The Rhino Whisperers – Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe

After passing through three police checks in just 120km we’re welcomed into Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, Bulawayo. With streets full of flowering purple jacaranda trees it almost resembles a Victorian country town in Australia. It’s quite a sight as every street in town is awash with purple as well as advertising for male circumcision available at the local eye clinic. A quick food stop sees our guide tastefully pick up a Black Forest birthday cake for our token German before we almost snap a powerline cutting through the back streets searching for our campsite, Burke’s Paradise. The only truck on site we get to pitch up right by the swimming pool and when everybody else heads inside for WiFi we have the entire pool to ourselves.

Bulowayo.
The streets of Bulawayo

Tiger Fish.
Tiger fish for sale in the local supermarket

The place is run by a friendly woman with her young children and two dogs running around and it felt strange to be hanging around someone’s house. Lucy the black Labrador made herself right at home, tearing apart one of the groups flip flops left outside the tent in the middle of the night. After dinner we meet Ian, one of the passionate guides of Matopos National Park. His enthusiasm for the park, the rhino’s being protected there, the Sanxx Bushmen history of the area and life in general is contagious, and we find ourselves signing on for the full day tour the next day.

Local news headlines in Bulawayo
Local news headlines

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Bright and early under hot sunny skies an open top Land Rover with a Land Cruiser engine (blasphemy we hear you British say) arrives with our guide Tyron from African Wanderer at the wheel and we all hop aboard and head straight for the park. Parking up only 10 minutes from the gate, we exit the truck and are given a briefing from Tyron stressing exactly how dangerous what we’re about to do is. We’re about to walk into the bush looking for rhinos, real life potentially deadly rhinos. He also stresses their great safety record of the knowledgeable guides such as himself, so we all march bravely behind him into the unknown.

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Our ride in Matopos National Park

Rhino walk, Matopos National Park
Heading into the bush to search for rhinos

A few minutes later we pass the local rhino toilet where piles of dung cover the ground before Tyron hushes us and we catch our first glimpse of three big grey blobs under a tree in front of us. Before we know it we’re crouching on the ground a mere 15 metres from a huge lounging mother, her nine month old calf and a smaller male. Rhino’s eyesight is horrendous yet their hearing is phenomenal, so while they couldn’t see us their huge ears continued to twist and turn like radio antennas listening to our every move. The calf was inquisitive enough to approach us before making squealing noises like a whale and running back to the safety of its mother.

Matopos National Park.
Rhino walk in Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Rhino walk in Matopos National Park

Taking a seat on the ground, the rhino’s proceed to ignore us with only the baby paying occasional interest in our direction. Tyron fills us in on the local fight to save them but it seems to be a losing battle with the population of rhino in Matopos having dropped from 150 to around 50 in recent years. Local families struggling to feed their children can get their hands on a rifle for USD$100 and make thousands of dollars from selling rhino horn. There’s no value on a live rhino for these guys, only a dead one. The rhinos in the park are all dehorned, making them less of a target for poachers, however some still dig out the remaining horn embedded in the rhino’s forehead, killing them in the process. Mugabe has instated a shoot first ask last law against the poachers and the park kills, shoots or captures an average of 25 poachers every month.

Matopos National Park.
Rhino walk in Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Rhino walk in Matopos National Park

Back at the truck Ian joins us and we all gather to hear his inspiring words on the subject. A deeply passionate man whose family have lived in the area since the 1890’s, he’s spent time living with the local San bushmen and learning all about the area. He’s been trying to work with international governments to establish a legal ivory trade, putting a value on live rhinos who can be continuously dehorned to supply the market, allowing them to survive in the process, while employing the locals who are currently poaching, giving them a stable source of income. With China’s economy booming and a larger middle/upper class emerging the world’s biggest consumer of ivory and rhino horn is increasing its demand and the rhinos simply can’t keep up. If you’re lucky enough to witness Ian’s passion on this subject, you’ll find yourself wondering why it doesn’t make sense to create a legal market. Anything that could help save these animals before it’s too late must surely be worth a trial at least.

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Inspiring words from Ian Harmer of African Wanderer

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom with Ian and Tyron entertaining us with a couple of near miss stories of aggressive black rhinos charging and having to bolt through the bush with a group of grannies in tow. Our only excitement came when a couple of group members wandered too far, made too much noise, and big mama stood up and turned her vast bulk our way just to let us know she knew we were there. A fully grown rhino is a little more intimidating standing than sitting, and one member of our group spent the rest of the time hiding behind a useless shrub in the event she decided to charge.

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

Our time with the rhinos up we jump back in the truck and head off for a lesson in local flora. First up Tyron pulls over and grabs a handful of leaves off a bush growing by the roadside. In need of a female volunteer Sarah jumps down and is promptly handed the leaves while Tyron pours water over them and instructs her to rub the resulting gooey slime all over her arms. Known as ‘bushmen’s soap’ it totally removes any trace of grease from jumping in and out of the truck and before long everybody is off the truck taking turns to goo up. The same handful of leaves, with a little top up of water, does the rounds of the entire truck, a clever little plant indeed. Our next stop was the grab a wad of khat, that popular African chewing leaf, which was passed around to those game enough to handle the bitter taste.

Matopos National Park.
Lathering up with ‘bushman’s soap’

Matopos National Park.
Felix Sibanda, the keeper of the ashes

Stopping at a cluster of craft stalls we get chatting to stall holder Felix Sibanda who proudly informs us he’s the keeper of the ashes at a nearby shrine. We were so impressed we bought three carved wooden bowls off him for the grand sum of USD$10. Stinking hot we pull up at Maleme dam where we join a handful of people for a quick dip in the slimy, muddy waters while cows graze right on the banks, giving us no confidence to put our head under the water. Tyron serves up lunch of fresh bread rolls with ham, other unidentifiable processed meat, cheese and salads and we all get stuck in.

Swim stop at the dam
Swim stop at the Maleme dam

The Buffet Lunch. Matopos National Park.
Lunch provided by African Wanderer

Back in the truck we pull up at Silozwane Cave and slog up a steep slab of rock to reach it. The cave is filled with paintings left by the San (Bushmen) people, the original inhabitants of these lands. The San are believed to be one of the original ancestors from which all modern humans descended and they have a simple and peaceful existence. Sadly their territory has been shrinking and recently a ‘study’ determined they should be moved from their Kalahari home where they’d lived forever. Interestingly the Kalahari holds vast deposits of diamonds which are now being mined and sold, yet this had nothing to do with the San people’s forced removal. Yeah, right.  Yet another reason not to buy diamonds.

Silozwane Cave. Matopos National Park.
Silozwane Cave

Matopos National Park.
Silozwane Cave

The paintings depict people and wildlife such as giraffe and impala and gave passing Bushmen knowledge of what could be hunted, allowing them to choose suitable poison, yep apparently they were great poisoners as well. They also worshiped Sirius the Dog Star, something they have in common with other ancient peoples including the Egyptians and the Dogon tribe of Mali. Even the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico are aligned with the star.

Silozwane Cave. Matopos National Park.
Silozwane Cave

Matopos National Park.
Matopos National Park

After a long chat with Tyron about the Bushmen he introduced us to yet another amazing local plant, the resurrection plant. Tearing off a piece of what appeared to be a dead shrub, he gives it to us to take home and place in a glass of water. Back at the truck an impromptu market has appeared from nowhere, seems the locals knew we’d arrived. We stop at a local village where the chief and local boys dance for us before inviting us to join them, Sarah again volunteering first before admiring the chiefs awesome ostrich feather hat and skirt made of hare, goat and genet skins.

Local village doing a little dance for us, Matopos National Park
Local villagers dancing for us

Matopos National Park.
Admiring the chiefs headwear

We make an occasional stop to buy small wild plums and monkey fruit from local children chasing us down the road before Tyron pulls into a local bar and picks up a bottle of ‘liquid chicken’, a locally brewed beer made from sorghum, maize, wheat or any other grain that’s on hand which makes it impossible to tell the alcohol content. It tastes like a pair of the dirtiest socks you can imagine and even comes with chunks. This drink is not for the faint hearted.

Some weird Local Fruit.
Monkey fruit

The local brew made from Maize Meal.
Tyron with the $1 ‘liquid chicken’ local beer

Cecil Rhodes was a British Empire building, De Beers diamond founding politician for whom Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) was named. An important figure in the history of southern Africa, he’s buried in Matopos, a park he helped create, at World’s View. Set amid a cluster of large boulders strangely scattered about, the views are amazing in all directions as we watch the sun set. Nearby the Shangani Memorial is dedicated to 34 British soldiers who were ambushed and killed by 3,000 Matabele tribesmen.

Matopos from Rhodes Hill.
World’s View and Cecil Rhodes grave

Matopos National Park.
Shangani Memorial

Cecil Rhodes grave, Matopos National Park
Sunset at World’s View

We head back to camp in the dark after another brilliant day in Zimbabwe. We’ve done our best but seriously words cannot describe how truly fortunate we feel to have been able to watch these peaceful, endangered creatures so closely outside of a zoo. If the world doesn’t begin to do more to protect these poor guys, the next generation might not have such a chance.

You can check out more pics of the awesome time we had in Zimbabwe on our Flickr page!

Oh and if you’re wondering what happened to that piece of resurrection plant we put in a glass of water overnight, it went a little bit like this.

Tips for Matopos

  1. If you’re interested in learning what your country is doing in the fight against the illegal ivory trade which is the lead factor in these amazing animals bordering on extinction, contact your local government regarding their stance on the protection of rhinos through CITES. Don’t expect a quick response, our questions raised months ago to the Australian contact have been left unanswered to this day.
  2. Burke’s Paradise also have dorm rooms available.
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