Our Southern African Adventure, Part 11: Zimbabwe – Hwange & Matapo

Victoria Falls now behind us, we were headed back south towards South Africa. With only another day and a half in Zimbabwe, it felt like the end of our trip was quickly approaching. Happily, one of my favorite experiences of our time in Africa was yet to come.

Day 24 (continued)

Driving down towards Hwange we were routinely stopped at Zimbabwean police checks. Freedom of movement, without proper documentation, in Zimbabwe seems to be unheard of. Nearly every twenty kilometers or so there was another checkpoint that we had to be processed through. At some of these points we’d have to all get out of the truck and tap our shoes in buckets full of what I assumed to be moist disinfecting towelettes before getting back in.

By 2PM we were at our next campsite. Our camp was on the edge of a resort within Hwange, and it came complete with its own man-made waterholes filled by pipes to attract animals. Elephants and baboons seemingly took turns at the waterholes. To pass the time the group of us spent the afternoon at the resort’s pool while the animals wandered around in the distance.

Elephants drinking from the resort's waterhole
Elephants drinking from the resort’s waterhole

Later that afternoon, as the sun was preparing to set, we hopped into a pair of 4X4s for a game drive. As usual we saw huge herds of elephants, some of which were taking mud baths. Additionally we watched as two others fought, using their tusks and trunks, over prime positioning to drink directly from the waterhole’s pump.

To elephants fight for prime positioning
Two elephants fight for prime positioning

Moving on from the elephants and the false waterholes, we encountered a group of giraffes walking down the road, baboons playing on power lines, kudu grazing in the forests, and warthogs running in the distance. Unfortunately, as the sun disappeared from the sky, the only lights we had on the car were its headlamps. We were unable see into the tree line or across the plain. The lack of a spotlight similar to what we had in the Namibian desert camp was disappointing. It was almost as if we were just expecting animals to leap out in front of the 4X4.

A giraffe walks down the road
A giraffe walks down the road

What was amazing though was that, after we returned to camp and were preparing for bed, we discovered what an elephant sounds like. Initially, the elephant in question’s growls sounded to us like a lion’s very unhappy roar, but as time passed we realized that what we were actually listening to was a young elephant squealing in discontent.

Day 25

Leaving Hwange behind we went to set our sights on Bulawayo – the second largest city in Zimbabwe and a former industrial empire. We arrived in the city around noon but certainly did not stay long. The outer city was quite alright, and despite a number of abandoned houses the area was really pretty thanks to a significant number of tree lined streets.

The inner city though made us all really uncomfortable. It reminded me a bit of Myanmar’s capital, Yangon – dirty, polluted, in disarray, overcrowded with no room to move, street vendors jostling for position, and many crumbling buildings. The supermarket we went to get snacks from for the next few days was completely unsanitary by western standards. Fruit was rotten and few products were recognizable. Those things that we knew were covered in dust and grime. The only comfort came from the familiar sounds of Taylor Swift’s voice blaring from speakers overhead.

Not wanting to stick around we left town quicker than planned, and without a toilet break. Our next destination was 40 kilometers outside of Bulawayo – at Big Cave Camp. By the time we made it to camp, the air was surprisingly cold for Zimbabwe, and several people opted out of sleeping in the tents and rented cabins for the evening.

Our guide for the afternoon, a white Zimbabwean named Ian Harmer of African Wanderer, came by camp to pick us up and bring us to Matapo National Park. He himself was shocked by the cold as it had supposedly been quite hot only a day before. Like us, he was ill-prepared for the weather as he stepped out in shorts. Ian is a rhino tracker and today we were going to see if we could get up close and personal with some of Matopo’s rhinos. The game plan was to drive around the park looking for a spot likely to have rhinos, then get out and track them on foot.

Driving to the park was a hideous experience. Ian’s 4X4 had no windows for us to draw up and prevent the icy cold breeze from hitting us square in the face. To avoid the wind the group of us spent the time driving to the park trying to stay as close to the car floor as possible.

Arriving was quite the relief as we slowed down and the heat was allowed to return to our faces. After conversing with the park staff about rhino movement, we were driven to one area of the park where we then got out and attempted to follow foot prints and animal feces in the search of the rhinos.

Ian was a great teacher and we learned all sorts of amazing things about rhinos and the local wildlife. For example, we could tell if we were tracking a black or a white rhino based on its poop. If a turd was full of grass the rhino that made it was a white rhino, if it was full of twigs and leaves the offender was a black rhino. If the feces contained both twigs and grass, its creator was an elephant. As well, black and white rhinos are also not distinguished based on color. The name for the white rhino is thought to have been derived from a mistranslation of the Dutch word “wijd”, meaning “wide” in English. Wijd was meant to refer to the width of the white rhino’s mouth. English-speaking settlers then misinterpreted wijd as white. In turn the rhino with a narrow mouth was called a black rhino.

Rich in the "bait" seat
Rich in the “bait” seat

After unsuccessfully following rhino tracks in the first section of the park for about 15 minutes, we got back into the 4X4, me clamouring into the “bait seat” – a folding chair on top of the car’s hood. Despite not being the driver, I felt oddly powerful in this spot, as if I was leading the charge into the great unknown. The change of perspective too was bizarre. In a car or a truck, we get so used to looking out from behind a windscreen and past the hood of the car that moving around with nothing blocking the view was really fun.

The rhinos walking off and away from us
The rhinos walking off and away from us

Heading down along a road in another section of the park, the magic happened. On our right we noticed a trio of rhinos moving parallel to the road – 2 females and a male. Getting out of the 4X4, we crossed into the bush and began to follow the rhinos on foot, getting within 25-30 meters. I was absolutely floored by what we were seeing. The rhinos were incredible, enormous and very powerful looking. They all had number markings on their backs and their horns had been removed to the stump – to make them less attractive to poaching. This was the closest I had ever anticipated coming to a rhino – even those confined to glass cages. Despite their not having horns they were incredibly imposing and I didn’t know that I wanted to get much closer to them, lest we annoy them and they come charging after us.

Walking quickly behind them as they continued to stride along, Ian told us that we had to stop and fall back. It appeared that we weren’t welcome here. The male rhino in particular did not seem all that pleased to have the group of us following them around and sprayed urine about as if to mark his territory.

Even as the rest of us oohed and ahhed over what we were witnessing, Ian seemed rather irritated. He had been hoping to get within a few meters of the rhinos, making twenty-five meters terribly unacceptable. Herding us back into the 4X4, we drove off again, in search of higher ground from where to better spot rhinos in the distance.

Climbing to the top of a hill and onto a mound of rocks, Ian began scanning for rhinos in every which direction – the rest of us perplexedly looking about, attempting to spot any large grey masses that might not be a rock. Ian, unlike the rest of us seemed to have the eyes of a hawk and with the help of his handy dandy super binoculars spotted a group of six rhinos in a distant clearing. We all took turns trying to spot these rhinos, but the most I could see was a few tiny specs. However, I was assured that the animals I was seeing were merely wildebeests roaming about.

At the top of a hill searching the landscape for rhinos
At the top of a hill scouring the surrounding landscape for rhinos

Being hurried down the hill, Ian took off forcing the rest of us into a slow jog to keep up with him. Leading us in what felt like circles we desperately searched for the rhinos. Unfortunately it seemed like the rhinos had already sensed our presence and moved on because when we finally turned to go back to the 4X4, Ian found new tracks in the dirt and a fresh white rhino turd – likely deposited a mere forty-five minutes earlier. It appeared that they had circumvented us.

We spent the rest of the ride back to camp once again hiding between seats, with Ian profusely apologizing to us for not getting us “close” to a rhino. This sentiment astonished most of us, as none could truly believe our luck at having gotten within a pool’s length of three rhinos!

Sitting around a campfire that had been built in our absence, Ian joined us for dinner to regale us with tales of rhinos, and discuss the animal’s past and future. Though I probably should have expected that he’d be highly knowledgeable on the subject given his career choice, I was flabbergasted by just how much he seemed to know about and relate to rhinos.

According to Ian, rhino horns sell for up to US$100,000 per kilogram or nearly US$1,000,000 per horn, making their trade highly attractive and profitable. However, as we saw with the three rhinos in the park, you don’t have to kill a rhino to get its horn. The removal of the horn isn’t even as terrible for the rhino’s wellbeing as would be to strip an elephant of its tusks. An elephant’s tusk contains nerves making it very similar to human teeth, can’t be regrown, and is hugely painful for the elephant to remove. A rhino’s horn however is made keratin which is comparable to finger nails and hair – they lack nerve endings and like our nails, they regrow if cut off. Having a horn that regrows makes the killing of rhinos a complete nonsensical waste. Why kill the animal to take its horn when you can remove the horn without causing it significant harm, and by keeping it alive you can harvest another US$1,000,000 horn from the same rhino within a few years?

Ian’s belief is that if the trade of rhino horn was legalized we could actually save the rhino from extinction, rather than speed up the process as most politicians claim. If trade was allowed, reserves and private individuals would feel incentivized to protect and keep rhinos alive as they would be able to harvest their horns every few years and make a substantial profit. As it stands now, there is minimal incentive to protect rhinos, as there is no money in it. Those few that do patrol parks to keep poachers out often find themselves in gun battles with said poachers. Additionally, the legalization of the rhino horn trade would potentially push down prices for the product, making illegal poaching less attractive.

As well, according to Ian, the South African government is currently sitting on a 20-30 year supply of rhino horn. We wouldn’t even need to remove horns from living rhinos in order to flood the market.

To be honest, I understand that governments want to look like they are condemning the poaching of rhinos by keeping the trade illegal, but I think that Ian has a fair point. Even the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) thinks that the legalization of elephant ivory is a good idea. So why not rhino? Of course, I’m not saying that these opinions are correct, but rather that it might be an interesting alternative to many of the conservation laws already in place.

How about that? A close encounter with rhinos for an adventure and some serious food for thought to help wind down our trip. Amazing.

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