We were up fairly early this morning to eat breakfast and take down camp before heading to downtown Masivingo to do some shopping before making the relatively short drive to Antelope Park near the central city of Gweru. The only real excitement we had this morning was watching out for the vervet monkeys around the camp looking for a potential victim to turn away from their breakfast only for an instant. Thankfully, everyone kept up their guard and there were no sneak attacks. It was entertaining, though, watching all of the monkeys swarm on our campsite to look for scraps only seconds after boarding the truck to drive away.
Masivingo was our first real taste of what life was like for most in Zimbabwe. We stopped the truck on a fairly busy main road in front of two grocery stores and were given 45 minutes to walk around and purchase any food or booze we would want for the next three days while at Antelope Park. Walking into the stores it takes about two seconds to realize that you're not in South Africa anymore. The inside of the store was older and more worn and the brands on the shelves were usually not recognizable. The cash registers were old school and don't even think about price scanners, everything was typed in by hand. The selection of items was not even in the same ballpark as what the average Westerner is accustomed to seeing. One of the most noticeable and telling things was the empty Coca-Cola fridges with chained doors. The trade embargos had officially made Coke a delicacy. The good thing was that the store was kept very clean and the booze was cheap. Real cheap.
2 bottles of Smirnoff vodka: $4.50 US
1 bottle of brandy: $2.00
1 bottle of cheap concentrate juice for mixing: $1.80
For everything else, there's MasterCard.
Certain other common items were made quite expensive due to their limited supply in Zimbabwe. One of these was juice. A carton of juice that would typically sell in South Africa for between $1-2 US was going for triple that here. In other words, for the price of three bottles of booze, you could purchase one carton of mixer. That's why I settled for the cheap concentrate stuff that "contains only 5% fruit juice" and is basically sugar. It did the job.
Overall, the people of Masivingo (and all of Zimbabwe for that matter), despite outwardly appearing quite poor, came off as very friendly and happy to have what tourists the country could still draw. Even though many just had their homes bulldozed and livlihoods burned to the ground they never once displayed the slightest bitterness or posed any threat to anyone in the group.
Antelope Park was a different story from Masivingo all together. Sitting on it's very own 3,000 acre wildlife reserve and large crocodile-free pond, Antelope Park is a tourism oasis on the outskirts of Gweru. Getting in required the truck to pass not one but two checkpoints but it was well worth it. We arrived at our waterfront site in time for lunch and shortly thereafter were given a tour of the facilities and shown a video of all the activities we could take part in during our two and a half day stay. The park is well-known for its successful lion breeding program and many of the activities included these lions in some way, the most popular being the "lion walk" which we all took part in that afternoon.
The lion walk was truly a great experience. For $40 US you get to join two adolescent lions on about a three hour guided walk through the private reserve as they hone their stalking skills on the resident wildlife. On this day we had two 17-month old lions that were big enough to take any one of us out easily. The good news was that they are used to being around people as they begin doing these walks at only 7 or 8 months. The bad news is that sometimes they get playful and like to horse around. The problem is that if they try to horse around with a human there's a good chance they're going to come away with a kidney. Before the walk everyone was supplied with a 2-3 foot long stick in case they saw a lion getting that frisky look a kitten gets when you roll a ball of yarn in front of it. Evidently pointing the stick at the lion and yelling "NO!" with authority usually does the trick. Sounds easy in theory but when the guide opened their cage and they came flying out like they were on the warpath I suddenly found myself wishing I was carrying something with a little more oomph...like an Enfield rifle.
Once the walk started, however, everything went great. Immediately they began scanning the reserve for game. Once we saw some antelope about 150 yards away, they got real low in the tall grass and began spreading out to flank them. Keep in mind that, even though these lions could take down a human like Star Jones takes down a Whopper, a full-grown antelope is another story all together. The young lions are not yet fast or quiet enough to successfully stalk and kill big game but this is nevertheless important to their development. Speniding a few hours in an open reserve with two lions was an incredible experience. Near the end of the walk as they were starting to get tuckered out after trying to stalk and chase anything and everything that moved (impala, giraffe, warthog) the two lions took turns lying down and allowing us to approach slowly and kneel down for a picture. Now since these guys are not tame the process took a little while as they would lay down for only about 30 seconds at a time before abruptly springing up, usually to tackle the other one. Despite this everyone who wanted a picture got one and we all made it back with all fingers and toes (and vital organs) intact.
Since we were staying here for two days, this was the first night of the trip that we did not have to look forward to an early morning. Most of us also took advantage of the $10 upgrade to spend the night in these great river tents complete with 2 queen beds, en suite bathroom/shower and large elevated patios right on the water. Rather than share a tent with somebody, we got to share a room. This called for celebration and served as an excellent excuse to put that booze to good use. After dinner my roommate Justin and I invited anyone who wanted to come to join us in our tent (which I nicknamed "Cocktails & Dreams") for an evening of spirits. Eight of us ended up staying up until 1:00 AM gulping strong drinks, telling stories and probably being too loud in the process but it was a great time and served as the perfect ending to a great day.