Botswana had been a great place to visit and held some of the highlights of our trip through Africa, and as we crossed back into Zimbabwe we had mixed feelings about leaving. We had already paid $45 for our multiple entry visas into Zimbabwe back at Victoria Falls, so we crossed the border relatively easily and headed into a country with a very interesting past.
Zimbabwe not only requires your visa to be paid in US dollars, as quite a few east African countries do, but in 2009 it adopted the US dollar as it’s national currency. The country’s president, Robert Mugabe, was the leader of one of the insurgent groups that helped overthrow the white minority ruled Rhodesia in a vicious civil war that spanned from the 1960s through 1980. When Rhodesia finally collapsed, Zimbabwe was born with Mugabe as president. Shortly after the tough military leader came to power, he ensured he would become president for life through changing the country’s laws and forcing opponents into submission or simply killing them if needed. From 1980 to 2009 the country’s currency devalued at an alarming rate due to hyperinflation, which lead the government to eventually produce trillion dollar notes, and as of the time of writing this, seventy five quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars are worth US $5 until the end of 2015, when they will be worth nothing. Mugabe is 94 years old the country which puts the country in a precarious position since whenever a dictator dies in a less developed nation, there’s typically a power vacuum which can lead to instability and huge problems.
We somewhat warily entered the country after a much harder than needed border crossing, which involved a confused and pushy customs agent continuously making us line up in various ways while waiting for our already issued visas to be checked. Not feeling overly optimistic about what laid in store for us, we headed on to our campsite, Big Cave Camp. Big Cave Camp is in Matopos, next to Matopos Rhodes (named after Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia) National Park. A guide from a local safari company, African Wanderer, named Ian came by our camp at dinner time and gave us some info on what the next day would have in store for us if we decided to go trekking in search of rhinos with him.
Ian told us that there were both white and black rhino in the park, and though earlier that day he had been unlucky and could only get that group about 20 meters from the rhinos, on a good day he could get everyone within as little as three meters from them. He explained that he had worked with these wild rhinos for most of his life, as he was born and raised in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe. The option to continue on after the rhino trekking ($60) and go see rock art, paintings, and Cecil Rhodes’ grave was also available (total for all $100). Ian was so passionate as he talked about the rhinos he came across as either overselling us or possibly a bit loony, but we weren’t going to miss the opportunity to see these massive creatures up close, so we signed up for the rhino trekking portion.
The next morning after breakfast we hopped in a Frankenstein Land Cruiser that had been turned into a safari truck with Ian and headed off to the park. He stopped a time or two to point out some local plants and then we headed into the park. About a half hour after leaving our camp Ian parked the truck and told us to follow him. We were met by two guys wearing interesting, almost body armor looking clothes and holding large rifles. Ian introduced them as park rangers who were in charge of looking after the rhinos and other animals, as well as shooting poachers on sight. Zimbabwe, as is true of much of Africa, has had terrible problems with poaching. Ten kilograms of rhino horn is worth as much as one million US dollars, which provides a strong incentive for poachers, especially the poor locals that can barely afford to feed their families.
Ian told us that there are 50 rangers working in the park at all times, and that they kill or capture roughly 25 poachers per month in that park alone. A very interesting and unexpected answer came up when we asked Ian what he thought the best way to reduce poaching would be. “Legalize and regulate the sale of rhino horn,” he replied.
None of us thought that this passionately pro-rhino wildlife guide would say anything like that, so we asked him to explain. Rhino horn, he told us, is made of keratin, the same stuff human fingernails and hair is made of. When someone cuts a rhino’s horn it doesn’t hurt the animal, and over a period of roughly eight years it grows back. If the sale of the horn was made legal and regulated, he figured the money from the sales could fund education in the local communities throughout Africa, and it would drive the price down over time as supply would become greater, thus driving the incentive down for poachers. The obvious question of why do poachers not just tranquilize the rhinos and take the horns now instead of killing them was asked, which was answered by him telling us that the cartels controlling the purchase and sale of the horns prefer to keep supply low which keeps their selling price high. He told us that there are individuals who will pay just for proof that a poacher killed a rhino, as that drives their selling price higher. Lastly, no poacher was going to sacrifice the bit of the horn they couldn’t remove safely from a living rhino, as that nub may be worth $100,000 or more.
We set off through the dry bush following Ian, asking more questions as we went. A short while after we had started walking Ian was mid answer of another question when he stopped and had us follow him back a few steps. In our interest in what he was saying, we had all walked straight past a huge white rhino. Ian led us within about 10 meters of the rhino and explained that he was a lone bull and he could be identified by the notches the rangers had cut in his ear. The rhino carried on about his business almost as if we weren’t there, coming within about six meters, and then away again. We were amazed by the size of the giant creature and how close he had gotten to us.
After 10 or 15 minutes with the rhino Ian led us on further, and within minutes we were staring at a group of six white rhinos right in front of us. These giant beasts had yellow tags through their ears and we were told there was a mother with her young, as well as a few others from the same family. These rhinos came as close as three or four meters from us a time or two and were mostly unconcerned about our presence. The rhinos’ indifference toward us showed that poaching was no longer a major issue, as the parks we had been to where poaching was a problem, the animals had been very skittish and ran at the sight of humans. After 20 minutes with this group of rhinos and tons more questions, we headed back to the truck where we kept on asking questions to Ian and the rangers.
Cold sodas appeared from a ice box that had been in our truck and we asked the rangers about their job as we all drank our cokes and sprites. The rangers said foreigners weren’t allowed to become rangers, but it was an easy job for locals to get. The danger they faced was quite high, and Ian said some poachers used helicopters and night vision, while the rangers only had rifles and their greater numbers to rely on. The rangers had been winning the fight lately, only losing one rhino in the park over the course of roughly two years. We were handed a short piece of a vine which was some bushman’s soap, a plant that when cut or mashed produces what can only be described as feeling like liquid soap. We washed our hands and hopped in the truck to head
back to camp.
On the way back to our camp we stopped at a relatively nondescript gate off the dirt road which read Gordon Park. Ian asked who in the truck had been in the boy scouts growing up, which four of the five guys on the truck raised our hands. He explained that Robert Baden-Powell had been stationed in Rhodesia when he came up with the concept of training young men in survival skills for the bush and calling it the boy scouts. Powell had been called back to England before he could start the program, which is why the boy scouts ended up being started there, but shortly after troop number two was founded at the site we now sat in front of in former Rhodesia.
Another short stop in front of a war memorial for WW1 and WW2 soldiers taught us that Rhodesia had sent the highest proportion of it’s white inhabitants out of all the colonies into those wars to serve England before declaring independence from the crown in 1967. The memorial was small and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but well maintained. The tin hats that the soldiers wore in those conflicts were attached to the tops of the fence posts in front of the memorial.
Ian dropped us at the Big Cave Camp and picked up some more of our group who wanted to see the rock art and Cecil Rhodes’ grave. Before he left I asked Ian if it was safe for us to hike around the campsite.
“Yeah it’s very safe, there are great rocks to see in that direction if you are up for the hike,” he answered.
“So no snakes or scorpions or anything then?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, there are 45 species of snake in these hills and the largest species of scorpion in the world. They can get to be 30 centimeters long! Anyway it’s safe enough, have fun!” he replied, and he was off.
Sissy and I thought about what he had said for a few minutes before deciding to try our luck on a hike. We headed out in the direction he said and found some massive boulders, an abandoned part of the camp, and the big cave our camp was named after. It was very hot out and virtually everywhere we hiked as solid rock, so we headed back to our camp just as our water ran out. Zimbabwe so far had been a pleasant surprise for us, and we were ready to head on to our next stop, Antelope Park.