Saturday, July 10, 2010

Walking with Lions.... [Message from Fiona]

Who couldn’t resist signing up to give this a go? Hey everyone, Fiona here again. Steve suggested I have another go at writing a blog, and since it’s his birthday today I couldn’t say no :)

Back to the lions – yesterday was yet again an experience of a lifetime. I know, I know, we say everything is great over here but it was another example of having high expectations and the experience going beyond these and delivering on all counts.

Carmen from our lodge booked our adventure with Horseback Africa – - a private game reserve that makes up part of the same conservancy that Abloom is located within. So, off we set on a short drive not really knowing what to expect other than it was going to be an experience we would never be able to replicate in New Zealand or America. We arrived at Horseback Africa in good time and enjoyed the drive up to reception admiring their wonderful views, some game and the magnificent geology that makes up this area. We were met by our hosts, Colin and Theony MacRae, and were soon sitting chatting with a great cup of coffee in hand and a welcome to match.

Lunch was included with our adventure and we sat in their outdoor eating area taking in everything they do at their game reserve. As the name suggests horseback safaris are part of their business, with rides suited from beginners to advanced. Polo plays a large part of their family’s lives and they also have a registered polo field and they offer polo holidays and lessons. For us this was an interesting aside and we enjoyed looking at the facilities which made a wonderful backdrop to the property.

After lunch Colin started our afternoon off with a chat about the wildlife aspect of their property and what we could expect to do. This was when we realised we were in for a lot more than ever expected. Colin explained that the lion cubs that are born here (to lions that are unable to be completely reintegrated into the wild) are part of staged release of wild lions in depopulated areas of Africa. They are raised by humans (due in part to the high mortality rate of lions raised in the wild – up to 90%) and are ‘trained’ in the ways of the pride, social hierarchy and of course, hunting. After their time at Horseback Africa (at about 18 months I think) they are transferred to specially selected areas where the lions can hunt easily and competition from other predators is not an issue. They are effectively living wild but it is their young that are truly wild – it is these cubs that will eventually be released as they have had no human contact. A long process you can see that obviously requires a huge commitment from a great number of people.

Walking with two five month old cubs, Frankie and Tatiana, sounds great doesn’t it? Well, it was! Like most youngsters they were a little naughty and did exactly the opposite of what Colin had told us to expect. With the help of his dog, Beth, Colin soon had them under control, well Beth did – the cubs obviously love her and happily followed her down to the dam for a drink. At this age the cubs are testing boundaries, seeing what they can get away with and were clambering over Beth with the odd little bite thrown in. Beth soon let them know their place – all part of their training to know were come in the pride.

We spent a bit of time down at the dam enjoying watching the cubs playing and admiring the scenery. At this stage I should mention that our host, Colin, is also geologist and a published author. There was an interesting cliff face above the dam and we were able to enjoy an impromptu lesson on the local geology. Colin was really interesting and easily imparted his knowledge to us. Steve and I both have a passing interest in geology and it would have been easy to forget we were actually here to take part in a lion experience.

We finished our walk with the cubs by watching them be fed. Now, all bets were off, as friendly as they’d been with each other there was no way these siblings were sharing dinner. They both jealously guarded their food and gorged it down in no time.

What beats walking with five month old cubs? Feeding a three week old one of course! It was a wonderful experience being able to hold and feed a wee cub and then to ‘burp’ it. Once fed the cubs (three of them, un-named) enjoyed playing in the garden with us and eachother. Yates obviously has talents a lion trainer and had the cubs following him with his calls of ‘mao, mao’ ( in Chairman).

While we had the cubs in the garden Colin brought out a wee monkey baby for us to feed. This poor wee fella was found clinging to his dead mothers body by his neighbours. Luckily they knew were to bring him and after two months loving care with the MacRaes he will soon be joining a group of other rehabilitated monkeys in being released together. After Yates and I feed him he must have decided that I was top dog as he decided that he better get on the good side of me and start grooming my hair! I’m very pleased to say that he was wearing nappy! Colin had earlier explained that when humans bend down and pet the animals it is a sign of weakness and they will go to the most off hand human to figure out just who’s top dog. We had been asked not to ‘baby’ the monkey and just let climb around us. It was really a strange experience have these tiny little hands hold yours as they were feeding – they were so soft and just like little human hands. We said goodbye to all the babies and went off to meet the adult lions.

Zulu is an eighteen month year old male who has recently been rehomed from a Middle Eastern family. A cute wee cub soon grows up and becomes too dangerous to be around your children and I think the only good thing to say about this situation is at least the family did the decent thing and arranged to have their ‘pet’ relocated to Africa, with Australian vet in tow for the journey. By all accounts he has turned around from a timid wee thing hiding in the bushes to a young adult who will have a fulfilling life and become part of the breeding programme. Unfortunately due to lion hierarchy he will never be able to be introduced to the existing adult lions as he will be seen as a threat.

The other three adults are made up of two females and a magnificent looking male – who’s names I’m afraid I can’t recall. They looked very happy and at home, with wonderful views over the reserve. It was incredible how huge they were! Colin obviously loves them and the way they greeted him it looked as if the love was mutual. The other amazing thing was how calm the horses were who were kept within sight and smell of the lions. They both must know that there was an impenetrable fence between them.

Next up was feeding time for a harem of Hermanus Baboons, 1 big male and 10 females, normally found in the more northern reaches of Africa. Colin had stepped in and rescued the troop when the one of the couple that were originally looking after them died, and no-one else would take the animals. All the scraps from the kitchen were put to good use as baboons will eat anything in terms of food or left-over’s. Colin explained the social hierarchy of this particular harem of baboons and pointed out the specific behaviour while we watched, fascinated by these most human of animals.

It was now late afternoon and those long lazy African shadows were creeping across the lawn and gardens as we made our way back to reception for the final section of our tour. Another part of the MacRaes projects is the rehabilitation into the wild of injured and unwanted snakes. Steve and Yates posed for photos with a red tailed Indonesian python wrapped around their shoulders – I was happy to take the photos! There were some sad stories that I won’t repeat but more importantly there were some happy endings.

This was the end of an incredible afternoon doing things we didn’t imagine we’d ever do. Once again, though, we realised that it was our hosts, Colin and Theony, who had made the day so special. We felt welcomed and involved and enjoyed the chance to chat and learn from them as much as the animal experiences. Plus I was able to buy a copy of Colin’s book – Life Etched in Stone, Fossils of South Africa – for Steve’s birthday. (I have to say the book is a beautiful gem.)

I spent an hour or so today just looking at the photos and videos and reliving a wonderful day.

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