Technically I live in Africa. But when people hear Africa they think of savannah and lions. That is if they know their stuff. Some still ask me whether I see tigers on my way to work. No, I don’t, because the only tigers there are in Africa are in a zoo. Cape Town is different altogether. No, still no tigers on the streets, but no lions either. While yes, technically it is Africa, it also isn’t. I don’t shoot my dinner, I get it chopped and packed from Woolworth’s, the only people with tribal face paint are the ones going to trance parties, and I don’t get my hair washed by handsome strangers in the wild, I go to a salon and the guy doing the washing would qualify as a hipster even in Portland. So yes, Cape Town is pretty far off from the romantic notion of Outside of Africa; usually that is alright by me, but sometimes I do feel like I want a bit more wilderness.

greenpop africa

Just when I had one of these notions a trip to Livingstone in Zambia with Greenpop came along. I had never done a volunteer holiday. While I understand the reasons and logistics behind it, the notion of paying to work always seemed a bit odd to me. But as I have previously written Greenpop is different for me and I didn’t mind to fork out some money from the holiday fund to get my hands dirty on their behalf.

Founded by my friends and eco entrepreneurs Misha, Lauren, and Jeremey, Greenpop wants to re-green sub-Saharan Africa with the motto Planting trees, changing minds. Planting and education sessions at schools mix with green events and activism that bring together work and play to make the world a little greener. Zambia was going to be their first destination outside of South Africa as it is not only a very poor but also makes the top 10 of deforested countries in the world due to charcoal burning. The mission was to implement education programs about the benefits of trees, tree planting sessions on farms, schools, and villages as well as creating more sustainable jobs opportunities for charcoal burners.

I was intrigued, because Zambia also sounded like proper Africa, wild and romantic – after all Livingstone is named after David Livingstone one of the most famous Africa explorers of the Victorian era. I was also to give early morning yoga session next to the Zambezi and that sounded awesome.

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The trip started with a flight in a tiny propeller machine and the immigration at Livingstone airport. My Dollars were too old and wouldn’t be accepted, but I could go into the lobby which had an ATM I could draw money from. While I had to leave my passport with the friendly immigration officer, I did have to chuckle at the fact that I had never been allowed in a country before without a valid visa, not even to get money to obtain such visa. Welcome! I already liked it here. With money the visa followed and I was out. We were collected by a large overland vehicle that screamed adventure and well, in our case party truck, as it was decorated with colourful bunting inside and the name would be become true in no time.

greenpop africa

On the way to our campside we had to stop because a parade of elephants wanted to cross the road. As they do. Not that we minded, because usually people pay a lot of money to see elephants that close. Upon arrival at the Maramba River Lodge we were shown to our tents and then got a safety briefing. I thought said safety briefing would entail how to fight off snakes, scorpions and maybe a crocodile, considering how close we were to the river. But no, the only thing you really need to fear in Zambia are hippos. That decided it – there would be no late night bathroom visits in the dark for me.

tent life

Before this even became an issue we were off to our first adventure: Victoria Falls by night to see the monthly phenomenon of lunar rainbows. Of course we would return to get drenched again during daylight, but I highly recommend aligning a visit with full moon if you have the chance; a lunar rainbow is really something out of another world. While you are there don’t try to save money by not getting a waterproof poncho, the spray is unavoidable and you will get properly wet when it hits you.

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The next days it was all about the trees, after all that was what we came for. Fresh from the nursery which is run by a former charcoal burner we had baby trees that were taller than me, faidherbia albidas, the magic trees, and some tough little thorny trees. There were leafy trees and painted trees, trees on the bus, trees on my lap, trees in the ground. Mr. Shorty & Mr. Tall tree and their neighbour the honourable Mr. Annika Bran tree – every tree got a name. Tree stories were followed by tree songs and skits from the school kids, often funny, always smart, and sometimes a little bit sad.

greenpop africa

Tree planting can be hard work, nothing like planting little balcony flowers you thought were a sure sign of a green thumb. Especially when the soil is rock hard and you need an iron rod instead of a shovel. Luckily we had the help of an entire village and its chief and so we planted 800 trees in one day. Regardless of how hard the soil and thus the work, tree planting makes happy. So does making new friends, you know the ones that immediately feel like old friends.  Kids taught us their dance moves and one boy declared “I’m the handsome one in the class” only to be met by roaring laughter from his classmates and us who had to join in. I met Philippa, a lady from the village, who went mulching with me and called me her daughter, because that’s what you call somebody whom you like here. You also share a meal of Nshima, the staple maize meal of Zambia, and I discovered that sharing food makes everything taste better and so does eating with your hands. We danced with uncle Benge who draws the best warthog cartoon ever and Kebby who has planted 9 million trees in his life. We learned that also elephants love bananas and thus you shouldn’t plant banana trees where they could get in their way. This is Africa so of course there was always a soccer ball around to be kicked, songs, and laughter while we gave the little trees a new home.

farm life

On the weekend our hard work was rewarded with more animal encounters and luckily it wasn’t a hippo in the bathroom. After hearing a talk from David Youldon, who is like Crocodile Dundee but with lions, we got to spend an afternoon at Alert, a lion encounter and rehabilitation facility he founded.  Upon arrival we were each handed a small(!) wooden stick and were seated for a lesson in lion etiquette. First we learned that no, the stick was not for hitting the lioness we were going to meet should she come too close. The stick should be tapped on the ground and we were supposed to tell her NO! with a firm voice should she come towards us with a naughty look in her eyes. How exactly a naughty look looks on a lioness they didn’t explain so we set off a tiny bit nervous, nevertheless clutching our sticks tightly.

lions playing

The encounter that followed is best described in a picture, because I cannot even begin to tell you how amazing, frightening, and incredibly powerful it feels to be in such close proximity to a grown lioness, not to mention the fact that I was sitting between two of them.

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What came after was even more incredible as another pair of girlfriends had just killed a buffalo and we were allowed to watch their feast. Next to us stood a guard with a rifle and watched. Was it loaded with sharp ammunition I asked him; no, just tranquilizers in case of an elephant getting too close.  I was kind of glad none showed up and also that I didn’t meet hippo in the bathroom. I was happy enough to see one from the distance that night, G&T in hand, when we were cruising on the Zambezi – the best of two worlds.

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If you want to encounter lions, learn how to dance Zambian style or just plant a whole lot of trees, contact Greenpop for their upcoming Zambia trip June 15th to July 7th.

All images by me and Greenpop