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.

Thankful for Wet Feet

Day 703 – 1 February, 2017

Swelling black rain clouds hung low over our bush camp in Hwange National Park, yet our new Nomad Africa tour group was claiming seats in an open air jeep bound for a game drive. Liz, Emil, Elin, John, and I were the only remaining members from our original group. We even had a new guide and driver. Now instead of campers being the majority of the group, we were the minority. Our two lonely tents looked rather pathetic with the impending storm looming in the distance.

Our safari jeep had a canvas draped over the top, but the sides were wide open. Almost as soon as we drove out of the camp grounds, the skies opened and dumped buckets of water. Huge rivers of mud flowed on the dirt track. I bowed my head so the water would drip down the hood of my rain jacket instead of pelting me in the face. Unfortunately, there’s not much hope of spying wildlife when you can’t see through the driving rain.

Just when our hope was fading that this would be another disappointing excursion, the rain abruptly stopped and rays of sunlight started illuminating the landscape. The clouds all but disappeared and the sky was blue. Still, the bush was quiet except for a few birds, wildebeest and jackals. The guide demonstrated a traditional gummy plant that was used as an ingredient in soap. Rubbing a small amount of the sticky substance on your hands would elicit a lather and a pleasantly clean scent. Next we came upon a scattering of sun-bleached elephant bones that had clearly been there for years and our guide took this opportunity to get out of the vehicle and talk about elephant anatomy. Meanwhile, the rest of us were anxious to see some live animals.

So far we had been driving at least an hour and were growing a bit bored when straight ahead there was movement directly in the track in front of us. If you blinked you would have missed it, but I didn’t blink. A chill down my spine I knew I had just seen a leopard in the road. Almost as if she was a ghost, she completely disappeared into the undergrowth beneath a tree. Slowly, quietly, we coasted closer until we were directly next to the tree. The thickness of the foliage produced a shadow on the ground, but if you knelt down just far enough you could see she was right there watching us. We were no more than two meters away, separated by brambles and thorns. At first, she seemed nervous that the slightest movement would send her sprinting away, but finally she relaxed as if she was prepared to stay put until we drove away. Knowing she was there and so close, but we could still barely see her was a reminder of how many creatures we probably miss on an average game drive. They are excellent camouflage artists.

Can you see the super close-up of the leopard?

A few minutes later a caravan of more safari jeeps were following us down the track and comically, our guide told us to pretend as if we were looking at birds. The guide driving behind our jeep asked if we saw anything and our guide said, “no, mate, it’s quiet today.” Reluctantly, we drove on, hoping the train of 4 more jeeps would follow us and leave our leopard alone so that we could return and have her all to ourselves. I found this amusing and a little exciting. Guides are usually fraternal and willing to share tips with each other, but in this case, four loads of Chinese tourists would definitely frighten our leopard so we successfully led them away. Nothing to see here!

After driving around in a big arc, we returned to the same spot and even though the beautiful cat was still there, the shadows had grown longer and it was almost impossible to distinguish her spots in the dark. Our safari was drawing to a close so it was time to start the journey back toward camp. Seeing the leopard, even if only for a minute, had reinvigorated our lethargic tour and we were boisterously recounting her dart into the bush and sharing the one or two photos that we had snapped in her brief visibility. I was staring straight ahead, smiling to myself, when I saw them. I would have thought it to be impossible if I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes. What luck!!! A lioness and three tiny cubs casually sauntered in the road. She was carrying one in her mouth and the other two followed closely behind. In contrast to the jittery leopard, this confident lioness stopped, turned to look at us, and calmly continued on her way. We trailed her at a slow pace, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. A group of impala saw her coming and they anxiously kept a fair distance, but she was with her babies; this was not a hunting posture. From my experience on nine safaris so far, I had learned that lions and leopard, in particular, don’t like to stay in the grass after a rain for the uncomfortable sensation of having wet feet so our luck of seeing all these beautiful felines in the road, was quite possibly because of the rain.

For about 200 meters, we watched her. Occasionally, she would stop to set down the cub in her mouth, readjust her grip, and pick it up again. These cubs were young enough that our guide predicted she was bringing them to introduce to the pride for the first time. When lion cubs our born, the lioness will keep them isolated from the rest of the pride until they are old enough to withstand the roughhousing of their cousins, usually about 1-2 months. There was a chance she would lead us directly to the rest of the pride. A rare ritual that our guide confessed he had never witnessed before, we watched our lioness set her cub down for the last time. As if by a telepathic cue, the three cubs darted into the long grass and were gone, while our lioness stood her ground staring down several more lionesses and a few older cubs. There was obvious tension until one of the new females moved toward the grass in the same direction the new cubs had just disappeared. The new mother seemed hopeful, yet ready to defend her cubs if it came to that. This introduction behavior does not always go smoothly. What happened next, we can only guess. All of the lions, big and small, moved into the grass out of view, but we could hear them playfully chuffing and growling a non-threatening greeting. This would be a happy reunion after all.

Back at camp, a few members of our group had heard that a family of giraffe were quietly grazing just outside of the campground perimeter fence. I stayed behind for a shower and a quick rest before dinner so I wasn’t there…but you know how when you’re with the same people for days on end and there’s that one that treads on the line between partially endearing and partially annoying beyond words? Liz had learned a new trick to take close-up photos using her smart phone and binoculars and had reasonable success most of the time. Unfortunately, this once, with her binoculars and phone completely lined up for the perfect photo of a grazing giraffe, John announced, “I have to pee,” and turned to his left to walk away. Thus, John did not pass GO when he leaped right over that theoretical line into gritting teeth and eye rolls for the remainder of the week. The giraffe also does not seem amused.

The Smoke That Thunders

Day 701 – 30 January, 2017

Victoria Falls is one of the great wonders of the natural world. It’s approximately 1700 meters wide and up to 108 meters tall, twice the height and one and half times the width of Niagara Falls. During peak flood season, when up to 10.5 million liters of water flow per second, the massive quantity of water flowing through the falls can cause a spray that looks like a heavy blanket of smoke. Depending on which way the wind blows, it can create weather on either side of the border it spans from Zimbabwe to Zambia.

After a tedious but uneventful border crossing from Botswana and a slow slog through traffic in Zimbabwe, we knew we were approaching Victoria Falls for the thundering mist you could see from miles away. It looked like a rain cloud, swollen with an isolated summer deluge, yet it had a wispy ethereal quality to it that resembled billowing smoke. It wasn’t until our truck was parked and we began walking to the park entrance that we could hear the rumble of millions of liters of water from the Zambezi River, cascading into the Batoka Gorge below.

Forewarned about the spray, we donned various degrees of rain gear. The air was humid and still so the addition of a non-breathable rain jacket and waterproof pants created something of a sauna next to my body, but I was most concerned about my phone (i.e., my camera). I tucked it inside a plastic bag that I reserved just for these occasions and thought, can it really be that bad?

The Zimbabwe side of the falls spans 75% of the full chasm and has 16 different viewpoints. There is a well-maintained path with (some) safety buffers and signage for ominous warnings of impending death, but what I remember most of all is the demonstrable power of that much water. An impala grazed only meters from the waterfalls first viewpoint, a reminder that we were still in wild Africa.

To see the falls up close is nearly indescribable. You can feel it inside you, vibrating from your core all the way to your fingertips. It smelled like rain and was so loud and prepossessing it refused to let you ignore its presence. If a waterfall can have a personality, this one was Beyoncé. I tried to allow my eyes to follow a drop of water from the precipice all the way down and was, in turn, becoming hypnotized by it.

Most of our group stayed together, taking photos, and posing for selfies. It became increasingly obvious that my flimsy plastic bag was no match for the torrents of this waterfall so I would quickly take out my phone, snap some pictures in a full panic, before tucking it back in the bag dripping wet. A few others that were better prepared with waterproof cameras saved the day. By the 16th viewpoint, looking back on the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, Tomas noticed that both his phone and camera were toast. Victoria Falls had taken a couple of casualties, after all.

I love this one.

That night, my Nomad Africa friends shared a fancy dinner at a touristy Vic Falls resort, complete with traditional dancing and a gluttonous buffet. It was times like these that I hated tour groups. This was my third in two years of travel and while it is easy to forget that I’m not like the others when we are all enjoying the sight of an elephant or a thunderous waterfall, I’m harshly reminded about this difference when we are faced with paying more than $25 for a single meal. Perhaps hard to relate for some of my readers, but a backpacker simply does not do that. While I won’t decry the merits of a good meal, $25 for ‘authentic’ tourist food was not part of my budget. If this had been a regular occurrence, this trip would not have been possible, I assure you. I reluctantly went and ordered a la carte because I did enjoy the company of my fellow travelers, and because I knew that soon I would be with backpackers again who would have chastised me for such a gross blowing of resources.

Part of the reason for the overpriced meal compared to other cities in Africa I had visited was because of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. Their currency, the Zimbabwean Dollar, ceased being the official currency in 2009 where now they favor the US dollar. When the Zimbabwe Dollar was first introduced, it was intended to be at par with the USD, but after an ineffective economic strategy, it eventually became one of the lowest valued currencies in the world. By the time the currency was to be demonetized at the end of 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion%. Fathom that for a second… Hawkers would stand on street corners trying to sell $100 trillion bank notes as souvenirs. The absurdity of it was also quite sad.

The following day everyone branched off into different directions. It was our official last day as a group, but it was a free day to further explore the falls. A few people went to Zambia to meet our driver, Doc, and practice boxing with him. Others went bungee jumping or walking with lions. The water at the falls was too intense and too high for some of the more daredevil activities, like taking a dip in the Devils Pools or whitewater rafting in the river itself. Tomas, Liz, and I had obtained multi-entry visas so that we could go to Zambia and return the same day. We walked from our hotel, first stamping out in Zimbabwe and then walking over the scenic bridge to the Zambia side. Most everything seemed the same – same trucks yielding the same black exhaust, same somber faces carrying the same yellow jugs of water, same baboons performing the same lascivious mating dance, and the same thunderous clammer from the world’s biggest waterfall.

The intention was for Tomas, Liz, and I to walk across the Knife Edge Bridge at the top of the falls and down to the Boiling Pot, the deep pools where the water has carved a protected swimming hole. During the season of low water, tourists can take a guided hike to swim in the Boiling Pot, but in early February, the water was too high and too unpredictable and all guided hikes had been suspended. A troop of baboons greeted us at the entrance to the trail, refusing to yield the path. They were grunting which made Tomas and Liz uneasy, but I recognized it as the sound they make when communicating with their babies. I guess I’ve learned some specifically useful(less) information on this odyssey. If you ever encounter a troop of baboons, I’m your girl! We gingerly stepped around them, while they presumably grunted to their babies that no, we didn’t seem to have any food so that they should just leave us alone.

It was a steep walk down to the Boiling Pot and seeing the churning, frothing water at the bottom, it was a bit inconceivable that people would actually go swimming there. But then again, it was equally hard to imagine the waterfall running almost dry only three months earlier. We sat near the boulders at the bottom with an unobscured view of the Victoria Falls Bridge that we had earlier crossed when entering Zambia. With no warning, it appeared that someone was falling from the bridge before seconds later rebounding back into the mist. The bungee jump! This is when we remembered that Emil had planned to bungee that day so we watched a few more jumpers propel themselves downward, thinking perhaps that each one was him.

The walk back up from the Boiling Pot was sticky and humid; my hair plastered to the back of my neck and my skin flushed pink from heat exhaustion. There was a small rest area at the entrance to the remaining hiking trails and it appeared people were preparing for battle, either that or preparing for a torrential rainstorm. Raincoats, ponchos, galoshes, and dry sacks were either coming off or going on, depending on the direction of the hikers. It was obvious from those that were returning from the bridge that the gear was not an overreaction, but we were still too hot from our previous hike to throw on another layer of clothing yet. We wanted to wait until we actually needed our rain jackets, but the decision was made for us in only a few meters from the trailhead.

The Zambia viewpoints lie closer to the falls than on the Zimbabwe side so were almost immediately soaked to the bone. Walking across Knife Edge Bridge seemed as if we were walking through the waterfall itself. I gave up trying to protect my head from the shower; in fact, the cool water was a welcome relief as it streamed down my back inside my jacket. For someone who had grown quite tiresome of waterfalls earlier in my travels, this one took the term ‘natural wonder’ to a whole new level.

And we weren’t done yet. Back across the border in Zimbabwe, Tomas and I were booked to take a 12 minute helicopter ride and get an aerial view. We had originally been scheduled for an early morning helicopter and even gone so far as the safety briefing and takeoff before turning around 3 minutes into the flight, citing the reason as unsafe weather conditions. We were rescheduled for an afternoon flight and I must say that the weather conditions seemed to be exactly the same this time when we took off with 4 additional passengers and began circling the waterfall. You would think that viewing Victoria Falls from so many different angles we had seen enough, but nothing really compares to that bird’s eye perspective. It’s difficult to fathom the size until you see it from air.

Thoroughly satiated with nature’s beauty, it was time to relax. Tomas was officially done with the tour, while Liz and I and a few others would be continuing for the second leg back to Johannesburg through Zimbabwe. He had booked a high-end luxury resort for his last night and had invited me for an afternoon at the pool. The resort was only a few kilometers from town, but it was surrounded by pristine African bush. From the pool deck, we could see zebra, ostrich, wart hogs, and even a few giraffe grazing from the top branches of acacia trees. It was pure magic and for a moment, you could glimpse what this panorama may have been like before resorts and helicopters and $100 trillion bank notes.