Today begins the official countdown. Official countdown to what, you ask? The official countdown to my trip to Africa! Yes, I realize that this trip is probably only exciting to me. And for good reason. I haven't taken a real trip in a long time. A real trip being a trip out of the country for more than 2-3 days, and a long time being over ten years. So, as you can see, I'm a bit overdue. So, what's the plan? Where am I going? What exactly will I be doing?
First let me start with how I even came up with the idea to travel to Africa and work with lions. Why Africa, of all places? To work on a lion reserve? Well, It all started with a lion who lived forty years ago. Last year, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video about this lion named Christian. The video was old and grainy, from the 70's. I instantly recognized the style of dress and found myself intrigued. What exactly were these two guys doing wearing 70's garb ... in Africa? With a lion? With a lion hugging them?
As everyone probably knows by now (unless you've been living under a rock), Christian the Lion was purchased by two Australians (Ace Bourke and John Rendall) at Harrod's department store in London in 1969. Harrod's is a very fancy store and apparently at the time it was chic to sell exotic animals. I won't go into my absolute distaste for the practice of selling wild animals as pets. Anyway, after raising the lion cub for about a year, they realized he was growing too large to keep in London. They needed to find Christian a proper home, and hopefully one that didn't consist of confinement. Fortunately for Ace and John, Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers stopped by the furniture store where they worked. Virginia and Bill had recently starred in the hit movie Born Free, the true story about Elsa the lioness who was raised (and subsequently released, although not entirely successfully) by George and Joy Adamson in Africa.
Virginia and Bill got in touch with George Adamson ("The Father of Lions"), and the wheels were put in motion to take Christian to Africa. The hope was that George could work with Christian and train him how to be a wild lion again, thereby able to feed and defend himself in the wild. This was, after all, a London lion. He was used to riding in a Bentley and sleeping on a bed.
Anyway, as the story goes, Christian was successfully released into the wild and lived a relatively full life as a lion. Or, as far as anyone knows. George was able to keep track of Christian for a few years following his release, but eventually Christian went off to live his life as a lion with his new pride. George did report that Christian had cubs of his own in his autobiography My Pride and Joy. Through the efforts of many caring people, Christian was able to experience real and complete freedom as a wild animal. This in itself was a remarkable thing. Whether he lived for 5 or 10 years following his release is unknown. But he was able to experience freedom; something his parents and grandparents (all zoo lions) had never been able to do.
Back to the video. When I first watched it, I was mesmerized. It shows Ace and John standing on a rocky clearing in Africa as Christian slowly and tentatively makes his way down the hill towards them. It's been a year since Christian was brought to Africa and released so he's not quite sure what to make of seeing his old friends suddenly after so much time. In an instant he recognizes Ace and John and runs to both men and jumps into their arms. If tears don't well up in your eyes while watching this, you should get a checkup. It's truly a heart warming video unlike anything I've seen before.
After watching the video numerous times, I became somewhat obsessed with both Christian and George Adamson. I wanted to know more about these two extraordinary beings, one a lion and one a man. What was George's life like before Christian? What was Christian's life like before George? So I set off on a mission. And that mission was to soak up every possible bit of information I could on these two subjects. This led me to the book Born Free. Then the movie of the same name. Then George's autobiographies. And his wife Joy's. Adrian House's biography titled The Great Safari is an amazingly detailed account of both George's and Joy's lives. After many months of researching all things Adamson, I decided I had to travel to Africa. I've seen the movie Out of Africa and heard all the tales of its heartbreaking beauty, but it's one thing to hear and another thing altogether to experience it for yourself. I knew I had to get to Africa. And I didn't want to just sign up for a safari to view lions from afar. I wanted to actually get to work with lions up close. To feel their fur. To look into their eyes. To try to understand them, even if just a little bit. Not as pets, but as the wild animals they're intended to be.
I decided volunteering in Africa was the way to go. I could meet the local people, learn the local customs. And make some friends along the way. After researching where to go in Africa, I finally settled on Antelope Park in Zimbabwe. Antelope Park is a controversial lion breeding and release program established in 1999. I'll be helping to take care of the lions at the park, walking with them, helping teach them how to stalk and hunt, taking them on night walks, bottle feeding the cubs, cleaning up lion poo, painting signs, mending fences. Anything that's required of me, basically. The program isn't really old enough to have successfully proven itself in the conservation arena and the breeding program has drawn criticism. However, it's also important to consider that drastic efforts may be necessary in order to ensure the future of the African Lion. The statistics from scientists, conservationists, and experts in the field is very disheartening.
Today is Monday and I leave Friday. I'll be gone almost three weeks, but almost four of those days will be traveling. I have a feeling I'm about to embark on something that just may change my life. I hope it does. I'm feeling an odd mix of pre-trip anticipation, but also nervousness, excitement, and a tinge of sadness because I know I'll undoubtedly be sad when it's over. As crazy as it sounds, I think I'll be homesick for Africa after I return. So in order to make myself feel better, I'm already looking into trips for next year. I hope to work alongside a wildlife vet in South Africa, observing and assisting whenever allowed but mostly learning. I've been accepted into a wonderful program and hope to go next May, 2011.
It's now been a year since I first watched the Christian the Lion video on YouTube, and during that time I've read numerous books, white papers, conservation reports, websites, blogs, articles, magazines, etc., in order to learn about the African Lion. And George Adamson. I have the utmost respect for what this man accomplished. What he was doing in the wilds of Africa was highly controversial work at a time when nobody was doing it. In my eyes he was a trailblazer, living alone in the African wilderness, surrounded by his beloved lions and the other dangers Africa has to offer. I would love to know what he knew about lions, to see them through his wise eyes. I have alot to learn and this upcoming trip is just the first step in what I hope to be a long journey.