Walking with Lions

October 23rd – Day Twenty Five

Getting up at 4.30am is never easy but we managed it again and were at the truck shortly after 5am sorting out our gear for the day. Most people were heading over to Zimbabwe and the majority of those going were heading out to the Lion Encounter. A quick breakfast of cereal consumed and we were over to the reception to find our ride to the border. There was a van ready for us so Kathy and Sharon, Keryn and I, Will and Maria, Steve and Anne were soon whisked away and dropped off at the Zambian Victoria Falls border and shown where to get our exit stamps before getting in another Van to continue to the Zimbabwe side.

Our new driver, Morrison, was very friendly and efficient in arranging for our Zimbabwe entrance visas. Anne had to use her UK rather than Australian passport (which would have been cheaper) and all those with UK passports were charged $55 US for the privilege of entering Zimbabwe. I guess Helen Clark hasn’t done anything to upset Robert Mugarbe as New Zealanders can enter the country for free. Forms filled in we drove to the visa building where Morrison got all our passports stamped and we were very quickly off into Zimbabwe with Morrison giving a quick tour along the way. Sharon and Kathy were dropped off in town and we were joined by six people from another tour company and then continued our journey out of the Victoria Falls town towards the Lion Encounter site.

We turned off the road towards a lodge, eventually coming to a parking area where a man with a video camera was standing and recording our arrival (there was a video made of our day which we’ve bought a copy of on DVD). We all got out and followed the guides up to a staging area where there were logs for seating and tea and coffee. We signed the indemnity form and then were split into two groups before being given a talk about the coming encounter, safety details and a bit of background on the whole program. Safety included tips like don’t run away or turn your back on the cubs, how to use the supplied sticks to distract the cubs in case they were acting a bit naughty (which seemed to cover everything from an evil look to nasty biting and scratching) and also to listen to the guide in case of any trouble, he’d let us know what to do.

The Victoria Falls Lion Encounter is an extension of a program that has been running for about twenty years in Zimbabwe. The lions are raised by hand and then released into the wild as part of a four stage program. Stage one takes the lions from young cubs of about six months old through to an age of sixteen or seventeen months. During this time the cubs are introduced to humans on encounters such as the one we would soon have. They are encouraged to walk through the wilderness and interact with wildlife as well as the people with them, they learn to hunt and can bring down large animals. Once they are old enough and independent enough they are moved to a new area where they are encouraged to fend for themselves, they are housed in man made enclosures and let out into a controlled game area. At this stage they are put into breeding groups but there are no other lions present. Stage three sees them moved to a larger area and introduced to other lions while the cubs from the second stage are taken to be put back into the program at stage one. Stage four is release into the wild.

Talk completed we were given our sticks and then walked out into a dry river bed where we were met by the three volunteers accompanying us on our encounter. As we approached we noticed that there were two lions also present, sixteen month old siblings Cleo and Casper. I think we had all been expecting small animals when we had been told we would be meeting cubs, not these 90kg and quite large lions. Cleo was lying on the ground and Casper was on his haunches up the left hand river bank and as we approached they got up and moved around. The encounter initially involved us walking the river bed while Casper and Cleo wandered around us. Whenever they decided to have a lie down we were given opportunities to get close and have our photo taken and this is where our safety talk came in. We would crouch down behind the lion and if we felt comfortable enough we could stroke the lion behind the ears (anything in front of the ears could lead to trouble). We were all a bit jumpy, I had to retreat when Cleo decided to have a little snap and me, she turned around to have a look who was there and then made a playful lunge so I was out of the way quickly.

My first photo with a lion, this being Cleo
My first photo with a lion, this being Cleo

We all had our shots and then Casper and Leo were on their way again. We had more photo opportunities at other places, one good one where they both sat up on the river bank and we could stand in front of them. The two cats at one point got excited by a number of vultures flying over the far side of the river bed and had to be coerced back towards our group but it was good to see them acting independently. The cats then followed us up over the river bank and into the scrub until we came to a tree where the cats could climb and we could have more photos taken. At one point a helicopter went past catching the eye of Casper before Cleo started following it as it disappeared from view. There was a funny moment when Casper was having a bit of trouble turning around on the branch above Maria and slipped, causing Maria to quickly run away least she be flattened by a falling lion.

Keryn flanked by Casper and Cleo
Keryn flanked by Casper and Cleo

Anne being eyed up by Casper
Anne being eyed up by Casper

Moving on we headed back to the river bed, Maria again in action as she was handed Cleo’s tail and followed her being walked by a lion. Back at the river bed we had a few more photos and then a group photo which was nice. That was where the walk ended, we said goodbye to the lions and volunteers and were led back to the lodge for what turned out to be a fantastic breakfast. This was followed by a short visit to some six month old cubs in a small enclosure but they were sleeping so all we did was look at them through the wire. Our final action was to watch the videos of our encounter and that of the other group who had met and played with two very cute 7 month old lions.

Cleo and Casper follow us through the scrub
Cleo and Casper follow us through the scrub

A group photo to end our encounter
A group photo to end our encounter

It was then back into Victoria Falls township to meet up with Kathy and Sharon. We had a look at the money they had withdrawn from a money machine at an exchange rate of around 40000 Zimbabwe dollars to the UK pound. We bought some water (50000 ZD for two small bottles) and then wandered down the street. Our first stop was at the Victoria Falls Freshwater Aquarium and we had a nice wander around the tanks looking at the variety of fish found in the Zambezi river. The tanks looked like they needed a clean and the labelling of the fish was a bit hap-hazard. Back outside we wandered down the street entering nice shops and doing a bit of window shopping. The streets were quite deserted, a few locals and tourists but not a lot of people at all. The shops were quite expensive as well but the buildings were newer and better maintained than anywhere we had been so far in Africa.

Continuing down the road we passed some very fancy hotels and then took the footpath towards the Zimbabwe side of the Victoria Falls National Park. We passed a few guys half-heartedly selling curios and then found ourselves at the gates. Entry was $20 US each so we all paid and entered the site. A quick look at the map and we decided our path heading around the left side of the falls to first look at the statue of David Livingstone. It was just past the statue that we got our first view of the falls with a significant amount of water and we all stopped to take photos and rest in the slightly misty shade. The next hour saw us walk slowly along the path opposite the face of the falls taking photos at the various viewpoints. There were a lot of monkeys that seemed to be a bit more laid back than their Zambian brothers, the few tourists around taking photos as the monkeys sifted through the leaf litter for seeds and other food. We watched people in pools near the lip of the falls beside Livingstone Island, discussing whether or not we’d ever find ourselves in such a precarious position. We also periodically had to dodge spray from the falls as the wind changed and our camera equipment started getting wet. The forest we passed through was named the rain forest and it was easy to see why with the constant spray meaning that parts of the forest were perpetually raining, it must be extremely damp after the rainy season.

Together at Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side
Together at Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side

A view of the people relaxing on the lip of the Victoria Falls
A view of the people relaxing on the lip of the Victoria Falls

Before long we had to return to the gate to catch our van back across the border. We met Morrison again and he took us back to the Zambian border with his usual efficiency. At the border we had a 10 minute discussion about the price of a taxi with a couple of taxi drivers, eventually settling on $10 US to take all of us in two taxis back to the Waterfront. The afternoon was spent around the pool, in the bar or where ever we could find shade talking, having a few drinks or just resting. Those who hadn’t done the sunset cruise did it in the evening and the rest of us had a nice fish curry cooked up by Joe. There was a bit of worry and adventure in the evening with Helen reacting badly to something she had drunk and being taken off to the doctor but she is alright this morning so that’s good. After dinner we sat around having cold drinks or coffee and the last thing we did was say goodbye to Tina and Rodger who would be leaving first thing in the morning. After that it was off to bed.

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