Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Zimbabwe – Charge!

July 17

This latest trip has allowed me to get within touching distance of wildlife which I’d only seen in pictures or zoos before venturing to Africa. When it’s intentional, getting this close is a thrill. When it’s not, to say it’s hair-raising would be a massive understatement.

The zoom wasn't that high at this point...
I’ll come to the elephant story later, as it’s probably in the top three of times when I’ve questioned whether I’m going to escape with my life. Other close encounters which have made my heart leap have happened recently, most notably with a baboon in Matopos National Park.

This baboon was larger than the average male

Baboons are fierce, with canines larger than a lion, and are particularly fond of food. In the seconds after our ranger said, “A baboon can rip you apart”, the male charged at full pace for our lunch area. Unmoved by our ranger trying to hit him away with whatever utensils he could grab, the baboon nicked the bag of bread rolls and sped off, before tucking in with us watching in shock.

The baboon tucking in after stealing our food

From here we moved north to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest and in the top 10 parks in Africa in terms of area.

Hwange covers almost 15,000 square kilometres of land

It has many animals, though the density of the bush makes it very difficult to spot anything. Once again, no honey badger or leopard could be found. We did see a few spring hares when driving around at night – they’re known as the ‘African Kangaroo’.

The main pan was hosting many animals, including these zebras

The night drive was incredible, mainly due to the unpredictability of our driver, Jordan. At one point he killed the engine and lights, allowing the car to roll a bit down the hill, before asking us if we could hear a buzzing noise. Muscles tensed up, breath intake sharpened, and then…he lit the spotlight to show us electricity pylons. He said that sometimes baboons are at the top of them; they get scared by the spotlight and touch the live wires on the way down, turning into ‘exploding light bulbs’. I don’t condone killing wild animals but could understand his glee at this after our baboon experience the previous day.

An internet picture of a baboon
on an electricity pylon

Another time he did this trick, the difference being that there were animals on the left. With your eyesight restricted, other senses need to be used. We could hear heavy movement through the bush, allowing us to work out that an elephant was closing in – slowly – on our car. When the light was turned in that direction, we were pleased to see an elephant; more concerned at seeing a lone buffalo darting short distances in various directions. A lone buffalo is generally an older male, and has to be aggressive to survive: dangerous.

Who knows what you'll see in the dark?

This paled in comparison with our experience that afternoon when driving through Hwange with Jordan in an open 4x4. Hwange is renowned in Africa for its elephant population, numbering between 30,000 and 40,000 across the 14,000km2 area. It started nicely enough, with us seeing a lone bull (young male) elephant putting some mud on himself with his trunk as a form of sun protection and body cooling.

A lone elephant loving the mud at Hwange

Elephants cover themselves in mud to cool down
and protect their skin from the Sun

We then drove past a pan (water hole) which had a herd of elephants drinking. The young calves were about two years old.

Calves drinking from the pan

There were in excess on ten elephants at the pan

Whilst this was happening, we noticed that another group of elephants, one without tusks, was slowly plodding its way up the road towards us. Jordan mentioned at this point that elephants without tusks are generally more aggressive.

Here comes Mr Tuskless...

Most of the elephants disappeared into the bush, heading for the pan. Not Mr Tuskless, though. He quickened his step towards the car.


It’s important to note two things at this point: firstly, you never run from an elephant; secondly, the aggression is normally shown towards the car, not the people inside it. This was vital to remember as the elephant got to ten metres…then five…then two….


I’m sure you’ll understand that I didn’t start snapping pictures at this point. It was at this point that the flapping of the ears became more pronounced and the noises started to sound louder and more threatening. The elephant was practically touching the car. It could have reached over with its trunk and changed gear for us if it felt that way inclined. At this point, Jordan decided that this was close enough and said so to the elephant. That’s right, he started talking to the elephant.


It worked, in a way. He backed off briefly, before exploring the front left of the car (this is the video below). Being sat on the left side of the open vehicle, this was when it was probably within two metres of me. Just short of a trunk length from slapping me. He stalked the front part of the car, turned, moved into the bush…then mock charged. Not for more than a metre, thankfully.

Keeping still when all of this is happening is vital and incredibly difficult, particularly when you can feel your heart thumping rapidly in your chest. Jordan later said, “I don’t know how you all kept your composure, I was terrified,” suggesting that this kind of close encounter isn’t experienced every day.

Jordan driving, using his left foot on the accelerator, and
looking for fauna

The reward was being able to watch the whole herd play at the pan. This made elephants seem endearing and cute once more, as the baby elephant moved from mother to father and back whilst they blissfully ignored it and sloshed mud over themselves.

A herd of all ages: a beautiful sight, once we'd stopped shaking!

At one point, the baby tried to climb on another elephant which had decided to lie down. It failed and fell down. Too cute, and funny, for words.

Young calves playing around in the mud

Abruptly, the whole herd upped sticks and ran away from the pan (I don’t think we’d have survived if they’d ran our way). Dumbstruck at first, we soon realised that the bull we had passed much earlier was heading to the pan. Jordan explained that he may have been exiled from the herd so confrontation could have occurred if the main group hadn’t vacated.

With heart rates returning below dangerous, we drove forward, only to soon spot a young male charging towards at an alarming speed. Jordan once again turned off the engine and pulled us to a halt, allowing the elephant to close in. It’s sensible as you don’t want to be chased, but also seems inexplicable at the time.

As you can see from the video above, he slowed and stopped within seven or eight metres, before trumpeting in annoyance and passing harmlessly around the car. Initially he just seemed like a moody teenager but we soon realised the problem when spotting the original herd on the other side of the car. The young lad had obviously been left behind when the herd ran from the bull elephant and we were now blocking his path to his mother. This was the reason that I was charged in Zambia.

The young elephant who we accidentally
separated from its mother

Trying to justify this as being a positive experience, I was explaining to the rest of the group that whilst the first couple of safaris are amazing just because you are seeing the animals with your own eyes, with more experience you want to see more action. Ideally that action won’t happen on the front of your car, but seeing events is what can make each safari or game drive unique and special. My heart won’t thank me for it but this was certainly both.

A lilac-breasted roller, who had a great view
of the elephant action

Love you all


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Zimbabwe – Rhinoplastered

July 16

Hello everyone!

Over the last century, but particularly the last forty years, wild animal populations have been devastated by poaching and a complete disregard for animal protection or welfare. This has led to suggestions that some of Africa’s most notable animals may be extinct in the wild within the next decade. The most at threat is the rhino, which some believe will be wiped out in two years.

These rhinos are sleeping peacefully


There's a strong chance this little rhino won't
make it to adulthood

The reason is obvious but difficult to rationally explain. Rhino horn is worth more than gold. A two centimetre stump is believed to be on the market for $200,000. The fact that people are willing to pay this – and a lot more – for rhino horn is due to the belief in Far Eastern markets that it can do magical things, particularly for men. Scientists can find no evidence to support this but historically-held beliefs are difficult to change.

Mother and baby rhino

The result of this is that people with rifles will come to national parks across Africa and kill rhinos before scalping them for the horn. If they keep doing this, there will be no more rhino horn for them to ‘use’ by the time the next Olympics is upon us.

The bullet hole which killed this
rhino is visible at the top of the skull

A horn can actually be removed without it needing to be fatal to a rhino. Many national parks ‘dehorn’ their rhinos in order to remove the reason for their death. The horn is attached to skin, rather than bone, meaning it would be like removing part of a nail on a human. The horn also contains keratin, meaning it will grow back.


We were learning all about this in Rhodes Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe’s oldest park and one which has been designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site. They have 50 rangers on permanent, 24-hour patrol with permission from the Zimbabwean government to shoot any suspected poacher on sight.

Matopos National Park was a 30 minute drive from our
campsite in Bulawayo

Their rhinos are well-protected but not hidden away. Quite the opposite, in fact. We were tiptoeing through the bush to have a close encounter with some white rhinos. If we’d seen black rhinos, we’d have stayed in the car or I would not be here to tell you about it today.

Ian, the ranger, leading us towards the rhinos

The first rhinos we came across were a mother and baby. Crouching low and moving slowly, we crept up towards them. The mother noted our presence but wasn’t too keen to play, so we left them alone. Even so, we were about ten metres away – on foot – from a white rhino. I could feel heart rate rise!

Mother and baby curiously staring at the strange humans
standing nearby

A rhino's ears can rotate

If it was rising after that first encounter, it shot up to stratospheric levels the next time we exited our 4x4. Again, a mother and baby had been spotted amongst the thick, dry bush. We found them stood like statues.

A female rhino can weight up to 1,600 kg

It’s an intense experience, being stood essentially face-to-face with an animal which could kill you within five seconds. Luckily, this pair seemed unperturbed by our presence. After a short while, they settled down for a siesta.

Mama rhino having a nap, with her baby on the left

Go to sleep, go to sleep...

This allowed us to get close. Very close. In the picture at the top, I’m sat three metres away from the mama rhino. Three metres.

We were able to get some amazing photos from this position

A rhino's eyesight is poor, so it relies on other senses

Rhinos aren’t thought of as being beautiful or photogenic like elephants or lions. Seeing this mother and baby sleeping peacefully on the floor, my heart melted.

Mama rhino having a siesta

Someone who probably saw his fair share of rhinos during his time in Africa was Cecil Rhodes. This park was partly named after him, and is also where he is buried.

Part of World's View

He can't really see too much from here...

Rhodes is seen as a controversial figure these days, with his statues being vandalised and institutions coming under pressure to drop his name from various awards or scholarships. It was thus fascinating to learn that he’s viewed as a bit of a hero in these parts.

Important man in these parts, Rhodes

Undoubtedly, he played a major role in Britain colonising much of southern Africa, at one point owning six countries (Malawi being one of them). His wealth, much of which came from founding the De Beers diamond company, would transform him into possibly the richest man in the world today, helped no doubt by taking things which weren’t really his to take.

Rhodes achieved a lot in southern Africa,
but for whose benefit?
A lot of this fortune is used for good causes; this park and its rhino protection scheme is funded by the Cecil Rhodes Trust. It was here, more specifically at the magnificent World’s View, that he would sit and think about life. He asked to be buried there, which had to be passed by an Act of Parliament and agreed to by Ndebele tribe, for whom this was an sacred, spiritual setting. The fact that he was allowed to shows the esteem he was held in. I can see why he wanted to be here, too: a stunning view.

World's View

Scaling a steep boulder gives you a
stunning view of the park

The area has changed significantly since Rhodes died in 1902, probably for the worse due to human engagement. The rhino population halved between 2000 and 2013 mainly due to poaching. Getting close to the rhinos today has alerted me to the danger of their extinction in the wild. The park rangers here were suggesting that it would be pragmatic to open the market – RSA has 60 tonnes of rhino horn, enough for 20 years of supply. However, I’m sure that many rhinos would still be murdered for the ‘thrill of the kill’, and demand may grow if it was made legal.

I don’t have an answer but can give my opinion. These creatures wouldn’t hurt a fly unless threatened, yet they’re being exterminated so people can have a placebo pill. It’s scandalous. Action has to be taken quickly; the alternative is for my niece and nephew never having the chance to experience what I did today.

Save the rhino. We’ve got two years.

Love you all


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Zimbabwe – The King with 150 Wives

July 15

And we thought Henry VIII was a player…

Pondering what life would be like with 150 wives...

Hello everyone!

I’ve now moved north from South Africa into Zimbabwe. The country appears in Western news dispatches from time to time, and rarely for a good reason. We were based in Zimbabwe’s second city: Bulawayo. The place’s name translates as ‘The Place Where People are Killed’. Over the years, Zimbabwe has unfortunately lived up to its second city’s name.

Zimbabwe is larger than Germany

The roads were generally good, much better than Malawi

Zimbabwe has been an accepted independent country since 1980 (they tried to unilaterally declare independence in 1965 but it didn’t go too well). It has only had one leader in this time: Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Mugabe: not tired of being President

How he has maintained power for 37 years isn’t really a mystery or legitimate in the eyes of faraway lands. There are well-documented problems of unemployment (rumoured to be as high as 80% in younger generations), media restriction and the passing of legislation designed to disrupt the opposition. To give an example, a recent law was passed saying that a citizen must have an address of permanent residence in order to vote – many young people, who are more likely to vote against Mugabe, don’t.

Newspaper headline: Woman Pays Debt With Daughter

An election is scheduled for next year, when he will be 94 years of age. As one Zimbabwean put it to me, “Would you want a 94-year-old in charge of your country?”

The election should take place in 2018

The strong man leader isn’t confined to Zimbabwe, of course. Interestingly, neither is it restricted to Mugabe in this territory. Before the days of colonisation, this land used to be home to some of southern Africa’s great empires. Great Zimbabwe, which is in the southeast of the country, is the most renowned. Further west is the site of another grand town: Khami.

Great Zimbabwe was a large empire about 900 years ago

The Khami state dominated western Zimbabwe and eastern Botswana for about 250 years. At its height between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, Khami had a population of up to 70,000. Through recent restoration, its ruins are in reasonable shape.

A narrow path through the ruins, made so as
a form of defence from invaders

The most intact ruin at Khami, this shows the tiers upon
which different houses were built

Khami was home to the Torwa tribe, who used a hierarchical system of authority. The hierarchy was literally shown in the form of tiers, with power and political clout increasing as the houses were built on increasingly higher ground. Those with no power lived on flat land further away from the hill.

An artist's impression of what Khami may have looked like

The higher up the wall, the more influential you were

The top of the pile belonged to the Mambo: the King. He lorded over his land and could see for many miles.

The King's view from the top of the hill

There were many rituals which would we would question today, such as burying the King’s faeces or toenails to prevent bad luck.

This is Tsoro, a board game popular in Zimbabwe
at this time. It's still played in Malawi today, and very confusing!

The most interesting fact was that a woman who had sex with the Mambo automatically became his wife. Indications are that one particular Khami King had in excess of 150 wives. A busy, busy man.

A rear passageway was created (to the right) so women
could be brought up to the King to 'get married' 

The town of Khami has shown interesting links between southern Africa and the wider world during this time period. Ming porcelain and Spanish artefacts have been discovered within the ruins, suggesting trade with Europe and Asia. The Portuguese were also involved here – it was their assistance to the Roswe tribe that ended the Torwa rule of Khami.

The different wall styles, such as leaving gaps, come from
different countries

We learnt all of this on a walking tour of the ruins, led by a woman who was very knowledgeable about this particular period, if a little stereotypical about ‘Africans’ (for example, I don’t think all of them are ‘sexually charged’ as she suggested).

The main ruins at Khami

There is a fascinating history to the land known now as Zimbabwe. One can only hope that this current dark chapter will soon end and be followed by an uplifting, inspiring story. Perhaps with less than 150 wives per man, though…

A sheep?

Love you all