Day 335 – Musina to Gweru
Our wake up call came at 3:45 am and as we have been drilled, the tents came down, packed lunches were made and we departed at 5am for the border. Arriving just after 6am, the border was busy, processing 26,000 per day. The queues to leave South Africa were huge but our guide found us our own official to serve our group. We were warned beforehand our guide would use bribes to pass through with ease, but I am unsure whether he facilitated this set up. Coming into Zimbabwe, we crossed the Limpopo river at sunrise. Officials here can make you jump through hoops including unpacking the truck and searching everyone’s bags. At this point money exchanged hands so we could miss this formality and we were marched straight to the shift leader to process our visas. This didn’t sit too well with me, already money determined your experience and made me uncomfortable amongst the queuing masses. If you would like an indication of how welcome Brits are, visas cost $30 for every nationality, but $55 for Brits. The visas took a long time to process, amusing us greatly as we stood by a printed sign with the Immigration mission statement ‘to provide an efficient world class immigration service,’ but once through we emerged into an intriguingly beautiful land. At the border there were some donkeys and lily wanted to take a picture however was told she couldn’t, when she asked why, Maisie, the other young girl on the trip replied “they might be spy donkeys” missing the point of the previous nights accommodation in the most adorable way possible.
Since 2009, Zimbabwe has adopted the US dollar as it’s currency when hyperinflation had reached uncontrollable levels. The highest note printed was 10 trillion and 1 billion equaled $3US. They do not use us coins though but rands (South Africa currency) as cents, so it’s a real mixed bag. The use of US dollars has pushed the price of commodities up, our guide explained this may be partly to do with the mentality that people have been working in millions, also due to the shortage of dollars in the system when first introduced, making them a precious source. The change was introduced overnight in 2009 when inflation reached 2000% a day.
There were donkeys and goats at the side of the road, amazing rock formations coming out of the bush and the land scattered with little rondavels (roundhouses with thatched roofs.). The roads were uneven and kept jolting us, often completely out of our seats, I fell in love with it. We were a good four hours until the Great Zimbabwe site.
We stopped at Great Zimbabwe, sometimes known as the ruins, is an amazing stone structure in Masavingo. It is quite unlike anything seen in Southern Africa and is believed to be the remains of a royal court from 3000 years ago. Our guide Steven used flowery language to introduce us to the site and explain its significance to the people, a great symbol of power. This site has often been attributed as evidence of European influence in this area in AD and only recently acknowledged that this could be built by African tribes. We climbed the winding stone path of the ancient entrance to reach the royal court on the hilltop. The path slimmed right down so you had to walk sideways at some points, built as a defence mechanism against attackers. At the top were incredible stone walls made of square granite built without mortar. The structure has been excavated to reveal lower levels and the suggestion is that a new level was added for each king, showing layers of history.
From here we could also see the structures of the great enclosure which lay in the valley, home to the kings hundreds of wives and children. We took the modern path down to this enclosure. The walls which completed this enclosure were 6 metres thick in part and 12 metres tall. They are not too sure why the site was abandoned however think it could be due to overpopulation and the group may have split into the surrounding areas, as smaller scale similar structures have been found. This site is where the bird carvings were found, the origin of the bird on the Zimbabwe flag.
We got back into the bus and drove for another 4 hours, encountering a beautiful fiery sunset on the way, reminding us we had seen both sunrise and sunset on the long drive. Our campsite at antelope park, just outside Gweru, was beautiful. We quickly pitched the tents, ate dinner and celebrated Ella’s on board birthday and then sat around the campfire which was to be home for 3 nights.
After a well deserved lay in (of 7am) we emerged for a relaxed breakfast and introduction to the park. It is a private game reserve, antelope park, situated on a beautiful stretch of river and famous for its lions. I must admit I was sceptical as to what activities I would participate in however we were given a presentation by the lion charity ALERT about their pioneering conservation programme which aims to breed wild lions from captive mothers. The four step plan is very close to completion and could have a huge impact on the declining lion numbers. The park was bought with 6 captive lions on site, it now has 109. The lions have been taught to hunt and kill and 6 initiated to a monitored park where they have had cubs who have never been in contact with humans. They will be released into the self sustaining wild as a final stage as a test of this programme. Here they created the idea of walking with the lions, an idea I worried would be gimicky, however the passion and excitement of the charity won me over and I signed up for 5 activities!!
The first activity was due to start shortly and we piled into the safari vehicle to watch the male lions feed. The captive lions are fed once a week and we stood, camera lenses pointed through the fence, cms from the food as the lions were released. Their 70m run towards us was adrenaline filled and their roars deafened. The charity finds the activity an important investigation in the display of dominance and it was incredible as once launched onto the food and the rest had to steal and dodge blows. We watched 2 sets of 4 males in this feed, and as they continued eating, and fighting as the less dominant lions crept in to steal more. There were many moments as we jumped from the fence, only 10cm from the lions eyes.
We had lunch at our camp and in the afternoon sun did some handwashing, the reality of a camping trip, before heading to the bar which has a beautiful view over the water. At 4pm, Barbara, Mark and Janine and I were called out for our next trip, the elephant walk.
We were literally walking with the four elephants they have on site, no chains, no set route, just followed them into the bush to interact with them. This was very scary. Although elephants plod along and are mostly interested in eating, their power and speed is incredible. They can run up to 40 km per hour and rip a tree from the ground. They dwarfed us, and you are never too sure whether they will trample you. Much to the guides amusement, we sidled up next to them to touch them, observe them, hold their ears (incredibly heavy by the way.) Mark got too close to one at an inopportune moment and got a huge fart in his face. In the hour and a half we spent with them you never really relax but remain astonished at these creatures.
We had dinner around the campfire and shared stories from all the different activities we had picked.
It was a 6am start for the lion walk. This activity is designed for lions 6-18 months to develop playing and hunting instincts ready for the next stage. Our two female lions were 17 months old and approached us sleepily. They are taken from their mothers at 6 weeks and interact with a staff member from a young age who becomes like their mother, so they respond to direction. Everyone on the walk becomes like a pride member and asserts dominance due to the height of eye level and being given a stick to use to create more height if needed. We could walk right next to the lions, stroke them and interact with them whilst they played, watched the horizon and did their exercises. It was an incredible experience.
At 10:30 we went for cub viewing in groups of five. These cubs can be 3-6 months old, our two were 5 months, so at this age you can play, interact and rub their bellies, much like domestic cats. Their huge paws are an indication of what’s to come. This was also an incredible experience!
A friendly mongoose, Moyo joined us in camp most mealtimes. After lunch, Barbara, Meren, Carolyn and I explored the beautiful surroundings and then sat in the coffee shop by the river soaking up the sun.
Most people had signed up for the night encounter, the third activity in the lions development for 18-30 months. Two safari vehicles drove out to the lion enclosure where they freed 2 female lions and one male into the night. The roaring was incredible. We then drove around trying to identify game with an infared light to set the lions up for a kill. Again this takes the role of a mother in making the young learn to hunt, an instinctive not taught skill. Lions have about a 30% success rate in the wild and from this activity lions have about 50% but it is essential to the trust to ensure that lions will be able to look after themselves. The lions walked tailing the vehicle. At one point the three of them took flight. They were near the boundary fence and were on a trail however the spotters were very concerned they might be poached through the fence and we flew down the trail after them. It turns out there was poachers on site however they were poaching wood and were using donkeys, hence the trail the lions had picked up.
Most of the game had found a safe hold on the other side of the park however we did find a lone impala and the lions found the trail, stalked it and then took chase. Unfortunately for the lions they were too slow and returned that night hungry.
The three activities are all part of stage one whilst the lion is being taught vital skills in captivity. Stage two is a controlled ecosystem where lions are left to be independent, hunt for themselves with no interaction from humans, and stage three they introduce a competitive species such as hyenas. Cubs born in stage two and three will never be touched by humans. Born by lion, raised by lion they can be released into the wild with no risk of approaching villages. This project is in stage 2 still and the lions in that stage have had 5 cubs which will be released into the wild. The project is being held up by the difficulty of land issues in Zimbabwe however looks positive to be the first project to be able to create wild lions from captive bred mothers. Having been a part of the whole of stage one, from Cubs to 24 months old, it seemed very encouraging, positive and exciting.
Next stop Bulawayo.