Walking with Golden Cats
From the Lion Rehabilitation and Release Project, Zimbabwe.
6 a.m hot coffee and a crisp morning chill. The mist hangs low, shrouding the trees around me in a white, ethereal veil, as if the sky and land had become one. The glass-like, green surface of the still lake holds no reflection yet, and the bridge that hovers over it disappears mysteriously into the land across our lodges; the day is set to begin. The tranquility of this place is breath taking, with the soft, distant calls of birds and small gulps starting to break the silence in the shallows near the pontoon. And then I hear it, a new kind of cockerel heralding in the new day; like muffled thunder in the distance I hear them roaring; the lions of Antelope Park welcome me to my first day on site.
At 6:30 we headed out to walk the cubs through the bush, I had never experienced such a thing, even as a born and bred Zimbabwean, this was a new level of proximity and interaction. After our safety briefing, we trekked up the cool misty path to emerge above the valley where we were bathed by the most beautiful, golden sunlight I have ever seen; again, this was unprecedented for me, and I live under this African sky! The scene was worthy of a National Geographic time slot, and it only got better, as the young lions; one male sporting his junior stubble and two females came bumbling up the path with their awkward adolescent gait. Camera shutters started snapping away as the volunteers took advantage of the perfect lighting, producing some of the best amateur photography I’ve seen. The cats, in typical feline style took in all our worship and awe without a hint of shyness, we were in their world now, and what a treat it was.
Watching them burst in and out of the bushes, wrestle, tumble and cuddle evoked the expected ‘aww’ but when I saw how swiftly (albeit clumsily) they scaled the Msasa trees it quickly showed me how wrong my ideas of escape options were. One of the guide’s shirts clearly conveyed that message ‘if you run, you die’ - he should have included ‘climb’ just to be clear. Watching them from the ground as they surveyed the valley and grasslands of their kingdom I hoped that they could see a bright future beyond the odds stacked against them. Undoubtedly, there are many hurdles along the way to their prosperity, but meeting the team that works towards creating that bright future made me feel as if it is attainable, starting with small steps in the valley of the golden cats, one day soon, free lions will roam the bush.