now left standing around a gas-station-slash-fast-food-joint an hour on from being dropped off in the Zimbabwean Midlands with no ride in sight and no one answering the phone at Antelope Park. “As easy as!” I laugh out loud again.
Obligatory disclaimer: there’s always the inevitable TIA that can come at different times and in different amounts, and you just have to cope with it because there’s simply no choice otherwise. “Resistance is futile” and all that. But this is feeling especially sour above and beyond the usual hassles you have to shrug your shoulders over and put up with here. We’re paying to volunteer at Lion Encounter in Livingstone. While away from Lion Encounter, we’re still paying to be volunteers there while also paying for both our travel and lodging at AP. We’ll be taking a substantial amount of time to work on the interviews both while we’re at AP and after we’ve left, again on our own dime. All of which is for their use and benefit, and all of which is being done for free. I’ll cop to setting myself up for this, as getting into this kind of fugazi seems to be part and parcel of my nature, but my hope is that Kim doesn’t get swept up in the vortex of work I have to do and get sucked down along with me if it starts pulling me under. To that end, standing around a parking lot with our ride MIA is not a good start to things.
My phone rings. I answer but whoever’s on the other end hangs up after a few seconds. Hoping it was AP, I phone the park and someone picks up this time. They tell me they called and hung up because it’s expensive calling a mobile number, and they want to know if I can call them back from a landline. “Expensive? Really!” The driver’s apparently on his way now, having been caught up in doing some shopping in Gweru where he subsequently forgot about us. Not TIA; TI-AP, I guess. About ten minutes later he arrives, and we spend the following twenty-minute drive out to AP in stony silence. We check in and head towards our river tent. Ah, a wonderful, wonderful river tent. Finally! Kim and I pull up chairs outside on the deck and watch waterfowl fly past as darkness sets in. I look at her and desperately wish that the next few days will go better than today has, for her sake at least. I just want her to enjoy our return, relish seeing the Ps and Ls again, relax and have some down time, and as much as possible remain unaffected by the project. A cacophony of frogs start croaking. They sound so amazing. We curl up and wait in hope for the sounds of lions roaring.