For any cat lover, this is the one volunteer project you can’t afford not to do. This post is a bit of a long ‘un so you may need to get comfy if you’re about to read on…
In June 2009 I travelled to Zimbabwe to fulfil my lifelong dream… to work with lions in Africa. I had just completed my degree, my graduation was in July, work had kindly agreed to give me time off so I was all set to spend just over four weeks in Gweru on a conservation trip I found online.
I’m not even going to bore you with all the hundreds of websites I looked at beforehand when I was trying to make a decision because the truth is I whole heartedly recommend the project I worked on and if you want to go this is the one you MUST choose!
I booked to stay at Antelope Park, through African Impact. The whole booking process was smooth, there was always someone on the other end of an email. I pestered them about items I should bring, what activities there were, how much money to take and they were always helpful and the Facebook group was a good way of meeting others who were already there, on their way or had previously been.
This was my very first solo travel trip. I was so nervous; not about being on my own but I was most worried about the whole thing not living up to my expectations. It was the kind of trip I had dreamed about and never actually imagined I would ever be able to embark on.
I still remember my very first day, moving all my belongings into a shared room in the volunteer quarters, having a brief tour around the facilities before going on our first lion walk and training. We grabbed our walking sticks (NOT to be used for hitting humans or animals might I point out) and we walked over to a large enclosure. Still not quite knowing what to expect I stood with my group, all of us eager to see what comes next. Our lion handler, Tino, opened the gate and out walked two teenage lions, a brother and sister pair. They walked right past us knowing full well what they were doing and where they were going. On the very first walk we got to learn how to act and what not to do first hand, I got to run my fingers through a real life lions mane, touch their floppy ears and feel their warmth and strength as they walked alongside me. I honestly could have fainted (I am so surprised I didn’t) and I still remember those feelings even now.
I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t nervous… the only thought I had was that if every day was like this, I would never leave.
I think it’s important to know why Antelope Park is such an important cog in the conservation world. Their vision is to ensure viable populations of lions remain a part of Africa and they do this alongside the ALERT project. Not only do they breed lions, but they also work to create prides that can be released back into the wild. They provide services for volunteers and also for eco-tourists, again with money helping towards the upkeep and maintenance of this wonderful cause.
Conservation projects aren’t a walk in the park, not every hour of the day is spent handling lions and there are a large variety of tasks that have to be done to maintain the park, after all it is a ‘working’ holiday. Now as this blog outlines quite clearly, I do love my luxuries and I enjoy being pampered but I am also not afraid of hard graft, and I don’t think you will really benefit from a conservation experience like this unless you truly embrace every element… which includes poop scooping!
I’m not going to go into the details of each individual one, but I thought I should at least give a list of all the working areas I took part in during my stay: Lion walking; Feeding; Enclosure cleaning; Stable work; Elephant walks; Fire-breaking; Data collection; Horse patrol; Boundary Patrol; Basic Repairs and Maintenance; Meat Preparation.
The final activity that requires it’s own special paragraph… CUB-SIT!!!! Literally babysitting lion cubs. Spending three hours coaxing a group of baby lions to play and interact with each other. We made natural toys that encouraged behaviour enrichment and there was always a lion handler around to make sure everything was safe for all involved. Speaking of lion handlers, they were all AMAZING. Passionate about the animals, easy to get along with, always happy and smiling you couldn’t ask for a more perfect group to be working with.
The volunteer coordinator organises a rota of the tasks, and there is a volunteers’ meeting each evening to make sure everyone is clear about what’s going on. They do rota days off to have some free time, relax by the pool, watch tv etc. – something which I opted out of as I didn’t want to waste a single moment.
I did however choose to go on two of the travelling experiences the Park arranged for volunteers. One was a day trip to the Great Zimbabwe and the other a four-day trip, travelling all the way up to Victoria falls and back – the focus being on animals the whole time we were away, definitely recommend paying the extra money to do this.
The facilities at the park are excellent by volunteer standards. The rooms are comfortable, large in size and the showers and toilets are all in great condition. The volunteers quarters are alongside the staff housing in the main part of the park right by the baby lion cub enclosure too (*sigh*). Any tourist accommodation is housed in a separate area away from all the goings on, we only ever saw visitors at meal times and during supervised lion walks.
If you’re worried about food, don’t be. I love my food, I love my fancy food but there was not one single meal that I did not enjoy or not look forward to in my whole time at the park. The wonderful cooks would play the drums at the start of meal times (so we knew it was ready) and we would dash over to see what delights awaited us. I still dream about the finest cream of vegetable soup I have EVER eaten (and it was vegetable? vegetable?!? who’d have thought that would be tasty??) in my whole entire life and still cannot find anything to match it. Whether the food tasted so good because it was eaten under a beautiful canopy, looking out over the water and park scenery with the bull frogs singing in the background… I’ll never know, all I can say is that it was a very rare moment if someone didn’t enjoy the meal in front of them.
This being the first time I had travelled anywhere on my own, it was a great way to boost my confidence as a person. The beauty of going solo on a specific conservation project, you are all there because you share the same passion and love, in this case for cats. Big and small. There were a number of domestic ones that roamed around and we all paid them just as much love and attention as we did the big ones.
I came back with thousands of pictures from my time away, waaay too many to put on a post. I’ve put a number of the lion photographs onto my flickr page, this will give you an idea on just how close you get to be to them.
So this trip was in 2009, how can I be recommending it after all these years when anything could have happened between now and then? I knew I had to write about it at some point because I remember the whole thing like it was yesterday and as far as travel experiences go, this is top of my list.
How can I be sure it would be just as great for anyone wanting to go now… well since I left, the park has gone from strength to strength, winning awards for service, conservation and it even starred on the ITV documentary Lion Country (which still makes me cry every time I watch it). The quality of the experience Antelope park provides, as well as the other projects offered by African Impact, are being recognised all over the world and the best part is knowing you are part of a project that is really making a difference.
If there was any place in the world I could beam myself back to, this would be it. The enormity of what I was part of really hit me when I was sat in the back of a truck at sunset, heading back for an evening of rest after a long days work… and the sound of roaring lions thundered around us.
If I was ever nervous about this trip not living up to my dreams I needn’t have been. It totally EXCEEDED them. Like blew my expectations right out of the water.
I cannot wait to fulfil my next dream of being able to return and re-live it all again in the future.
Anyone else recommend any great conservation projects? I am always on the lookout for hands on experiences and desperately want to drag the hubby along on the next one