All things going to plan (ie. my bag turning up), today would be my last full day in Livingstone so I woke up determined to make the most of it. I’d seen the falls (up close and from afar), explored the town and visited the airport more times than I care to mention but I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on something. There are so many activities to do in Livingstone – white water rafting, taking a flight over the falls, etc – and I hadn’t done any of them. The day before, I had momentarily considered going bungee jumping but in the end decided against it. I would have gone rafting but the river was too swollen and they weren't taking people out. I was keen to do something but what was there to do that didn't involve leaping off a bridge or a cliff??
It was on my way back from breakfast I noticed the poster by reception advertising something called a ‘Lion Walk’. My cousin Andrew had passed through Livingstone a few years earlier and before I left, I asked him about what he did while he was here. He had sampled the usual adventure activities – like the gorge swing, bungee, etc – but he also told me that he had gone to this place in Zimbabwe where you can walk with lions. I suddenly remembered what he had said about the Lion Walk - not only was it one of the most amazing things he had done in Livingstone, but during his entire trip through East Africa. Determined to do something adventurous on my last day in Livingstone and (perhaps illogically) feeling more comfortable about the possibility of getting mauled by a lion than the thought of plunging to my death in a canyon, I decided I would do the Lion Walk.
'Lion Encounters', the organization that cares for the lions and runs the Lion Walk program is located just across the border in Zimbabwe. They take tourists on walks with the lions twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I had hoped to do the morning walk and head to the airport in the afternoon to collect my bag, but I was too late. So instead, I booked myself in for the afternoon session and just crossed my fingers that my bag would be on one of the earlier flights and that I would be able to get from the airport to the lion park (across the border) in time.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport around 12:30pm, things were even more crazy than normal! A charted plane full of pompous Italians had arrived at the same time as the regular flights from Jo’burg and the tiny little airport was struggling to handle the sudden influx of passengers and baggage. I made my way to the baggage carousel but it was three deep with Italians and I could barely see through them to find out if my bag had arrived. What is worse, because the carousel was so small and there were so many bags coming out at the one time, the baggage handlers were taking any bags that weren’t picked up on their first lap around the carousel and dumping them in a pile in a corner in order to make room for the incoming bags.
I hadn’t seen my pack and I was starting to panic a little – I was hoping to be on a bus to Lusaka tomorrow morning and really didn’t want to have to postpone my trip because I needed to come back to the airport again! Finally, the Italian’s cleared out and I had a chance to get in and dig around in the pile of discarded bags. Sure enough – right at the bottom, buried under 8 other similar looking bags – was my pack.
I can’t tell you how comforting it was to have my stuff back. I don’t know what I would have done if it had been lost for good. That pack had everything in it I thought I would need for the next 6 months. Not just clothes and a change of underwear, it had things like my camera and ipod charger – where was I going to find a camera charger for an Olympus Stylus 1030SW in the middle of Zambia! How was I going to survive 6 months of long bus rides and snoring dorm-mates without my ipod?? Nonetheless, everything had worked out in the end and I had learnt some valuable travel lessons along the way.
I caught a cab back to the hostel and just had time to dump my bag and throw on a change of clothes before hopping on a bus to the Zim/Zam border. I made it to the border on time and met up with Casper from Lion Encounters who was waiting with a van to take me to the lion park – apparently I was the only person booked in for the afternoon walk. First I was stamped out of Zambia, then I was driven across the bridge that people bungee jump from and into Zimbabwe. I still had to pass through Zimbabwean immigration and I was a little nervous because I didn’t really know what to expect but the immigration officer was really friendly, we even shared a joke and swapped some stories before my passport was stamped and I was allowed to pass.
Welcome to Zimbabwe!
I arrived at the lion park and was introduced to JB, who would be my guide – a charming and extremely knowledgeable bloke with an obvious passion for his lions. After a (very) brief run through of the basic “dos and don’ts”, I was handed a 2 foot piece of cane (yeah right, what good was that going to do!) and we headed off down a track in search of some lions. The first lions I was introduced to were a couple of 12 month old cubs who we found mucking around down by a creek. Although they were only a year old, they were still quite large and intimidating. JB told me to relax and that there was nothing to be worried about. He sat down next to them and beckoned me to join him. I cautiously made my way over to the lions, tentatively reached out a hand and gave them a gentle pat. Just at that moment… absolutely nothing happened! That’s right, these lions could not be less interested in me than if I was standing 50 yards away. Like a domestic house cat, they just lay there and let me pet them. JB took a few happy snaps of me with the cubs but because the weren’t being particularly playful we decided to say goodbye and push further into the lion park in search of some other, slightly older (read: bigger!) cats.
I spent the next hour or so being introduced to various members of the Lion Encounters family. I got to walk with these beautiful creatures, pet and caress them, see them climb trees and drink from a pond – it was incredible! My initial apprehension quickly disappeared as I soon realised how harmless these lions were. Here were these big, strong animals with the disposition of a pussy cat. Just like a house cat, they enjoyed the attention and affection of my touch while maintaining an air of complete indifference. It was a great experience and I was sad to have to say goodbye, I would recommend visiting these fabulous creatures over bungee jumping or gorge swinging any day of the week!
Just hanging out
Follow the leader
I got the bus back from the Zambian border and I was the only ‘Mzungu’ on board – something I would get very accustomed to over the next few months. I was wedged in between a couple of school girls who looked about 17 yrs old and I struck up a bit of a conversation with them. By the time we reached Livingstone everyone on the bus was giggling and laughing at me – something else I would get very accustomed to over the next few months – and when we got off the bus one of the girls asked me for my number. However, I had to explain to her that I couldn’t give her my number because I didn’t have a Zambian phone card and besides that, I was leaving the next day. She seemed a little disappointed but there were no hard feelings and she wished me a safe trip to Lusaka.
I finally got back to Jolly Boys and after putting my feet up for a minute, I found a quiet place to sit and write in my journal. Unfortunately, I was soon joined by a bloke that started copying footage from a video camera on to his laptop. Apparently, this guy was the cameraman for the gorge swing – basically, he would film you doing the bungee/gorge swing/etc and for $20 bucks you could buy his video so you could take it home and brag about you exploits to all your mates. This immediately reminded me of my cousin Andrew (who had told me about the Lion Walk). He had shown me a video before I left of him attempting to do the gorge swing and failing massively. Essentially, he had tried to do a front-flip into the gorge but hadn’t realised that he still had his safety line attached which meant he got a couple of meters past the platform before being brutally yanked back by the cord and slammed into the side of the gorge. They pulled him back onto the platform and after a quick check that he was ok, they disconnected the safety line and he did is flip into the gorge - what a nutter! I mentioned the story to the guy next to me and his eyes lit up. He remembered it well, in fact he had been filming that day and even had a copy of it saved on his computer – under the appropriate title of “Gorge Swing F*ck Up”! What a small world we live in. I travel across an ocean to a continent I’ve never set foot in before and end up sitting next to a guy who had a video of my cousin on his computer… got to love that about traveling.