We woke up on the 9th day of our African train trip in the city of Gweru situated close to the middle of Zimbabwe. Gweru is the 6th largest city in Zimbabwe with a population of approximately 150,000. It boasts the largest University campus in the country. Britain’s influence on the education system in Zimbabwe has led it to being the most literate country in Africa. According to our guide PJ, from 1980 to 2001 the syllabus for Zimbabwe universities was controlled by Cambridge University. One of the fascinating ironies of Zimbabwe is despite its high level of literacy and long-standing focus on education, it remains one of the most impoverished countries in Africa.
After taking breakfast in the dining car, we left the train and boarded our bus for the short 20-minute drive to today’s destination - Antelope Park. The park is set in over 3000 acres of open savannah grassland and is a unique game reserve that is home to the world-famous African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) lion rehabilitation programme.
As we disembarked from the bus and walked toward the magnificent grounds surrounding the various thatch-roofed buildings comprising the lodge at Antelope Park, we were greeted by the rhythmic sounds of traditional African music and song.
Following our musical welcome, we gathered in an open grassy area where we were served tea, coffee and pastries and given a briefing of the park, its purpose and the impact of the ALERT lion rehabilitation programme.
ALERT is a multiphase lion conservation initiative that is working to ethically re-introduce the offspring of captive-bred African lions back into the wild. The first phase of the initiative is rehabilitation, where cubs born to captive-bred parents are hand-raised in a controlled environment. Part of the rehabilitation involves the cubs being taken on human-led walks in their natural habitat between the ages of 3 and 18 months. The second phase of the initiative involves releasing the lions as prides into fenced, managed game reserves, where they live as a wild pride – hunting and breeding naturally without human interference. During this phase they are monitored closely to determine how they are interacting socially as a pride. The final phase of the program is reintroduction where cubs born to parents that were acclimatized to their natural environment in the second phase are reintroduced to the wild in national parks and reserves that are seeking to restore lost, or augment declining lion populations.
After our briefing we were given an overview of the activities that were available for us throughout the day. While there were a wide variety of activities offered by the park, including canoeing, game drives, horseback game viewing, elephant interaction, bird-watching cruises and carriage rides, the one that we had been excited about and most looking forward to since we first started planning our African adventure was the Lion Walk. While the Lion Walk was our top priority, we had nearly 2 hours before it was scheduled to start so we also booked the Lion feeding, and then a couple of activities that we would do in the afternoon - elephant interaction and afternoon game drive.
The lion feeding is a spectacular, albeit disturbing event, that gives a glimpse into the ferocious nature of lions competing for food in a quasi-natural setting. Unlike zoo lions that are fed measured amounts of food at the same time every day, lions in nature will eat only when they make a kill and will gorge themselves on that kill as it may be several days to a week or more before they make another kill. The lion feeding at Antelope Park attempts to demonstrate how lions would feed in the wild. A group of 4 male lions are released from a living space into a large rectangular fenced area where an animal carcass has been placed near the fence at the opposite side to where the lions enter. The lions rush towards the carcass, roaring ferociously, attacking it and competing for the best portions of the meat. Each group of 4 male lions is fed this way once a week. Spectacular, dramatic and quite disturbing.
The Lion Walk was the highlight of our day at Antelope Park, and quite frankly, one of the highlights of our trip to Africa. It began with a safety briefing explaining the do’s and don’ts of the lion walk. For instance, it is important not to run or panic - this is a sign of weakness and identifies you as prey. Don’t crouch down - again a sign of weakness - standing tall above the lion is a sign of dominance. It is also important to always be alert and know where the lions are. They are stalkers and will watch and stalk you if you are unaware. It is also important to stay in the group. When you are walking with the lions in a group, you are part of their social pride.
Once the safety briefing was given, we were each given a long, thin stick to carry with us. While totally useless as a weapon, raising the stick over your head and speaking firmly at the lion exudes dominance in the event that it is paying too much attention to you. With our sticks firmly in hand we walked as a group for nearly a kilometre to the massive enclosure that represents phase 1 of the alert programme. We went through several gates to the controlled, natural environment, and once we were through, a park ranger led 3 lions - one male and two females, towards our group.
The engagement with the lions was surreal. We walked with them, in their natural habitat for over an hour. At times they would sit and we would take turns approaching them from behind and petting them gently. Like family cats, they are social animals and seemed to enjoy the attention. At other times they would pace impatiently around the group. At one point, a petite woman in our group was being stalked by one of the lions and a ranger reminded her to stand tall.
At one resting point there was a dead acacia tree that the lions played on for several minutes until one of them noticed a herd of impala in the distance. At once, all three lions spread out in front of us and stood perfectly still, staring at the prey. The herd eventually moved on and we, along with the lions headed back towards the park.
This was a truly amazing experience - check out a quick video of our walk here:
We returned to the lodge where we had lunch in the outdoor restaurant. After lunch a safari vehicle took us out to the park where we spent about half an hour with 4 magnificent elephants. Elephants have always been one of my favourite animals and I have never been so up close and personal to them as I was on this excursion. We had the opportunity to stand beside them, touch them and feed them. I was amazed at how massive they are, particularly their heads, yet they are so gentle and patient. Equally impressive was how nimble and dexterous their trunks are, grasping peanuts delicately from the palms of our hands.
We left the elephants and continued on to our afternoon game drive. This was a bit underwhelming after the Lion Walk experience and because we had been on such incredible safaris at Kruger and Kapama earlier on our trip.
After the drive we ended our day at Antelope Park with an afternoon swim in the pool by the lodge. This was a great way to cap off our day and reminisce with our friends who had accompanied us on the Lion Walk.
We returned to the train for our red-carpet welcome before we boarded and headed to the observation car for a gin and tonic cocktail. Then off to the dining car for a risotto appetizer followed by a rack of lamb served with rice and cauliflower with pecan pie for dessert.
Another excellent day in Southern Africa!
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