Modern Day Rhino Story

Day 704 – 2 February, 2017

One thing you should know about land travel in Zimbabwe is that the police sure do love roadblocks. Besides the standard elephant crossings, which continued all the way back to South Africa, we were frequently stopped by police. Our guide had warned us this was a ubiquitous practice in his country and requested our patience while he navigated the widely-accepted corruption on our way. It is common knowledge that the intention of the roadblocks is to shakedown the public and to elicit bribes for the massively under-funded law enforcement. Our monster safari truck full of western tourists was no exception and no doubt police payoffs are factored into the price of a safari in Zimbabwe. Usually the police would issue a citation for something benign and require a fine to be paid on the scene before returning the driver’s license. All of our stops were taken in stride, money exchanged and went off without incident, but this isn’t always the case. The country’s citizens completely lack respect for the police as a result and would often drive away from roadblocks rather than stopping and playing through the charade. To stop people from driving away, the police set up spikes in the road and the escalation of tension continues with aggressive fighting and sometimes violence.

By the time we arrived to Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, we were ready to stretch our legs. Our truck parked in town so we could patronize the supermarket and stock up on supplies. I needed insect repellent, which was surprisingly difficult to find in a country boasting a high statistic of malaria. After checking a few stores with no luck, my guide escorted me to a pharmacy a few blocks away. They had the South African brand, Peaceful Sleep, in a small roll-on stick displayed behind a glass case so that we had to engage the sales clerk in order to retrieve it. The woman spoke English, as does most everyone in Zimbabwe, but she spoke to my guide in her local language while she retrieved the roll-on stick and presented it to me as if she was displaying fine jewels. They exchanged a few words and then my dejected guide muttered a quiet apology to me as the woman proudly announced a $5 price tag. I paid it as she wrapped up the stick in double plastic bags and bid us good day. I can only speculate that we were on the losing end of an insect repellent price negotiation. On our walk back toward the truck, my guide repeatedly assured me that I had overpaid just in case clarification was still necessary.

We were staying at a boutique hotel in Bulawayo, rather than camping. The rooms were relatively modern and set around a garden courtyard. It had an inviting swimming pool to cool off from the humid climate. The plan was to visit Matobo National Park, a short drive to the south. Named for the Matobo Hills, stacked granite rock outcroppings, the park has earned UNESCO status for its large protected area of breeding rhinoceros. We were 100% guaranteed the opportunity to walk with rhinos.

One of the great debates in Southern Africa of modern times is about legalizing the sale of rhino horn. Rhino horn is made of keratin, essentially the same material as found in fingernails and hair. If cut, it will regenerate in some period of time so is potentially a renewable resource. Unfortunately, it’s far easier and more lucrative for poachers to kill a rhinoceros and take the horn illegally. Opponents of legalization would like to eradicate the demand for rhino horn, most of which originates in China, Vietnam, and other southeast Asian countries. They believe that the only way to save the rhino is to impose stiff penalties of fines, jail, and/or death for the poachers responsible. If rhino horn were legalized and harvested in a safe and humane manner, then it would become more difficult to distinguish the difference between legal and illegal rhino horn.

Proponents of legalization acknowledge the fact that the demand is likely to never go away. Rhino horn has been used in traditional medicine as a treatment for anything from cancer to erectile dysfunction since the dawn of time and trying to convince billions of people that they might as well consume their own fingernails is a losing battle. Proponents argue that flooding the market with legal rhino horn will actually bring down the cost and poaching will become a less lucrative business. Rhino farms already exist in several countries, but no decision has been reached on whether rhino horn can yet be sold legally.

In Botswana and Zimbabwe, anti-poaching units are authorized to shoot-to-kill if a suspected poacher is spotted within a national park. In South Africa and Namibia, the business is far more dangerous because an anti-poaching unit can only shoot if they have been fired upon first, which is rarely the position a park ranger wants to find themselves in. I arrived in Africa as a strong opponent to legalization of rhino horn, but after meeting Rudy and Marlice Van Vuuren in Namibia and our Matobo guide in Zimbabwe (all conservationists and passionate proponents of legalization), I see the merits of this position. Much of what I knew about conservation came from reading western publications and literature paid for by US or UK-backed organizations. While I do believe that these organizations mean well, I no longer believe it’s helpful for someone sitting in a tiny office in New York City to decide what’s best for a national park in Zimbabwe. The opinions and the experience of those working with the animals on the ground are definitely valuable and should be the basis for the ongoing battle to save endangered species. Westerners don’t always know what’s best.

Matobo National Park can guarantee rhino sightings because, for 24 hours a day, every rhino in the park is followed by an armed guard. We only had to call a ranger on the radio, obtain their position, and off we went for our chance to walk with one of the most endangered species on the planet. The jeep was equipped with a jump seat in the front of the hood and Emil rode first, taking in the scenery without the encumbrance of doors or a roof. Our first stop was an adult female and a young calf, who were a little skittish of our large group, not allowing us to get very close. Never fear, we called a second ranger for their position. During my turn to ride in the jump seat, of course, the rain poured down in sheets and I acted as windshield for the rest of the passengers. But it was fantastic to see the park from this perspective in spite of the rain dripping from my nose. For the second stop, we parked on the dirt road and had to walk quite a distance through scrub brush and thorns, keeping an eye out for snakes. Our guide was tall and lean with leathery tan skin. He wore shorts and sports sandals and chain-smoked the whole day, not the least bit bothered when a two-inch long thorn stabbed him in the leg.

When we finally reached our new family of rhinos, there were approximately 4 adults, peacefully grazing. Now we could finally get a good look. All of their horns had been carefully removed so as to deter poachers and without them, they looked like prehistoric cows. They weren’t bothered by us at all and if anything, seemed relaxed when they recognized our guide as a friend. I had the same excited feeling as the day when I ran with the cheetah at N/a’an ku se, knowing this was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity and reinforcing my drive to want to protect such majestic creatures.

We then climbed one of the Matobo Hills to see if we could garner the position of even a third group, which we eventually spotted near the park entrance. Our time in the park was drawing to a close when the sun was dropping low in the sky and the location of these rhinos, so close to the road, worried our guide as he called for backup for their protection in the dark.

Matobo was a highlight on a tour full of other highlights so I was personally a little burnt out by the time we reached the Great Zimbabwe Ruins the next day. I recognize that it was of political significance during medieval times, that it was originally constructed by the native Shona people, and that the buildings fell into disuse in the 15th century after trade declined and environmental changes made the area less desirable. Beyond that, I found it difficult to pay attention to our soft-spoken guide in the arid heat. Nevertheless, these ruins are by far the largest of their kind anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. For a region of the world not often associated with ruins, I was impressed.

As our journey was drawing to a close, we would spend our last night in Tshipse, South Africa. Of course, this meant that we would have to cross one more land border. This one could take anywhere from one to eight hours because of the large volume of commercial shipping between South Africa and Zimbabwe and the high level of potential bribery negotiations that might take place. As luck would have it, we were not intensely inspected and it took us only one hour to pass immigration. We were left with a good chunk of time to enjoy the manmade hot springs at our new camp ground.

Liz decided to splurge on a brick and mortar room for her last night and was kind of enough to invite me to share. The grounds were packed full with holidaying drunken South Africans, enjoying the pools of varying temperatures. A family of mongoose pilfered grubs and lizards from the lawn surrounding the cottages and our final evening’s braii (a South African bbq) went well into the wee hours of the morning. I had one more adventure left in me to go to Kruger National Park for a few days before I left the continent, but meanwhile, I reflected on all of the amazing experiences in Africa over the previous 4 months and was already scheming on a chance to return.

The Kalahari

Day 694 – 23 January, 2017

One of the most obscene wastings of food I have ever witnessed occurred on the border between South Africa and Botswana. Earlier that morning I left from a lovely boutique hotel in northern Johannesburg on a Nomad Africa camping safari with 14 others, including Tomas from Chicago, Liz the American living in Istanbul, Emil and Elin from Sweden, Michael and Julia from Australia, 4 Brazilians, a mother and son duo from Belgium, John from Australia, and Paola from Holland.

The truck was almost identical to the one that we had used in Kenya and Uganda three months earlier. Our guide was Amen, Doc was our driver, and Clever was our cook. They were all natives of either Zimbabwe or Zambia and worked really well as a team, hilarious and great fun all around. Our very first day we would be crossing the border to Botswana so we stopped at a supermarket just before the border to gather some supplies, including all of the food that we would need for the next several days of camping – fresh produce like oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, and onions and animal items like chicken, eggs, and milk. In addition, the passengers were also encouraged to buy any alcoholic beverages that we wished and other personal snack items. In hindsight, it’s kind of funny how much we bought personally, as if we would never see another supermarket. I think it was about three days until we stopped again.

Before leaving the parking lot, Amen warned us that we would have to hide everything for fear that it would be confiscated at the border. He told us that Botswana imports almost all of their produce from South Africa; however, it can only come in with a permit which he did not have. They stashed all of our alcohol, fruit, and a couple of other produce items in a bin in the far back of the truck. He said that they rarely looked that hard and we should be fine. I was about to get my first real introduction into African politics.

Our passports stamped, the only thing preventing us from continuing our journey was a luggage inspection. Amen opened up the storage compartments and immediately the officials began taking all of our produce – the items that weren’t hidden away – and throwing them in a bin. Most of the conversation happened in the local language and we only observed from inside the truck, but from what we could gather, the list of restricted goods had recently changed and now there were several new items that were not permitted. Our stowed goods were not noticed and were left alone. From the safety of the truck, we surmised that the officials just wanted to take our food home to their families or else were expecting a bribe. Either way would be a benefit to their cause. But with 15 foreigners on the truck and about 5 officials gathering at the spectacle, there were too many people to bribe and there was nothing left to do but to ruin the lot of it. They took all of our meat, eggs, produce and bread and proceeded to pour the milk all over it in a large plastic bin. I still kind of hope someone went through it and was able to salvage some edible items, but it wasn’t us. We were sent on our way without proper food, although there was enough alcohol for a small army that we secretly got to keep.

Luckily edible leaves were plenty so we would not starve even though our food was confiscated. Also, this photo demonstrates that I was at the stage of travel where I never looked in a mirror.
As I write this now, I googled the allowable produce because I couldn’t remember the details of what was taken. The government site for Botswana does indicate that the list changes frequently because of current disease outbreaks, but it also indicates an allowable amount per person that far exceeds what we could possibly have had in rations. This is Africa, folks, warts and all.

Our first day was a driving day to our destination near Kang, Botswana. We set up camp behind a petrol station and ate in the restaurant attached to it. It was our first opportunity to get to know each other without the noise on the truck. We organically and loosely separated into two smaller groups – the Americans, the Swedes, and the Aussies in one group with the Brazilians, the Belgians, and Paola in the other. This was somewhat based on age demographic and ability to speak English, whereas John the jokester kind of bridged the gap between both groups with his tiresome rhetoric. Only some of us were camping while a few were staying in accommodated rooms, which further served to join us or separate us in a different way.

Tomas, originally from Mexico, was currently living in Chicago and it had been ages since I had met someone from my hometown so he and Liz and I became good friends. Liz had been teaching English in various places, but most recently had been teaching and living in Istanbul where she met and married her Turkish husband. Elin and Emil, traveling together as friends just before he was on his way to study in Australia, were dubbed the Swedish Mafia for a reason that I can’t recall. And Julia and Michael were newly dating and were both very photogenic.

Elin and Emil – obviously Elin is thinking about the fact that we have no food
Tomas, Liz, and I
Julia and Michael
The following day we continued driving deeper into the Kalahari Desert until we reached a remote camp. The threat of rain was imminent so we rushed to set up camp when we arrived. Liz and I had placed our rain cover and were prepared by the time the rains came. The other campers were falsely confident and had to run to take care of it at the last minute. A storm in the desert comes in with violence and anger and departs just as abruptly with a whisper. The sun returned.

We went for a bush walk with a traditional Kalahari bushman, who showed us signs of tracks and scat and how they identify the species. He showed us plants that are edible and those used for healing. He showed us how to hunt with poison arrows and how to make a fire. He even showed us a juicy green caterpillar that is considered a delicacy in the Kalahari diet. And he did all this while wearing animal skin briefs and carrying a jackal satchel for his bow and arrows. It was a bit put on for our benefit – many of the Kalahari bushmen no longer wear this costume, favoring instead western-type clothing. And many of them now supplement their diet with supermarket goods, but some hearty souls are trying to keep the traditions alive.

After it had grown dark, we were to meet at the main lodge where our accommodated friends were staying so we could walk to a fire dance ceremony together. It was pitch black and we brought our head torches for guidance. The dance was incredible to watch. Approximately twenty men and women danced to songs played on reed or wooden instruments, songs with names like “The Hunt” and “Rain.” They would slowly move in a circle and then it would increase in speed, but their movements were generally always the same. At some point, we became aware that Paola was there and she was NOT happy. Apparently, she had been left behind at the lodge and had to struggle to find her way in the dark to the bonfire. She was not only angry with her guides, but also with every one of us, and she was not shy about letting us know. She refused to speak to any of us for the next couple of days. In truth, I felt bad for her. She didn’t speak English well and she was trying to navigate between lots of different accents. We tried to apologize, yet she was having none of it.

John, who was never to be taken seriously, had a joke about everything. It was charming at first, although it became clear that he needed a purpose so we assigned him to watch out for Paola to make sure she wasn’t to get lost again. We were also hoping it would help him stick to our time schedule. When we were intended to depart at 7:00am, for example, knowing that we would have an 8 hour drive (or more!) ahead of us and the rest of us were ready and sitting in the truck, John would casually stroll up several minutes late and tell us he had forgotten his hat or his book and needed to go back to get it. It was beginning to feel like we were herding cats – wet and wild desert cats, but cats nevertheless.

I’m pretty sure this is me examining some poo and trying to identify the wildlife. Photo by Liz

Kingdom in the Sky

Day 690 – 19 January, 2017

Beginning my third leg of the Baz Bus transfer, from Durban to Johannesburg, I would pass the Drakensberg Range of the Great Escarpment. I skipped the southern region, secretly giving myself a reason to return in the future, and went directly to the Northern Drakensberg from where I could see Tugela Falls and enter Lesotho from the northern border.

I rejoined with Judith, whom I had met in Coffee Bay, on this leg and we were dropped off at the renowned Amphitheatre Backpackers Hostel in the middle of nowhere. I was expecting to be in the mountains, but instead we were in a wide open prairie with the mountains just cresting the horizon. The hostel was nice enough with a fully stocked bar, swimming pool, wifi (for a fee, of course), a communal kitchen, and a dining room offering a 3 course meal every evening (never mind if you didn’t want to eat or pay for 3 courses – it was the only food available for miles). The dorm rooms were cramped and dark for 6 people, but each had a private bath and was more than adequate.

Judith and I took a short walk around the property, but the trail was overgrown and buggy and didn’t appear to be taking us anywhere special. Judith was not a fan and begged to turn around; no arguments from me. Aside from the tall grass, the surrounding area was so flat and bare that we could still see our hostel complex several hundred meters back the way we had come. We both were expecting mountains.

Since there was not much activity to be had on the property, Judith and I signed on to do a trek to Tugela Falls with several other guests from Amphitheatre. Tugela Falls is widely accepted as the second tallest waterfall in the world at almost 1km from top to bottom. At times, it is even considered the tallest anywhere, but it all depends how you choose to measure. Because I lost the ability to be easily impressed by waterfalls quite some time ago, I had to see this monster for myself.

We drove to Royal Natal National Park and parked a hop, skip, and a mountain behind the falls. We couldn’t see them, but we could see the massive plateau that we would need to climb up and over. The work ahead of us was clear. We were just on the edge of the escarpment so the landscape consisted mostly of undulating green mountains and the parking lot was already higher than most of them.

The trail switch backed in a relatively easy ascent toward the plateau. When the rise became too steep to continue on a trail, we scrambled straight up over boulders that seemed to be stacked just for this purpose. Some of the trekkers were completely beat up by the scrambling. No doubt it was tough, yet it was mostly shaded on an otherwise exposed heap of rock and I felt rejuvenated (and sweaty) at having reached the summit. It was the perfect place for a rest with a view and nearly everyone collapsed on the rim before digging in to their egg and cheese packed lunch.

After sustenance, the remaining walk to the top of the waterfall was relatively flat. A moderately flowing river disappeared over the edge, dropping all the way down 948 meters. And that was it. Approaching Tugela Falls from the top, it was almost impossible to grasp the scale until you looked over the edge. There were three pools at the top, just before the ice water cascaded down the rock face. Let me tell you how exhilarating it is to take a dip in a pool with water that ultimately plummets off a cliff 1 km below you. It’s kind of one of those things that you just have to do…

For the return trip, we made a wide loop on the plateau to descend on two narrow chain ladders. For someone with an aversion to heights, they would be a little scary, but I thought it was fun. The wind started whipping up to add even more excitement to the climb; the chain ladders gently rocked from side to side while we waited for our turn. The rest of the way back to the Sentinel Parking Lot was easy except for a bit of water that had pooled on a rather treacherously steep part of the rock that we had to leap over. All in, this was a highly-sought after trek and I felt lucky that I was able to complete it.

The following morning I joined a different group that took us to Lesotho for the day. Lesotho, known as the Kingdom in the Sky, is entirely surrounded by South Africa. About 40% of the population lives on less than $1.50/day and falls well below the international poverty line. It gets its name of Kingdom in the Sky because it’s lowest point, 1400 m, is higher than any other country’s lowest point. It is entirely consumed by mountains, making life here very challenging. Their economy is sourced primarily from agriculture and animal husbandry. Many of the men attempt to work illegally in South Africa for at least part of the year to obtain a higher wage.

Technically, I was on a tour to Lesotho, but mostly we were just on an exploratory adventure with someone who happened to know the area well. It was very informal and all the more rewarding to interact with the local communities. We visited a school that was not in session, but got to meet the teacher and see the kind of projects they were working on. There was a letter laying on the desk, addressed to the government, requesting a birth certificate for a student. We hiked to the top of a lookout, aided by several boys that were curious why we were there. One German girl from our group brought a bag of apples to pass out. The children tore through that bag faster than I’ve seen any American child tear into a bag of candy. They methodically shared with each other to make sure everyone had an apple and to divvy up what was left if there weren’t enough to go around. Some of the boys wore blankets draped around their shoulders which is a status symbol of any that had come of age. The younger ones gave an unambiguous display of respect to the older boys that couldn’t have been more than 10 years old themselves.

The land was untouched and vibrantly green. The air smelled of cow dung, but was otherwise fresh and invigorating. After lunch (that we mostly just gave away to those hungry big brown eyes), we trailed back down to the scattered farmhouses that were meant to make up a village. One house was full of men and a couple of women, who were passing around a communal mug with the same sour unfiltered homemade beer that I had tried in Coffee Bay. The “mug” was the size of your face and out of politeness, we had to finish the mug before we could go. Approximately thirty people sat in this circle as the mug was passed from one person to the next; the local men were happy to take man-size gulps to complete the ritual.  

Lesotho was so far off the beaten path that it was easy to get lost in the romance of this simple life. No one I met in this village seemed sad about what they didn’t have; they were content with what they did have because they didn’t know what they were missing. It was a truly special place with wide smiles and warm hospitality.

On the way back, we passed through immigration at the Lesotho border, located in a dirt lot about halfway up a mountain pass. This was a place where the outhouses were wooden shacks with concrete blocks for toilets. When you shut the door, it was pitch black inside so you had to figure out your aim before closing the door. The hole cut into the concrete block was located in such a way that I had to stand and straddle this crudely cut hole and hope for the best in the dark. I digress….one day earlier, the news had reported that there had been rioting and protests in Chicago during the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The immigration officer in this remote post on the Lesotho/South Africa border noticed I was from Chicago and asked me if I had heard about it. I was thankful that I had no idea what he was talking about. Chicago and the inauguration certainly seemed a million miles away from that concrete block toilet.

My final stretch of the Baz Bus took me to Johannesburg, widely proclaimed as the most dangerous city in the country…in a country that I had been repeatedly warned as being dangerous everywhere I went. I would only be there for one night before I joined a camping safari to Botswana and Zimbabwe the next day. The bus had been good to me, but I was glad to be done. Much of the forward planning required to book reservations in advance had cramped my style.

I was dropped off at Shoestring Hostel right by the airport. I had reservations at a boutique hotel in an upscale neighborhood halfway between Joburg and Pretoria, but the Baz Bus wouldn’t take me there. I was dropped off at this hostel because I planned to stay there in a couple of weeks after my tour so the owner was kind enough to let me use wifi to arrange an Uber. All of my experiences with Uber drivers in South Africa were positive with well-dressed, professional and courteous drivers. It was about 25 mins to my hotel and when I saw it, I was ecstatic.  

It was beautiful, a huge treat for someone who hadn’t stayed in such a nice place in more than three months. I never would have stayed there had it not been for the inconvenient departure location of my tour, but the decision had been made and the money had been spent so I decided to enjoy it by going for a swim in their resort pool. I had also noticed that the neighborhood was gated to include a few other boutique hotels and private homes so I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask….would it be safe if I went for a run here? The owner seemed amused that someone would want to run, but his answer was yes. Yes??? Yes! He advised me just to stay off the horse trails because the riders get mad. And so for my last night before the camping safari, before lighting some candles and taking a shower with legit water pressure, I went for a run alone on quiet suburban streets in the most dangerous country I had visited so far. It just goes to show that even the places with the worst reputation still have safe havens left somewhere.