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July 24, 2011 (Victoria Falls/Bovu Island)
Itinerary: Meet at 6:30am for our Lion Walk, shopping, cross to Zambia, truck ride and canoe to Bovu Island for the night
Today, after 2+ amazing weeks in Zimbabwe, we will depart and cross the border into Zambia. But first, we signed up for the 6:30am highly anticipated Lion Walk or Lion Encounter. We were picked up at our hotel and taken by a very full mini-bus to the Lion Walk. The operator we chose in Victoria Falls is associated with ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust) and part of the African Lion Rehabilitation and Release Into the Wild Program. The goal of today was to walk in a small group of people following two lion cubs as they played.
First, though, we learned about the release program. Raising lions in captivity and releasing them into the wild is a tough business and hasn’t been all that successful. This program came up with a 4-stage process to train lions to be wild. If you are interested and would like to read further about the release program, visit http://www.lionalert.org/pages/lion-program.html. In Stage one, cubs are born in a breeding center and removed from their mothers at only 3 weeks old. The staff and volunteers in the program take the place as the dominant member of the pride and train them to a point where they are safe to walk with. In stage one, we, the paying tourists, are invited to follow these lion cubs through their daily morning routine. In Stage two, at over 2 years of age, the lions are given the opportunity to develop a pride of their own in a 500-acre enclosure. They are provided with game to hunt and can be monitored closely. In Stage three, once the pride can hunt and is socially stable, the pride is moved to a new location with no human contact, plenty of prey to hunt, and competitive species are introduced, like hyena. New lion cubs will be born and trained by the pride in stage 3 and then in stage four those lions can be released into the wild in several natural social groups.
The four stage process sounded well thought out, but they are the first to admit that they haven’t gotten any lions past stage two yet. The release program idea was just developed in 1999. I would be curious to see where they stand in another 10 years. I have to admit that I was hesitant to sign up for a tour group like this. I was afraid of supporting an organization exploiting animals just to make money off the tourists. However, I do feel better about our decision to go ahead with the tour.
We were given a safety demonstration of all the things we could and couldn’t do when walking with the lions. We would get quite close to them and be able to pet them when they lay down. We were to always stay behind the lion and away for the sharp teeth and claws. To help with this, we were all given 3-foot twigs to use to get the lions attention away from us should a lion decide he wanted to play. It was rather amusing to have the chance to walk with actual wild lions and just have a twig to defend ourselves. =)
Our group of about 10 people finally set off to go find the lions. In stage one, the cubs are kept in a very large cage-like enclosure, but allowed to freely walk around with volunteers at any time during the day. Our two cubs were Chundu (male, 12 months old) and Chete (female, 10 months old) and for an amazing hour or so we were given the privilege of walking in their world. It’s just absolutely amazing and surreal that two lion cubs would let a group of humans follow them around.
The lion cubs played and pounced each other and stopped to just lay on the ground many times. When they did, the guide would ask for someone’s camera and start taking photos. He took my camera and I went behind Chete and pet her back while he took photos. Mark joined me and then Mark got his photos. They didn’t just take one photo, either. I was impressed that they used our cameras and took 10s of photos so that we had many to choose from. They took a video too, which I had to buy at the end of the tour. Mark almost got to rub the male lion’s belly and touch his paws. Chundu was rolling on his back and the guide had my camera. Mark had his camera. I didn’t have any camera. But while Mark was reaching down to pet him, the lion turned back over. No photos were taken and I felt very empty handed. =)
The lions strolled at a fast pace and we had to almost run to keep up with them many times. Because of this, Mark and I definitely got to stay in the front of the group as the others trailed behind. The lions mostly stuck to paths, but went through the bush at various points in time. When the lions were laying down and posing for photos, a “lion dancer” as we called him amused the lions and kept their attention by making funny sounds and dancing around behind the camera. It reminded me so much of what goes on the camera behind a photographer taking photos of kids and babies that I had to laugh.
Eventually, the lions led us back to their cage-home and were closed up. We were told that volunteer would take them out on walks every day and whenever they started pacing the cage walls wanting to get out.
We were given breakfast and then taken back home to our hotel. It was time to check out, so we left our bags at baggage check and walked to the hotel next to ours. This hotel had a couple little souvenir shops and we looked around and had lunch.
Taking a taxi to the Zimbabwe border crossing was easy. There was no line of cars when we showed up and we went into the office to get our passport stamp to leave the country. It was easy and then we walked out the back to this long dirt road that lead to the bridge. We felt a little like we were a couple fleeing across the Mexican border or something because we walked with all our bags on a much longer dirt road than I had imagined. Not many cars were on the road and eventually we walked out to the bridge where we were greeted by several touts trying to sell us items or tours or hotel rooms. We saw the bridge bungee jump area and some great views up and down the gorge and river. Across the bridge and down another dirt road we came across the Zamia border post. In this building, we paid our visa fee and were allowed into Zambia.
I had no idea how we were going to find our driver who would take us to Bovu Island. All I knew was that we were looking for a white truck. Several others tried to sell us a ride, but in a short amount of time we waved at a white truck that pulled over for us. We threw our bags in the back and then got to ride on a mattress propped up on some crates in the back for about 1-1.5 hours and continued the analogy of illegally fleeing across the Mexican border into the States.
Everyone we passed walking on the street turned to look at two white people in the back of a truck. Many kids and even adults waved to us as we traveled along. We passed many billboards with ads you won’t see in the US. Ads like “Say no to election violence” and “check your kids for HIV before they are 6 weeks of age.” We slowed down and stopped at the side of the road under a tree where a teen emerged and filled the tank with a petrol container for us. A 3-liter soda bottle cut and upside down acted as the funnel. Mark and I joked and called this the lemonade petrol stand.
We turned off the paved road and then drove for at least a half hour along a bumpy dirt mopani woodland road to the river where another man met us. We transferred into his makalo (type of canoe) and rode a short ways to Jungle Junction located on Bovu Island.
We’ve been walking and traveling and were still thinking at a motivated pace, but the laid back feel of the island started to engulf us as we were led into the bar hut and given a soda. We put our bags down and just sat for a while wondering what would happen next. A couple lounged reading books and eventually we signed in and were led to our fisherman’s hut on the river. Our hut was elevated off the ground and faced the river with only 3 walls and a mosquito net over the bed. The hut is really only big enough for the bed with some room on the floor for our bags and that’s all we need.
We kicked off our shoes and dug our toes into the smooth, pristine sand of the island and melted away into a relaxed state of mind. Jungle Junction has several huts for guests, a covered dining/library area, a covered bar, and a building for the kitchen. The bathrooms are located further away with flushing toilets and running water. There was a little hut for each bathroom with just a rope across the doorway for privacy. The showers were in a separate little hut. The pathways and areas were all covered with the smooth, perfect sand which was groomed and brushed each morning by the staff. We were offered several activities for our next 1.5 days, but really, we just wanted to relax and do nothing.
Tonight, we did take them up on the sunset cruise in the makalo. It is only controlled by the staff member in back, so Mark and I only had to sit, enjoy and eat the bowl of popcorn we brought with us. We stopped in a patch of reeds in the middle of the river and watched the sun go down. The only sound was the water lapping against the wooden canoe and we munched on popcorn while I took several photos. This life is really not so bad. =)
We came back in time for dinner with the other guests. I believe on the first night there were two other couples and us, or maybe three. We had a tex-mex dinner made for us by the kitchen staff and delivered to the dining room for us to serve ourselves. Candles held up in empty wine bottles provided all the light we needed. There is no electricity here on the island. During the day, the host charges his batteries on a solar charging station, but that’s about it. We were told to watch out for Janet a wild cat that would make an appearance at dinner. At least we thought it was Janet, a name for some kind of cat. But, actually the species was genet (pronounced janet) and her name was Ms. Jackson. Two genets showed up and begged for food. One of the guys fed it and I tried not to noticed too much since I don’t condone feeding wild animals. The genet had a little face with a pointy noise, spots on its body and a thick , long striped tail.
After dinner we pretty much just went back to our hut and to bed, early in the evening. Apparently there had been a big party in the bar the night before going into the wee hours in the morning, so the others went to bed as well. Tomorrow we have big plans of doing absolutely nothing. =)
Below you’ll find a slideshow from flickr showing more photos. If the slideshow does not appear, please click on this link to see the original post: http://thetravelgeeks.com/?p=551 and scroll to the bottom. To view the slideshow, click once on the play button, or triangle, in the middle of the image below.