Lions and Cheetahs and Elephants, Oh My!

Oh my gosh you guys, yesterday was spectacularly fun! There’s so much to go over, so let’s just jump right in!

6:00am on a Saturday is not a time you’d typically find me awake, but I made an exception for this Saturday. Why? We had a 6:45am pickup from the Backpackers to go on our “Big 5” excursion. Did we actually see the African Big 5?* Nope, that’s just the name of it. Did I love every minute of it? Yes, yes I did. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved African big cats (lions, cheetahs, leopards, etc) mainly because I was an avid watcher of Animal Planet’s Wild Kingdom, and one of the cats was almost always featured. These were creatures of beauty and grace with a set of powerful claws to match. And, oh yeah, they’re mainly female run, so #girlpower am I right?

Our excursion included a walk and interaction with lions, walk and interaction with cheetahs, and a final walk and feeding of elephants. Now I know what you’re thinking, why would anyone support a business that takes animals out of their natural habitat and force them to work for our pleasure? While I can’t speak for the lions or cheetahs, although the lions we interacted with were bred in captivity, but all of the elephants in the facility were rescued as orphaned babies with no herd. Because they were in danger of being hunted and/or poached, this facility took them each in over the course of many years, trained them, and provides all kinds of care for them, while allowing them to still roam in a large section of the Mosi-Oa-Tunya wild reserve. All of these animals are very well taken care of, meaning they are given plenty of food and water, along with vaccinations, regular veterinary care, and have natural bush habitats that they are kept in when not with a handler. The lions are separated by age so that the babies aren’t picked on or starved out by the older lions, and when they get bigger they’ll be moved in with some of the older lions to join the pride. While this certainly isn’t the “in the wild” life that we normally picture for these animals, their lifespans are almost doubled by living here, so it’s not like they’re not being benefitted by being taken care of by the facility. But I digress.

A small group of us (about 7 people) interacted with four lion “teenagers;” 13-month old lion siblings with attitude to spare. I mainly interacted with the male, Erik, because even though he’s the male, he was also the most chill of the bunch. (This website isn’t allowing me to attach the image for some reason, so maybe later) That’s pretty typical for male lions since they don’t really do much of anything besides eat, breed, and sleep. The females on the other hand, well they were intimidating for sure. Since they’re the main hunters within a lion pride, having one turn its eyes on you doesn’t necessarily make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. However, the girls were very well behaved (except for one named Annie that was wanting to start the walk early and didn’t enjoy being told no) and not once did I ever feel in danger. The handlers were very professional and simply used voice commands to get the lions’ attention, and even then, they told us that the lions were still wild, so caution was still necessary. Used to humans does not mean domesticated.

After interacting with them for a bit, we took them on a walk. Wow, just wow. Watching them walk together up close was like watching the Lion King in real life. It was easy to see how they’d be a formidable force together because they seemed to move as one fluid body, and you definitely didn’t want to be the target they were headed towards. One thing that was really interesting to me was that even though they were all siblings, it was very apparent that each one had a distinct personality and each also had a favorite sibling to be with. Loretta loved being with Erik, and when we got separated from us for a bit and came charging back through the bush with a handler later, Loretta took off to tackle him and lick his face. Annie and Nika pretty much stuck together like glue, with Annie leading the “pride” for most of the walk.

Upon returning from the lion interaction, we had a sip of orange juice and headed to the cheetah interaction. This was probably the one that I was most excited for. Cheetahs and servals have been at the top of my favorite cat list for as long as I can remember, so I was living my four-year-old self’s dream of petting a cheetah. Lillian was the name of our cheetah (the other couple got the male and he was not wanting to cooperate. Typical, no?) and she was absolutely gorgeous! Unlike the lions, I really wasn’t intimidated to be by her. I probably should have been, but as my mom would say, her motor was going. Her purring was literally vibrating her entire body, and anyone with a house cat knows that purring means the animal is content, so I knew she wasn’t looking at my hands for her next meal. At one point the handlers told me I could lay down next to her if I wanted, and I didn’t pass up that opportunity. Lillian was just so calm the entire time, it was obvious she was enjoying the full body massage and pampering she was getting.

Once I traded spots with Braydan so he could interact with Lillian, one of the handlers asked me if this was my first time with cheetahs. I said yes, and he did a double take, asking me if I was being serious, and I said yes. I guess I was just way more comfortable with Lillian than most people are. While the handler and I spoke, I overheard from one of the other handlers that cheetahs are the only cats that will allow humans to full integrate with them, and this was obvious when we started the walk and Lillian went up to one of the handlers and licked/nuzzled his head before continuing the walk. This knowledge also made the experience much more relaxing because again, I didn’t feel like a wrong move could make me a snack.

With the walk over, the male bolted back for the brush, but Lillian just laid back down in the sun for us to stroke her and massage her one last time before we left. Needless to say, my day was made! A few more sips of orange juice later and we were on our way to the elephant walk. Walk is a bit of a stretch since we really rode them with a trainer, but still. Guys, elephants are amazing! They’re incredibly gentle (unless spooked or provoked that is), and these elephants were especially gentle with their trainers on board. To be honest, it was kind of like riding a big, farting horse, so it wasn’t scary in the least. There weren’t reins, so I kind of had to just hold onto some straps that were behind my seat, but I wasn’t going to complain when I was on a freaking elephant!

Dismounting the elephant was a bit challenging, but once we were all off of our elephants, the trainers lead them around to a kind of bar setup that way we could feed the elephants but they could walk towards us and possibly step on us. Feeding elephants is hilarious to do and watch! With one fist full of food, you drop the food into the elephants mouth (btw, their tongues are SLIMY!) and then with the other fist full of food, you drop it into the end of their trunk, they suck it up and then put their trunk into their mouth to blow the food pieces back out. It really is comical to watch, especially when they immediately stick their trunk back out to you expecting more and then kind of smack your hand with their trunk when there isn’t any. I promise, the elephants aren’t being starved, they’re just like any other animal: they love their treats and always want more.

Braydan’s elephant, Mary, was the matriarch of the herd and was especially gentle in how she accepted food and allowed you to touch her trunk, tusks, and face. Furthermore, she was so well trained that she accepted a tip for the trainer WITH HER TRUNK and just passed it up to him, and apparently she’ll do that if she’s riding with someone and they drop something like sunglasses or a water bottle. She’s just really considerate haha After all of the treats were dispersed, the elephants did a salute with their trunks over their heads and a knee bent, and we headed back to the facility to get cleaned up. I was covered in mud from my elephant, Timba’s, trunk, but I didn’t mind because it was mud from the trunk of a freaking elephant!

Leaving was hard, but since we had plans for the rest of the day, we had to get going. Baboons were just chilling in the road on our way there and back, which was a gentle reminder that we are truly in the wild and it’s their territory, not ours. When we returned, we did our mountain of laundry (again, our washing machine has never seemed like more of a blessing), made lunch, wrote some of our blog, and at 4:30pm we left to go back to the Maramba Market with Audrey to pick up our new clothes! Because I’m me and I have an interesting body shape, I had a couple alterations made to the pants and jumper, but overall I am super pleased with how they turned out. The group of us took a mini photoshoot together, and once I have the pictures from Naomi I will post one or two, but trust me, we all looked smashing.

A quick sandwich dinner after getting back, and we were off again to go see the lunar rainbow at Victoria Falls. Braydan has all the pictures, but it was truly a spectacular sight to see. The rainbow is caused by the light of the full moon refracting in the waterfall’s spray, creating a multitude of rainbows depending on where you were along the trail. We crossed the bridge in our group, got soaked (although Lauren and I brought our rain jackets because getting soaked once was enough for us), and then made our way back to the taxi. On the way back, we looked out the left side window of the taxi hoping to see elephants, and guess what we saw instead? A freaking hippo! That’s right, an enormous, wild hippo, just walking through the bush doing his/her thing, 15 meters from us! We were moving too fast or I would’ve snagged a picture. Oh well, better luck next time right?

After such a long day, we came back to the lodge, took showers, and crashed. Since we weren’t planning on going to church with Audrey the next morning, we didn’t set an alarm and settled down for a long nights sleep. I wish I could say we slept in for more than 30 minutes, but that’d be a lie. I guess when you get a regular 8-9 hours of sleep, your body doesn’t need to sleep in. Nifty! Well, that’s it for today. Until tomorrow, ¬°adios!

-Gabrielle Bezzant

Author: Gabrielle Bezzant

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