Gweru, Zimbabwe – Big Brother’s African Brother

Gweru, Zimbabwe

Tom metamorphises into Joy Adamson as he walks with lions in the
bush, while I investigate why Zimbabwean men are petrified of their wives attending ‘kitchen parties’
September 2002

In tourist standard hotels, private reserves and game parks, a two tier
pricing system exists: Zimbabwean nationals are charged a reduced rate in
Zimbabwe dollars, foreigners pay an inflated rate in US dollars.

Tom with 5 month old lion cubs

Tom with 5 month old lion cubs


At one point, we felt we were destined never to visit Antelope Park in
Gweru. This park offers the unique experience of walking with lion cubs in
the bush. The problem was that even though they charged US $30 for
backpacker accommodation with shared bath, they were full, so we couldn’t
stay there on Saturday night. Camping was US $10 per person but we didn’t
possess a tent. In the end, we just hoped that we could find somewhere to
stay in Gweru and visit Antelope Park during the day.

We queued to board the Blue Arrow deluxe coach that would transport us to
Gweru. At the front of the queue, we were told that we should have visited
the office first to be ‘checked-in’. This process merely involved being
crossed off the manifest. Why the lady checking the tickets at the bus door
cannot check against the manifest is anyone’s guess. Africans are adverse
to multitasking, so I never ponder on such questions.

Our problems began at the drop off the point, the ‘three star’ Fairmile
Motel, an expensive, over-rated and unco-operative place. We inquired
whether they had a room, which they did for Z$8700. We were discussing
whether we should stay there when we were informed that the rate for
foreigners was US $151. I stared at him in disbelief, we hardly looked like
the type of tourist that could shell out those dollars for one night’s
accommodation – I was wearing my tattiest denim shirt, floppy hat and
vaguely dirty shorts. Disgusted at this, we asked if we could book a taxi
to take us to Pamusha Lodge, our only other option. We had no map of Gweru,
so we didn’t know in what direction or how far it was. We were ignored until
Tom’s persistence paid off – they charged us Z$40 to phone for a taxi,
although it was debatable whether they had called one or not. For good
measure, the guy on reception told us that Pamusha Lodge "was a bad place,
not to be trusted."

Relaxing into a chair in reception, I noticed that patrons could not enter
the bar if wearing a t-shirt, shorts or trainers, so that’s our whole
wardrobe out then. Tom spotted a cockroach scurrying towards me across
the chair back so I leapt up, making a tactical retreat outside to wait for
our mythical taxi.

Tom asked a local lady also waiting for a taxi if she could recommend a
place to stay. She immediately offered us a room in her house, but also
gave us directions to Pamusha Lodge.

Contrary to Fairmile Motel’s opinion, the lodge was a delightfully cool,
tranquil, colonial style house situated in tropical gardens with spacious,
high ceiling rooms decorated in Victorian style patterns. Our double room
had an ensuite with sunken marble bath stocked with plump, soft towels.
This piece of paradise including a full, cooked breakfast cost just Z$4800.

Patricia, the housekeeper, made us very welcome. She explained that
Zimbabwe was suffering greatly, but local people hoped that the situation
would improve now the elections were over. She laughed about the Foreign
Office advice of not waving to anyone. She said everyone she knows voted
for the MDC, however the election was rigged; the votes lost. She believed
Mugabe was clinging to power, not wanting to relinquish his grip until he
died.

On the coffee table was a copy of "The Chronicle", a pro Government national
newspaper that gave me my first glimpse into Zimbabwe life, including anti-British propaganda.

It wasn’t all weighty, political reporting. Men were complaining about
their wife’s wayward behaviour at the innocently named "kitchen parties".
One resourceful woman attained a karate black-belt from lessons imparted at
a ‘kitchen party’, using this skill to enforce a ‘petticoat regime’ at home,
championing women’s lib in the neighbourhood and playing MC at most parties.
Girl power has steamed into Zimbabwe, making men distinctly uncomfortable.

The popcorn hairstyle is the latest fashion for women, but we thought the
article describing it was hilarious – we were none the wiser as to what
exactly the hairstyle was after reading it:

"And there is this hairstyle they call popcorn. It has recently become
available at local hair salons and most women are going for it. It is
indeed one hair style that is time-consuming and therefore needs alot of
patience. One goes through the same process of shampooing as is done to anyone
intending to have a hairdo. After that there are a whole lot of other
processes that take place until the popcorn style comes out."

Antelope park, 12km from Gweru, is a 3000 acre private reserve that offers
camping, elephant rides, canoeing, horse rides, game drives and walking with
lions in the bush. On arrival, we were assigned a guide for the day, who
runs through the history of the park and an overview of the activities. The
park has a lion breeding program that ensures that all the lions are free
from many serious diseases that are depleting populations in other parks.
Thirty percent of lion in Tanzania national parks have died from feline
immunodeficiency and canine distemper virus. The lions are fed every two
days on beef or horse meat (often dead cows are donated to the park). The
lions are habituated to humans, walking in the bush from six to eighteen
months. After this, their behaviour can become unpredictable, so they are
removed to a separate enclosure to breed.

Shazza

Shazza, 6 week old lion cub


Our guide introduced us to Shazza, a six week old cub that is being nursed
back to health. After responding to our guide’s special call, Shazza
gingerly approached him, playfully biting his leg. About the size of
domestic cat, she is still unsteady on her feed, fearful of strangers and
needing to be bottle fed.

Our guide invited us to enter an enclosure housing three five month old lion
cubs. Extremely apprehensive about entering the enclosure, I hung back from
the cage. However tame the cubs appear, they are still wild animals. I
had signed a disclaimer so that any subsequent mauling was at my own risk.
All the cubs bounded over to the cage door to greet us, but I was still
afraid of intruding into their domain. Tom had no inhibitions, tickling
their tummies and stroking their backs. I managed to build up enough
courage to stroke them, although I was always wary – I knew they sensed my
fear. The main rule is not to touch a cub on its face.

Tom was on cloud nine after this experience and we hadn’t even walked
with the lions yet. We hired a canoe, peacefully paddling past two
elephants feeding on the edge of the river, while we waited for our lion
walk to commence.

To say I was scared of following the lion cubs out into their natural
environment was an understatement, but I overcame my fear to walk with the
eight month old cubs, hoping I would survive the next hour and a half
without becoming dinner.

Duke

Tom with Duke (8 month old lion cub)


Initially, they were not interested in us at all, grateful to be released
into the bush, sprinting off into the distance to fight with one another.
These cubs aren’t small either – I hate to think how large the eighteen
month old ones are. Duke, the male, was the most placid as the females were
nervy, wanting to jump up onto your shoulders. Unperturbed, Tom insisted
on draping Duke over his lap (no mean feat). I stroked Duke, never losing
my sense of uneasiness, especially if the lions were sauntering behind us.

Plastic batons are issued to all walkers in case the cubs try to jump up and
to placate them when you are stroking them – they chew on the batons rather
than your arm!

Unscathed, I was relieved when the cubs were locked into their enclosure as
the sun set in the distance. Where else in the world can you actually walk
with lions?

 

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