After a great time in Matopos, filled with trekking rhinos and hiking around, we hopped back on the truck and headed to a nice campsite and major tourist attraction, Antelope Park. Antelope Park is known for a few things, but more than anything else it’s known for it’s lion walks. A year and a half prior to this trip I had been in Livingstone Zambia and had gone out walking with lions. The experience was amazingly cool, but something about it seemed a bit odd the entire time. As I walked along and was encouraged to pet these “wild” lions, I was confused by how tame they seemed. I was told that the lions were raised with people around them from cubs and felt that we were part of the pride. The organization went on and on about how they used the money from the lion walking ($130 for the walk in Livingstone) to raise and free lions into the wild. At the same location you had the option to ride elephants, which I passed on as I had read about how badly this injures the elephants.
A place that allowed you to ride elephants but claimed to be entirely dedicated to protecting elephants and lions seemed a bit suspicious to me, so I had been asking around for a month or so prior to arriving at Antelope Park anytime I came across someone who worked as a conservationist. The overwhelming response to my questions was that walking with lions does not benefit anyone but the company performing the walks, which in this case both the Livingstone operator I had gone with and Antelope Park were the same company, called ALERT. A conservationist that had lived in Zimbabwe his whole life told us that for the over 30 years the company had been offering lion walks, not a single lion had been released into the wild.
When we arrived at the campsite we were greeted by a very friendly employee who did something that hadn’t been done once since we had landed on the continent almost four months prior, he told us our tour of the camp was scheduled for 2:45pm. We showed up for the tour of the beautiful campground and were led through the site for five minutes before being dropped off in a room with a large TV in it. A new employee showed up wearing an ALERT shirt and told us he’d show us a video walking us through the optional activities, and after a schedule would be drawn up for what we wanted to do during our time at the camp. The video was a mediocre 10 minute long sales pitch showing footage of tourists walking with, petting, and playing with lions. It briefly touched on elephant rides and a few other activities, but at least 75% of the video focused on the camp’s moneymaker, lion walking ($79 here).
After we were talked to at length about the program, and when some members of our group started asking about the lions that had been released, things got a bit tense. The camp’s representative told us that multiple lions had indeed been released, which was questioned since we had been told they never had. He assured us that plenty of lions had been released into a wild type of environment. When questioned on what that meant, we were told that lions that had graduated the walking with lions program were then released into a 6km circumference fenced area that was stocked with animals to make it seem more wild. To date no lion had been released into the wild, he begrudgingly told us, however he claimed they would be attempting to release lions into the wild soon, and the BBC would be covering the story. He was pressed further on the fact that an average lion’s lifespan was 10 years, and the company had been offering these walks for about 30 years, and we were told that $2 million had been donated to the local community in orphanages and education for the locals, which didn’t really address the question he was asked.
Almost all of us passed on the lion walk, not necessarily because the whole program was a sham, although it certainly did look that way, but at least for our part we didn’t want to contribute to what sounded like a lie and a scam to us. We spent the rest of our time in Antelope Park enjoying the beautiful campsite, swimming in the frigid, very large pool, hanging out with another overland truck that we had met before back in Uganda, and going on a horseback safari ($28).
The horses at the camp were very large, strong horses and very well kept. They did tend to bite and kick each other, and one nibbled on Sissy, but she loves horses and was excited to ride. As we all saddled up and headed out of the park, the group separated into those who could ride and those who couldn’t. I was strongly advised by Sissy to go with the group that couldn’t, and she took off with the few that could. I had only ridden horses twice, once in Iceland with her, and once in Peru, so going with the group that couldn’t ride probably made more sense.
While Sissy and her group were off at full gallop on these ex-race horses, my group barely trotted along. As I was drifting off to sleep on the first part of the ride, our guide who also happened to be the coach of the Zimbabwe woman’s polocrosse team (think lacrosse on horseback) told us there were zebras ahead. One of the reasons we went on the horse safari was because we were told that the animals saw horseback riders as other animals, horses, not people on horses, and were less shy that way. These zebras proved that to be true as they let us get right next to them without running off. We came across wildebeests, gazelles, and giraffes, with none of then seeming to mind our presence. A few giraffes let us get extremely close to them, which was great as most like to take off when they see people outside of a car.
After the ride Sissy told me about how great hers had been galloping along at full speed. I was a bit annoyed at not even getting my horse to trot, but the experience of seeing so many animals so close made it very worthwhile. Through the rest of our time in the camp we let the local zebra come within a few feet of us whenever it wanted, watched as some of the tamed elephants walked past our tents and into the lake we were camped next to, and had some fun with squirt guns since it was so hot. Another member of our group told us that the zebra that was always around was a bit excited the morning before and had virtually chased her through the campground with a piece of his anatomy showing his excitement for her.
While Antelope Park had been quite controversial in our eyes, it was also a very pleasant campsite and helped us relax for a few days. Sissy and I also shared our decision with our overland group to leave the trip early, at the end of our time in Mozambique, to rent a car and continue on separately. The decision wasn’t easy, especially since we had paid for the vehicle to take us to Cape Town and some of that wasn’t refundable, however we felt that it was a more enjoyable way for us to travel.
Our next stop in Zimbabwe was the site that the country was renamed for in 1980, Great Zimbabwe. We arrived in the late afternoon but felt that it was much too hot our to be enjoyable, and decided instead to head to camp and visit the following morning. The site is the second largest ancient site in Africa after the Great Pyramids of Giza, and was constructed in the 11th century by one of the kings of Zimbabwe. There isn’t a ton known about the site since the people at that time didn’t have a form of writing.
The site is partially up on a rocky hill with boulders jutting out of it, and partially down in the flat lands below. The higher part of the site was reserved for men and was completely walled in. The walls were made without mortar, just as the walls at Machu Picchu, however the quality of the construction isn’t comparable, as the Incas craftsmanship was second to none. The lower site was made with much higher, thicker, and better quality walls, and housed the women of the complex. At it’s height the site was thought to house a total of 20,000 people. After our tour of the site finished, it was time to drive on.
Before leaving Zimbabwe we headed to the Bvumba mountains for a few nights. We stayed at a nursery with an old house on it. We used the kitchen to cook dinner, which was a very pleasant change from our normal campsite cooking, and the next day Sissy and I set out for a hike using a hand drawn map of the area. We couldn’t tell how long the hike would take since the map wasn’t drawn to scale and didn’t have much of a rough legend either, so after an hour of hiking around we found ourselves back at the campsite. We were going to refill our water and hike another nearby mountain, however some members of our group were excited to walk to a local cafe that they had read about in the Lonely Planet that offered a slice of cake for $10, so we decided to join to see what kind of cake could be worth that much money.
We walked along the road for just over 4km before reaching Tony’s. We were greeted by a very eccentric and flamboyant white Zimbabwean named Tony, who walked us through his very long, hand written menu which incorporated dozens of options for tea alone. After seeing another table receive their cake, we decided to join in and make $12 slices of cake be our lunch. For the most expensive piece of cake I had ever purchased, I was surprised by the quality of it and how heavy it was. Everyone at the table agreed it may have been the best cake they had ever tasted, and if not it was still worth the ridiculous price of $12 a slice.
Weighted down by our sweet, incredibly rich lunch, we started the long walk back to the camp. We couldn’t hike any more that day as the cake had put us out of commission, so Sissy and I agreed to hike the mountain the next morning. We were told we’d be leaving the campsite at 7am, so we got up at 4:45am and started hiking. It felt good to get our legs moving for one of the few times we had hiked over the past three and a half months, and we quickly reached the top and headed back down. Our next stop that day would be a country we had been looking forward to seeing the whole trip, Mozambique.
- Rhino trekking in Matopos. We both felt that this almost rivaled the gorilla trekking we had done in Rwanda, but at less than a tenth of the price. Ian from … was extremely knowledgeable and loved talking about anything related to wildlife and Zimbabwe.
- Great Zimbabwe. If you like ruins, history, or just to get greater insight into the country, Great Zimbabwe is a place that can’t be missed. It looks different from just about anything else on the continent and is probably only similar to Ghebil Fassi (of the places we’ve seen) in Ethiopia as far as construction is concerned.
- Horseback safari at Antelope Park. While we had seen tons of wildlife up close and personal on this trip, the horse safari was unique in that we could safely get close to animals with no barrier between us and them. Walking safaris weren’t similar for us since the animals would take off at the sight of us almost every time, and horseback was much faster for getting from place to place.
- Spend your US dollars before you leave the country as they are typically in terrible shape and aren’t likely to be accepted anywhere else in Africa. Most countries outside of Zimbabwe and the US require your bills to be from 2013 or later and have no marks or tears in them.
- Read up on lion walks and ALERT if you are going to Livingstone or Antelope Park. There’s a great deal of information online written by ex-volunteers, tourists, and conservationists about lion walking, read up and decide for yourself.