Breakfast was at 7 am this morning, so we could get an early start. But by the time everyone had paid their laundry bills (ours was Z$143,000) and taken group pictures of each other, we were nearly an hour behind schedule. Sandra, Regina, Armin, and Melanie were leaving the tour to fly home today, so the truck was no longer full.
We drove down the highway towards Bulawayo. There was not much traffic, partly because gasoline has been unavailable in Zimbabwe for the last three months or so. Around noon we stopped at a roadside picnic area for lunch, which was a pasta salad that had been made up for us by the kitchen staff at the Vic Falls Inn. Then we carried on to Bulawayo, where we had a 10-minute stop to stretch our legs.
This was the largest city we had been in since leaving Cape Town almost three weeks ago, and it was strange to see multi-story buildings and traffic. Leon warned us again not to take photographs of people without getting their permission in advance, and it became evident why when Christian took a picture of the National Gallery. Before he knew what had happened, a large woman jumped out of her car and started yelling at him to give her the camera because he wasn’t allowed to take pictures. She yelled for quite some time, with Leon trying to calm her down. A policeman stopped by to find out what was happening, but he departed when he found out that the “offending” picture had been deleted.
Back on the truck, we carried on to our final destination, Matobo National Park. This area of hills has rocks which are about 3 billion years old, eroded into strange formations with big rocks balancing precariously on top of each other. Our guide for the rest of the afternoon, Ian, was waiting to take us on a rhino walk.
Matobo is the home of a population of the endangered white rhinoceros, in fact the largest concentration in Africa. It also has a large concentration of poachers, so the park has on staff 78 men trained to shoot poachers. On average every month 24 poachers are either shot or imprisoned. The prison term is between 5 and 15 years but Ian said it was essentially a death sentence because of AIDS.
The white rhinos are much less aggressive than the black rhinoceros, so if you know what you are doing, you can stalk them on foot quite safely. This was the plan. We drove down to the park entrance in an ancient Land Rover game-viewing vehicle. Within a few minutes inside the park we had spotted our first rhino: actually two rhinos, a young female with her two-and-a-half-year-old calf. We drove downwind, and Ian gave us a firm lecture on how to behave when walking up to rhinoceroses.
We split the group into two halves, so as not to disturb the rhinos with large numbers of people. Then off we walked, sometimes crouched over, and within minutes we were sitting just a few metres from the pair. They didn’t seem to mind at all that we were there. It was a strange feeling.
Then we carried on down the road to Mpopoma Dam, a beautiful little impoundment lake where we stopped for cold drinks; very refreshing! There were other people there, including a group of teenagers from a missionary school. The girls we talked to were very well-spoken. Carrying on again, we saw a couple of waterbucks, then a couple of klipspringers, and then we saw a big old white rhino.
Ian said he was about 42 years old and, even though his horn had been cut off in the 1990s to protect him from poachers, his regrown horn was worth about a quarter of a million US dollars on the black market. Once again the group split into two, and we carefully approached him. However he was walking along and didn’t stop.
When we left the park, we stopped outside the entrance, where some local people were selling handicrafts. Unfortunately we didn’t know they would be there, so we hadn’t brought money to buy things. So Rosemary borrowed US$7 to buy a carved bread basket. These people were not aggressive, unlike their Vic Falls counterparts!
Back at camp, we had dinner, then sat around the fire and talked. Because there were fewer German-speakers now, the talk was almost all in English. We were allowed to sleep without a tent, so everyone did. The stars were really beautiful!