In my earlier essay “Anticipation and Serendipity,” I commented on my anticipation of an African trip. So now the trip has come and gone, a great eco-tourist safari. During this trip I had a rare opportunity to view wildlife up close and personal. It was a journey I never thought I’d take, but then reality often has a way of turning out very differently than our initial expectations and suppositions. It was a rare opportunity and I will have terrific memories for a very long time. Luckily, any misgivings I had were for naught and the experience far exceeded any of my preconceived notions. In fact, it was surreal and magical.
My vacation in Africa covered three countries – Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. For a “commercial package tour,” this one far surpassed many I’d taken before. And the setting couldn’t have been more amazing. The windswept, seemingly desolate Kalahari Desert was bleak only on cursory examination. But upon a closer look, the majesty of the many unique life forms became evident. The Okavango Delta is a permanent swamp in Botswana, a jewel of an oasis in the desert, gathering waters that flow down from the plains of northern Africa during the annual flood cycle. It teems with colorful bird life, insects, lizards and geckos, crocodiles and hippos, lions, Cape buffalo, elephants, impala, kudu, baboons and more. It is sensory overload on several levels.
A very special optional adventure I took advantage of was a “walk with lions” in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in an area near the falls themselves. Here lions are bred in captivity, rehabilitated and then released back into the wild. The aim is to study the habits of large carnivores and help safeguard the future of the species, whose numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate. Visitors are allowed to walk alongside young lions and interact with them as they play, learn to hunt and prepare for release. I had heard about this opportunity from a friend who had taken the same safari trip about six months earlier than mine, and I had seen her photos, walking with a lion and petting one. I was amazed. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. And was it safe? Apparently so, otherwise, they wouldn’t let so many visitors participate on a daily basis.
So when the group guide circulated a sign-up sheet for optional activities, I knew I had to sign up for the Lion Walk. On the appointed day, several in our group were taken from our hotel by bus to Lion Encounter Victoria Falls within the Zambezi National Park where we were met by a hospitality team. We saw a short video and listened to an overview of the program. Very young cubs are taken from their mothers in the bush, raised by humans, socialized, and reintroduced into the wild at the around 18 months – the point where they are able to hunt, defend against predators, and fully fend for themselves. As part of the socialization effort, staff members, trained volunteers and visitors walk with the lions at least twice per day to reacquaint them with the wild and their original native habitat. Staff members go along on these walks to make sure nothing goes amiss and that proper protocol is followed. The staff members also shoot still photos with your own camera as well as videos. You have your own pictures as souvenirs and the videos can be purchased for a modest sum. Each participant can get a personalized video showing him walking with the lions — a very cool souvenir to take home and show to your friends.
After signing a waiver, and learning detailed “do’s and don’ts,” I walked with and petted two 13-month olds, and two 7-month olds. We were told to walk at the rear haunches of the lion, not to get in front of its head. Don’t pet it on the head. It you want to pet it, it is okay to pet its rump. If it gets frisky and jumps on you, as these young cubs are wont to do since they are as playful as any housecat, don’t panic. You are given a stick and instructed that in such a case you can just put the stick in front of the lion’s face and it will back down. In some cases we saw them lie down and roll over, typical young cat behavior. The guides told us it was okay to pet the lion’s paws or its tummy when it rolled over. After our walk, we were served breakfast.
Some of my friends, upon seeing my photos when I returned, thought I was nuts – “controlled environment” or not, and “what do you mean they are just babies?! “After all, these are big carnivores! And, what if they suddenly remember they were wild animals?” Though amazing, it seemed like the whole adventure was over too quickly. The lions walk at a brisk pace, just short of a gentle lope in some cases. I had to scamper to keep up. “Catch up! Catch up!” was the advice of the staff person walking just ahead of me with a camera. I and the other members in my safari group also participated and each person had his/her own singular opportunity to walk with the lions, all without mishap, and all continues to be well in the land of the big cats. I returned exhilarated, with all fingers and toes intact. And with great photos.
I think back to the pet parade I walked in when I was four, and of which I wrote in my first book — “First Fame and Fortune” was the name of that essay. In that essay collection I included a photo I’d saved all these years of me walking with two neighbor girls and we are each carrying a cat. My cat was an orange tabby cat, though you can’t tell its color from the black and white photo. And now some 60+ years later I have photos of me walking with bigger cats of a similar color. Is that cosmic foreshadowing or what? Who knew? Was it fore-ordained that I would walk with those lions? Does that make me a cat whisperer?
Well, before you think I’ve gone all mystical with new age nonsense, and that my spiritual journey has taken me off on an unpaved, boulder-strewn road never to return — fear not! No, I did not smoke or chew any native African plant substances. I think I remain fairly grounded in spite of my amazing adventure. But I have to say, I’m enjoying the expressions on the faces of my unsuspecting friends when I bring out my photos. It takes a moment to register with them. In the photos, I am with lions and smiling. One of my hands is on a lion’s back. They blink and look twice. They don’t see any fence or enclosure, or nearby zookeeper, and can’t figure it out. “No way! How did you do that?” they ask. I especially love showing the photos to dog lovers. Maybe the devil makes me do it. Or maybe I’ve learned to channel Flip Wilson who popularized that catch phrase in the 1970s. Whatever happened to him anyway? Well, whatever cosmic insanity is going on with me, I say it’s all good.