Of rocks and rhi­nos in Zim­babwe

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - NI­COLE PHILLIPS

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.

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