A Perfect Birthday Weekend: a Sunset Cruise, an Elephant Ride, and the Boma

Well the title pretty much sums it up: I had the best birthday weekend anyone could have wished for!  On Saturday (my birthday), it began with a half-day walk with the cubs.  We got breakfast brought to us in the bush so we were able to eat during our walk as we spent an entire five straight hours with the lions.  They were in a very playful mood as well as they were climbing up into many of the trees, playing in the water, and chasing one another.  What a perfect way to start a birthday.  Afterwards, we headed back to the rest camp for the afternoon and were able to run some errands and get ready for the sunset cruise.  The sunset cruise was a two-hour cruise on the Zambezi River (the river that lies between Zambia and Zimbabwe and the one that flows into the Falls)… the best part: an open bar.  The “drinking age” (again its Africa so whether they enforce it or not is another question) is eighteen so of course all of the actions taken were completely legal… :).  Anyways, we’ll just say that the entire group took full advantage of the open bar and wanted to ensure that we got our money’s worth!  We also saw some alligators and hippos as well as we watched an absolutely gorgeous sunset.  I’ll spare the details (as my parents do read this… just kidding!) but we’ll just say it was one heck of a fun cruise!  Afterwards we went to a local bar for some dancing and such before calling it a night—what a birthday it was!

Today was just about as wonderful, besides the packing part of course as I leave tomorrow for South Africa.  The morning consisted of relaxing by the pool for a bit before wandering around the city of Victoria Falls, exploring some of the hotels and visiting the market areas one last time.  In the mid-afternoon, Kerry and I were picked up for our elephant back safari ride.  We got to ride on an elephant through the bush with a guide for about an hour—so neat!  My elephant’s name was “The Star.”  She was 21-years-old and the smallest (and I’d say cutest however I may be a bit biased!) of the bunch!  My guide was Gift and he was incredibly knowledgeable about the animal.  I learned that they eat about 300 kg of food a day but are only about to digest about 40% of it.  Their skill is very thick and coarse but despite this, it is very sensitive.  They live in packs of about 50-100 elephants and are extremely intelligent… they are able to remember just about everyone they meet!  Male elephants are larger than the females, growing until about the age of 55.  In comparison, females grow only till about the age of 35.  Despite their smaller size however, the females are in charge… yep, nature got it right :)!  The gestation period is anywhere from 22-24 months and an elephant typically lives to about the age of 70.  This is because elephants have seven sets of teeth and they lose one set about every ten years.  So, technically elephants die of starvation as they are no longer able to eat as they have all of their teeth… sad day.  Riding an elephant was actually quite similar to riding a horse in many aspects: fortunately we rode on a “saddle” that was equipped with stirrups and all.  The commands are very much the same as well as the elephant responds to foot commands, moving away from pressure.  They can also respond to voice commands such as speed up and stop… pretty intelligent huh!  After the ride we got a bit of interaction time with the elephants—they performed a few tricks for us and we were able to sit on their knee and feed them pellet-like sweets which of course they loved!  The elephant ride was spectacular and overall they are just magnificent animals!

Tonight, six of us headed to “The Boma” for dinner… possibly the most expensive yet most delicious meal I’ve ever had… not to mention the most I’ve probable ever eaten… ha!  It was a very traditional style dinner with lots of African and local foods—when we arrived, we were given Chitange to wear and we got our faces painted African style.  We then headed to “Chidobe Village” (the area where we were seated) where we met Juzuf our waiter.  He explained all of the options available for dinner… of which we tried them all.  It was buffet style so first up were the appetizers that consisted of peppered bream, crocodile tail, impala terrine, and smoked guinea fowl, salad, breads, and pumpkin soup (YUM!).  Next up were the pre-main course meats of: boerwors, pork sausages, sirloin, vegetable stir-fry, warthog steak (yum!), ostrich kebabs, buffalo steak, marinated chicken, kudu, and ox tail… wowzo!  We also tried Mopani worms and got a certificate for eating them… yebo!  The main course consisted of lamb, a mushroom wrap, creamy vegetables, and pasta.  Dessert consisted of lots and lots and lots… my favorite being the crepes :)… delicious!  They also had entertainment during the entire meal that consisted of singing and dancing—all of which was traditional African style.  The night was fabulous and such a great way to end both my birthday weekend and the last day here in Victoria Falls!

I can’t believe that my time here in Zimbabwe is already over—it literally seems like I arrived just a few short days ago.  Although the time went fast, I can say that I had an absolutely incredible experience and by far the highlight was the lions.  Getting to interact with them and play with them on a daily basis was an experience that I’ll probably never have again in my life but I took full advantage of every opportunity I had with the king of the jungle.  I was also able to do a lot of other neat things with the program as well such as teach conservation in schools, play with children at a local orphanage, take a lot of “lessons” where I learned about trees and their uses along with Ndebele (the local language) and even how to cook a local meal.  The people also made the experience so wonderful, everyone from the local guides, lion handlers, and Mesuwe staff to the volunteers who came from all around the world.  Everyone was great to get-to-know and we definitely had a lot of fun!

The program itself is wonderful and I hope to watch as this program continues to develop in the coming years.  The lion is close to being placed on the endangered species list as about 85% of its population has diminished from the 1980’s till now.  There are many reasons for this decline that include disease, hunting, and the loss of their habitat in which they are able to live.  Although the situation is extremely sad, this project is working to release lions back into the wild to ensure that its presence remains in hopes that the African Lion never becomes extinct.  The program has paired up with many organizations as well to teach and educate the local population on how important it is to conserve this animal.  ALERT (African Lion and Environmental Research Trust) teamed up with the Lion Encounter project and introduced a four-step program in which the lions go through to be released back into the wild.  Here in Zimbabwe, I have worked with cubs that are currently in stage 1.  The lions are bred and enter stage 1 that involves human interaction as the cubs develop until the age of about eighteen months.  Then all human contact is removed by stage 2 and the lions are separated from their siblings (if necessary) and placed in an area that is at least 1,000 acres big—allowing their natural instincts to continue to develop.  At this point, the lions are placed in an area in which they have no other competitors and are able to distinguish themselves within a pride.  Cubs are that are born from lions in stage two are the cubs that will be released into the wild as they will have no human contact whereas the cubs I’ve been working with will never be released but hopefully will reproduce and those are the cubs that will be released.  Once prides are formed and they feel that the pride can compete and support itself amongst other predators, they are released into another area where they must fight with other animals for food and when survival of the fittest plays a role.  The prides are put with other prides as well as other animals such as hyena, all of which compete for the same food.  Once a pride has proven themselves within stage three, they are released into stage four: the wild.  Although the process takes years and years and the difference is slight as of now, hopefully in the future it will make a great impact and have a bunny-like effect that will create a sustainable lion population and the lion will forever remain the king of the jungle.

It is hard to describe via a blog how great this experience has been and how much I have taken away from my volunteer experience thus far both in Zambia and here in Zimbabwe.  I have learned a lot, met a lot of really neat people, and had countless experiences that I will remember the rest of my life.  Part two of my journey is now in-the-books but I’m ready for the all of the next adventures in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Well I’ve had the best birthday week ever but now I’m off to South Africa!

~Susan

P.S.-Happy Father’s Day to my dad… the best dad in the world (again maybe a little biased but I think so!).  I miss you so much and wish I could be there to celebrate the day with you!  I love you dad and thank-you for everything!

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