Africa Part 4 – Zimbabwe and Makgadikgadi Pans Botswana.
Vic Falls is a strange place. It’s touristy (as you can imagine) but there’s darker sides to it. “1 billion note” someone whispers through the fence behind our tent. Everything is for sale.
As we walk to a hotel “big 5” someone says trying to push carvings into my hands. “I’ve already bought from the curio market”. He gets aggressive. “You should buy from me too”. “No, I already have something but thank you”. “You are TERRIBLE tourist. You should buy from me not there” – I’ve not experienced Africa like this, unbridled anger. “Go back to where you came from terrible tourist”. It’s not very nice.
In a similar sense we’re stopped on our way out of Vic Falls, not 30km past. The police view our truck, fined for a small infraction. Our tour leader hops out, having none of this.
After some discussion and pointing, she moves to get back in, telling one officer we’ve had the okay – he’s having none of it. It seems like such a corrupt scheme, $15 pocketed here and there, 2 receipt books so even the receipt isn’t genuine. While limited, it’s the most obvious thing we’ve seen yet in Africa.
On the back of the political climate it’s still strange to be in Zimbabwe. Houses are behind barbed and razor wire. People seem different, again limited smiles, but it seems like we’re suddenly in a very western version of Africa. There’s no more bright kitenge, it’s all malls and nicer cars.
Two national parks are the reason we’re here, Hwange & Matopos (also known as Matobo).
Hwange is known for its population of elephants, so it’s incredible to see them at a waterhole in huge numbers. Different families, young males fighting, little tiny babies with trunks they can barely control being herded by brothers and sisters a little older. Other young males trumpting and mock charging. It’s such an unusual experience.
There are elephants in the tens of thousands in this park, it’s a surprise to see they have enough food, but it’s getting to the point where they need to start culling them, to the disdain of the international community.
Our guide was the best we’d had by a long shot. Andy, who had been a hunter for several years before becoming a guide. Pointing out animal prints, answering questions, but with such a sense of fun we all haven’t laughed that much in forever.
Elephant prints look like circles of wrinkles in the dust, their foot expands as they place it, assisting with the limited noise they make moving about. Lion tracks are in pad shapes, similar to a domestic cat.
As we landed back in camp, we heard a sound. A low sound, not a hoo but a ho. Deep. You’d hear it in bursts. Lions roaring.
It’s totally different to what you think it would be? And with the backdrop of loud birds, hyena, it’s almost hard to pick out. It suddenly stops.
We did another night drive, but with our guide this time it was way more interesting. Everything is so much louder, from baboons doing their baboon thing to bids calling. Again the most interesting thing was the elephants.
Nothing but shadows, a glance of a foot or a movement behind a bush, the dark camouflages them more than in the day time, even with them right next to us. I’m reminded of our terrifying night visit from the elephants while we were in our tent, I feel far safer in the confines of our 4×4.
They’re much louder at night, pulling branches down, chewing loudly, stomping indelicately through undergrowth. They make sounds that almost sound like a stomach growling, and sounds that our human ears can’t hear. When they stop – they all stop together. And start – all starting together.
It was freezing at night in Hwange, for the first time all our layers come out, merino on merino. Too cold for jandals for the first time in a while, but we’re up at 5 for our dawn game drive.
The sky is clear.
As I get older I’m recognizing more and more of my mother in myself, and within that mostly a love for the world around us, an innate curiosity about plants and rocks, and a passion for the stars.
For the first time in years Orion is bright in the sky. The first constellation I learned, I can spot Orions belt before the Southern Cross, before the pointers, Scorpio, Pleiades.
With a flood of unexpected nostalgia tinged with homesickness, I’m reminded of nights being wrapped up warm late at night, torch covered in red cellophane trying to map a page in a book to the sky above. Squinting through binoculars, looking for clusters and planets.
For the first time these groups of stars are presenting themselves as pictures. It’s not 3 stars, it’s a belt. That star is the tip of a Pegasus wing. I’ve never seen stars as bright, colours standing out, even the star shape more obvious than ever before.
As the sky glows on the horizon before the sun rises slowly the stars fade out. I’m left with a strange longing for home that I haven’t felt in years.
We move through the park, our guide spots lion tracks “5 or 6, these are this morning. Look, here is where they lay down for a bit, this one turned around, and they kept walking. These are the ones we heard last night”. This is more exiting than our other game drives, it feels purposeful, following these glorious cats.
We come across them, a group of 5 young ones. Their eyes a bright amber in the morning light. They move on quickly, deep into the forest, hopefully to hunt, they were looking a bit skinny.
Back at camp we moved on to Bulawayo. Out the window I’m still struck by the razor wire. For me seeing too much security makes me feel unsafe. It’s strange. Streets are barely lit. Our campsite is surrounded by walls. But the showers are hot,
The next morning is another day out in a National Park, this time Matopo Rhodes.
This park is like nothing we’ve seen. Huge rocks and formations make the park, fluorescent green lichen covers some of them, with reddish and greenish lines through the formations.
It’s such a change from the near flat we’re used to in both Kenya and Tanzania, the riverbeds and trees of Zambia, the red, green and gold trees of Malawi, and jungle of Uganda and Rwanda.
We climb over rocks with a full view of the park, trying to spot Rhino, which we do.
Tracking animals on foot is now my favourite experience. Following tracks (rhino have 3 toes, they have such weird looking “feet”) and poo, our guide pointing out the different types (females just drops theirs, males poo in a big lump, and scrape it to spread their scent further).
Different to the swap of Ziwa, the dry undergrowth and stunted trees make it easy to spot. A mother and 3 year old, another group of 7, it’s a strange day given how many we see.
I never thought I’d see such a large group, some with stubs where their horns are (they cut them off to make them less of a poach risk). They’re hot in the bright sunlight, relaxing under trees, some standing on watch, some with their big backsides to us. They’re beautiful in an odd way, hard to imagine that their value is just going up, 560 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa this year.
Our guide is vocal on his opinions about the various solutions – nothing seems to be working. “Put money into building hospitals” (a Vietnamese politician puts his cancer cure to Rhino horn), “creating a market by farming them wont work”, “pay the guides, the rangers a proper salary – make it a prestigious role to guard rhino”. There’s 80% unemployment in Zimbabwe. The economy isn’t recovering. It’s easy to understand the $$$ motivation behind poaching. Or the people who share where the rhino are. The customs people who are bribed to let things pass. The Government officials who don’t take a stand. Brings to mind our corrupt cops, I’m sure that fine was pocketed. Money talks more than anything else, and it’s easy to see how money talks in Africa.
The most interesting thing we saw in Matopos for me was the cave paintings. They’re not as old as the ones in France, or others around the world – but I still loved the story they told.
In an open cave a few minutes climb up some rocks they’re bright – you can see people with spears in them, the patches of giraffe, and zebra lines etched into the stone walls. A shadow painting of a woman hidden until shown – unable to be captured by a mere camera. The story of the wall isn’t obvious – is it a hunt? Or a dance? Something spiritual? It hasn’t been uncovered, but it’s an amazing place.
We close our afternoon watching the sunset, high amongst the rocks, the sky turning them red.
From Zimbabwe to Botswana, which again is another border shock. Stopping at a mall for lunch we both feel like we’ve stepped into early 2000’s New Zealand. An open mall, western clothes, sport shops, Nandos. The best part was the icecream we had.
We’re sleeping amongst giant baobab trees, their finger-like branches reaching into the sky around us.
Rather than a game drive, we embark on an afternoon trip via the Kalahari desert to see the salt pans and Meerkats.
The Kalahari is unusual. The grass is yellow, and looks soft like Golden Retreiver fur, moving gently in the wind as we go past. The trees are deciduous, some with red leaves they still haven’t dropped, it’s an eerie landscape, completely unexpected. The trees give way to thorny shrubs as we venture further in.
We come across a huge natural spring, it’s full of wild horses, cooling off in the afternoon sun.
The meerkats have split into 3 groups, while I’m disappointed we’re not seeing a massive group, I’m still amazed that we’re able to get as close as we do.
One immediately starts digging, and he’s digging for the just about the whole time we are with them. Another one behind him is nervous, crouching and running if we get too close, tail high in the air.
When they stand (like expected) they look so small against the huge expanse. They make funny noises to each other, not quite a mew, and their round ears perk up.
We continue to watch the one digging, and slowly the little on creeps up – but we can’t look at him, every time we do he stops! He suddenly runs when he realizes that the digging one has caught something.
The digging one has caught a huge yellow scorpion, crunching it loudly, I think the little one wanted some of it as he runs past, through our legs, but they’re expected to fend for their own.
They eat about 10 scorpions like that a day, and with the tunnel dug about a foot long it must be a huge effort to find that many every day!
We move on to the salt pans, a huge expanse of greyish white, tasting salty as expected. We take the usual perspective photos, Dan on my head, me on his hand, and attempt to walk around blind folded, all disorientated.
There’s not much to see, with no water there’s no reflections – they sky is grey from bushfire smoke, concerning after 2 years of drought in Botswana. As I write now on our way to the Okavango Delta the sky is dulled from the smoke in the air.
Night comes cool and fast, the red globe dropping below the horizon like the many sunsets we’ve seen, we’re back on the 4×4 quickly to get back to camp, hungry for dinner.