3 mins

Walking with lions in Zambia

Our intrepid Wander Woman discovers the fun (and game) on show in Livingstone

Walking with lions (Marie Javins)

If every day were like today, I could probably do a MariesWorldTour in a month. And I'd have to, because that's how long my money would last.

Livingstone has taken over where Zimbabwean sister-city Vic Falls left off a decade ago. In 2001, Livingstone was a sleepy alternative to rollicking Vic Falls. Now, after years of political problems across the river in Zimbabwe, the tables have turned.

Nowadays, on the Zambian side, you can raft, quad-bike, canoe, ride elephants, kayak, bungee jump, jet boat, microlight, abseil, ride horses, go on safari, helicopter over the falls, and walk around with baby lions. Or, of course, just look at Victoria Falls.

Rafting was out – it wasn't running due to high water levels. I’d rafted the Zambezi on the first MariesWorldTour.com, in 2001, but I would have done it again, because whitewater rafting on the Zambezi is fun. And I don't find genuine fun in that many things. I usually reserve a small part of myself, for whatever reason, and fun is something I seldom embrace wholeheartedly. But fun is to be had left, right and centre in Vic Falls. I wouldn't dream of doing the bungee jump alone – it just doesn't seem like all that great a solo project. But I did sign up for activities for the entire day.

My lodge, Fawlty Towers, offered its own game drives, so I went on one at the crack of dawn, joining a pair of Australian primary school teachers who were volunteering in town. We drove up towards Victoria Falls, turning off into Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. I hadn't bothered with this park before, as in 2001, I'd just come from Namibia's Etosha and Botswana's Chobe, and in 2005, I'd just lived in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park all summer. We'd had baboons in the yard and warthogs on the carport. But I like animals as much as everyone else and I wanted to see a few while I was in Africa.

My expectations were low, so I was surprised that we saw elephants, buffalo, warthogs, giraffes, and zebra as well as various types of antelope. We didn't see much more of the hippos than a little bit of the top of one poking his head out of the water to take a look, but we heard some.

And when we left the park to go back on the main road to town, our driver asked what seemed to be a strange question.

"Do you want to see the rhino?"

The Aussies and I were confused. When we'd booked our trips, we'd been told that the way to see the rhino was to go on the walking – not driving – safari. I'd stuck with driving, because I’m lazy and hate being sunburnt. Plus, I had a lot going on today and I'd seen rhino before.

But none of us had expected or planned to see the rhino. It wasn't a zoo. Could he just stop and show us rhino?

As it turned out, yes. That's sort of how it works since the one free-roaming rhino in Zambia is under 24-hour armed guard since poachers shot his mate for its horn. He's never out of sight of one of several naturalists who happen to know how to use semi-automatic weapons.

As my friend Edward said in his brilliant and hilarious PerceptiveTravel.com piece – he'll never win – "One wishes there were an open market on asshole noses."

Zambia has purchased more young rhino since the poor single bull was left alone. But the others aren't even allowed out of the house yet.

The bull was just sleeping when we saw him. Snoozeroceros.

Then it was back to the lodge to await pick-up for my next activity.

Next! Time for my helicopter ride over Victoria Falls.

A white van showed up to drive me right back to where I'd been this morning, near the national park. We picked up other passengers en route. I couldn't help but notice that everyone else was staying at swankier digs than I was. Helicopter rides don't come cheap, and not so many backpackers have the budget for viewing the Falls from above.

We got a quick safety briefing next to the video editor, then we were whisked out to the helicopter, and just as I thought "Maybe I should have tried to fly on the ultra-light instead," we were ushered in, told to put on headphones, and up we went. 

Hey, what's that up ahead?

Well, that's just amazing.

I never understood before how the Falls worked or where I was actually rafting. I often have trouble answering the question "Was it worth it?"

Not this time.

Yes. The helicopter ride over Victoria Falls is totally worth the price of admission.

But I wasn't done yet. Now it was time to walk with lions.

This sounded completely weird. Walk with... lions? What? Don't lions know how to walk themselves? Can this be ethical? Safe? Aren't lions endangered?

So here's the deal... these aren't wild lions. They are little tame lions, and the point is to get them to behave in some wild lion-like ways. These lions will NEVER be released into the wild.

So how, then, are these lions helping make more lions in the wild?

They're released into a private reserve. Their descendants don't grow up being shown how to behave by humans – they are trained by their own prides. Those are the lions that get released. Not the little lions we walk with.

And as I was sitting there in Fawlty Towers, reading about my upcoming lion walk – no, that's not true. I was on a horrible Skype connection yelling at some poor call-centre guy about how my credit card had once again been blocked because I'd just used it to buy an Livingstone-to-Namibia bus ticket online.

And in walked Scott.

"Are you the person I'm looking for?"


Scott is the writer I'd been emailing about the route through Congo. He'd gone though about three weeks before me, and we'd realised (by email) that we would both be in Livingstone on the same night – him heading north to the TAZARA train, me heading south on my way to Cape Town. We arranged to meet up for Indian food later – which turned out to be great as we'd both lived in the Gulf and he was heading to NYC after his long journey around Africa ended.

And then I went to see the lions.

Which was very cool, but not quite as easily cool as the helicopter journey. I worried that the lions might not really need or want tourists walking them around, but then the project seemed sound. Some operators discourage their tourists from going on the walks, because they think: "These lions will never be released into the wild."

But no one had said they would be released into the wild. But could the people who were opposed to the walks be onto something?

Seemed more like a reaction due to not getting all the facts first, but I'm not an expert on lions. So... in the grand scheme of weighing everything on a case-by-case basis, this seemed all right. But there was room for error.

The little lions were awfully cute.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

Check out the current issue of Wanderlust magazine for more information on Victoria Falls: how, when and where to go.

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