A very very early morning today. Sadly, we leave the lions behind at Antelope Park to head towards Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe.
We left at 5am (up at 4.30am!) so that we could spend the majority of the day at Matapos National Park.
Matapos National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site and reportedly has some of the most spectacular granite scenery in the world. The park has an area of 425km and within this are over 3000 registered rock art sites, with some estimated to be over 20,000 years old. The park is also home to 14 white and 26 black rhinos.
Our guide for the day has won international awards for guiding – quite a reputation to live up to!
We arrived at our campsite in a posh suburb just outside Bulawayo at 7.30am. Another pretty campsite – swimming pool (although no time to use this one!) and a bungalow with kitchen and bathrooms we could use! (first time we’ve had a kitchen in a month, but we didn’t use it!). So by 8am we had put down our tents and set them back up at a new site! Time for breakfast!
We left at 9am in open top safari jeeps and began the 30 minute drive towards the national park. Our first stop, some granite caves. After a short climb up some granite rocks, we stopped at the first cave – there were markings on the rock face of people, giraffes and zebra. It was quite cool to think how old they must be. Our guide has spent a lot of time living with bushmen, so we spent the next hour listening to his stories and looking at more pictures. The number of bushmen are rapidly declining, he estimated that only around 300 are left. Bushmen are the indigenous people to Southern Africa, they don’t have a lot of land left. Recent relocations (particularly around Namibia and Botswana) have caused further depletion of their numbers as they could not survive in their new locations.
Next up, a local village. We have stopped off at several villages over the last month, but all have had a bit of a tourism edge to them. This one however, was totally different. Not once did anyone ask for anything (usually pens, sweets, biscuits, money…).
The family we visited is headed up by Pondo. An 81 year old Zimbabwean. (the average life expectancy of Zimbabwe is now 27 years old – I was shocked by this). Here, the houses are round, made of a concrete-like material and thatched roof. They were neatly painted pale tan and yellow colours and some had cute heart shaped windows. The room we sat in was cool (boiling not outside) and really neat and tidy. They were pretty.
Pondo seemed genuinely pleased and excited to meet us all, dancing around the room greeting us all. He did not speak english, but our guide translated. Pondo was dressed in a cheetah skin and told us his story – when he was 20 years old, he tried to fend off a cheetah from killing his cows and nearly died while doing so. Fortunately someone was there to save him, shot the cheetah and he has kept the skin ever since. He took delight in showing us his teeth-mark scars on his legs and back. He explained how he has helped to set up some of the local national parks and even danced for Queen Elizabeth (queen mother) when she visited. He was such a cheery, happy person, it was really refreshing.
Our guide later told us that Pondo is looking after his grandchildren as 5 of his 10 children have died as a result of HIV. Our guide also explained that most, if not all of the children are also probably infected as a result. The infection rate in Zimbabwe is shocking. Government reports around 40%, but in reality is expected to be closer to 80%. That’s scary.
Pondo took us around the back of his plot of land to show us his traditional grain storage bins. Apparently grain will stay fresh for upto 3 years in these mud containers!
Afterwards, the children performed a song and dance for us! Then just wanted to play with us. They were all really nice children. None of them really spoke english, other than to say what their name was. But were fascinated by cameras and wanted to take photos of us with them! I let a couple of them take a few photos, they were so thrilled.
After a salad lunch (was amazing – we haven’t eaten so many vegetables since being in Africa!), it was time to go rhino trekking! We were looking out for white rhino here! (saw black rhino in the Serengeti).
At the gates of the park was a sign stating that anyone attempting to poach rhino horn will be shot on sight. Even with this risk, it has not acted as much of a deterrent with at least 6 still occurring per year. Rhino horn, made of keratin, is traditionally used as a x (although this has never been proven) and for handles of knives in the middle east.
To start with, we drove around as our guide looked out for fresh rhino prints. Initially, we found some that were several days old, then found a pile of fresh poo! Rhinos are predictable animals, they have their own territories that they roam around. The males mark their territory by stomping their poo around. There were prints around that were a couple of hours old. The guide decided this would be a good place to start our walk!
If we found a rhino, you can get quite close. The guide told us to follow anything he said to do. If the rhino charged us, the best thing to do is climb a tree! Uh, really?! This made us all a bit nervous! The guy obviously knew what he was doing, we followed the tracks for a while lost them, found them again, found spots where the rhino had rolled around and stomped in some mud. But after almost an hour, no rhino.
So we moved on to another spot. We did this a few times, found some fairly recent prints and attempted to follow them. Eventually we gave up on that particular rhino and drove around to a completely different place where a different rhino is known to frequent.
The guide showed us a couple of skeletons – one from a white rhino which died naturally from old age and one from a black rhino which was shot by poachers and it’s horns stolen. This was fairly recent, only a couple of months ago. They never caught the poachers.
With all the rhino excitement, we forgot about the rocks. The piles of granite rocks were pretty spectacular! Some were weathered into shapes- one looked like a woman holding a baby on her back. The whole area was very pretty.
After 4 hours in the park, it was 6pm (gate closing time). We didn’t find a rhino. Devastated.
To rub salt into wound, there were fresh rhino prints over our footprints of a couple hours previously.
Although no rhinos, we saw a couple of things:
– more hippos. Bit sick of these now!!
– a wildebeest;
– an eland. We’ve seen these before several times, but the guides were excited – they’ve not seen them in Matapos for over 2 years
– 3 zebra.
A chilly drive back to camp. As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops from boiling to freezing.
The last truck dinner tonight, it’s the beginning of ‘lasts’, something I’m not enjoying too much.