Of rocks and rhinos in Zimbabwe
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
IT is unbelievably cold in the back of an open jeep at 5am in Africa.
‘‘Bring your sleeping bags, you’ll need them,’’ our guide Andy has told us, ‘‘you’ll be sorry if you don’t.’’
Wrapped in sleeping bags, thermals, scarves and beanies, we are being driven at a snappy 100km/h with the freezing wind stabbing through our protective layers. I wonder if any national park, even one that’s World Heritage-listed, is worth enduring such frosty conditions.
But Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, about 30km from Bulawayo, turns out to be one of the most memorable experiences in my sixweek jaunt around southern Africa. What makes Matobo unique are its huge granite rock formations. Boulders balance impossibly on top of each other, like a god’s game of marbles.
Valleys of tall, yellowed grasses and acacia trees snake between these spectacular formations. Small villages are dotted throughout, traditional mud houses with thatched roofs dwarfed by the rocks. Locals harvest the grass to use in the thatching, and there are neat bundles left by the side of the road to be picked up by donkey and cart.
We are here to track rhinos and our guide takes us on a truly memorable journey. We learn to read their footprints as well as scat. In older prints, less detail is discernible in ridges, which get blown away by wind.
Both critically endangered black and white rhinos live here. The difference is not in their colour but in the shape of their mouths. White rhinos have a broad mouth, are larger and less aggressive than black rhinos. The names came about from a misinterpretation of the Dutch language.
Weid mond rhino means widemouth rhino. The English thought they were saying ‘‘white’’ so called the others black.
We stop in the shade of an enormous monolith and after a substantial lunch, we climb. It’s hard going, steep, and hot work.
At the top and well worth the effort is a large cave full of ancient rock art. This area has one of the largest concentrations of such art in southern Africa and these paintings provide evidence that humans have inhabited these hills since Stone Age times.
The area is of great cultural significance to the local Ndebele, Shona and San tribespeople, who have lived here for thousands of years.
All afternoon we track rhinos without any luck. We see hippos, hyraxes, elephants and even an elusive leopard. With daylight dwindling, the rocks look even more magnificent, painted by the stunning colours of the African sunset.
Just as we give up on finding a rhino, we round a bend and come face to face with a massive beast. We remain silent as we get out of the jeep. The rhino is upwind and has no idea we are behind it. This is a white rhino, and a big one at that. It ambles up the road and we follow on foot. It’s extraordinary to be so close — I can see patterns in its thick hide and black hairs on the tip of the tail. Wefollow it into grassland where it puts its enormous head down to graze.
Unfortunately, time is not on our side and as the last rays of light disappear, we wrap ourselves in our sleeping bags for the freezing ride back to Bulawayo, exhausted but astonished by this experience.