The Other Side of Zimbabwe
Rhodes Matopos National Park, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is making the papers for its political turmoil, food shortages and most recently, for its sporting associations with the Cricket World Cup. But what most people fail to hear about is the natural wonders of this amazing African country.
Bulawayo, a stronghold of the opposition to Mugabe’s regime, is also home to the Rhodes Matopos National Park one of the finest in Africa. It offers the rare experience of walking to view rhinos and other species without the threat of predatory animals.
Rhodes Matopos National Park is a stark contrast to the world of bread queues and international politics. Through its gates we are afforded an unforgettable close encounter with one of the most wanted animals on earth: the white rhino. Set amongst spectacular rock formations that defy gravity, white rhinos live in harmony with zebras, antelope and other grassland species. What sets these rhinos apart is their tolerance of humans, as they have been protected from a young age by rangers, who guard their precious ivory horns.
As we approach in silence, my very experienced guide assures us that the rhinos won’t charge. If they do, we are told to run for the nearest tree and climb it. “Even rhinos can have bad days,” is the logic behind this precaution, although it is not much comfort as the rhino looms closer and my butt is planted on the ground.
I take my place tentatively in the long grass as the animals feed nearby. Impervious to natural suspicion of humans, they continue grazing and come within four meters of our small group. We sit in stunned silence and take in the sounds of the animal kingdom: the munching of grass and the odd grunt of communication. The size of these animals is mind-boggling. Their huge horns that have made them so famous protrude from above their square jaws and lips. It is this facial distinction, rather than their colour, that sets them apart from their bad-tempered relatives, the black rhino.
Later, on foot, I come across a mother and a 9-week-old baby. Protective of her young, the mother still lets us get within five meters, as cameras go mad with their zoom lenses fully extended. Being this close to a prized animal makes you understand and respect the order of being in the animal world how size rules and how vulnerable we humans really are. Then we come across an old male resting under the shade of an acacia tree. He appears tired from many years of holding the weight of his huge tusk, which rises well above his ears.
The backdrop for these encounters is spectacular. Rock formations that are thousands of years old stand proudly, at bizarre angles. Sunlight casts deep red, ochre and browns onto the rocks and contrasts the dryness of the grasslands and bushveldt. These rocks have been home for centuries to the San people, better known as the Kalahari Bushman, who have painted stories and messages on the various formations.
This is but one of the wonders that are to be found in Zimbabwe. The little tourism that does come through is enough to sustain the park, and to keep the habitat of these wonderful creatures safe from encroaching development. Hopefully, it can return to being a peaceful nation that makes the headlines for its wildlife and natural resources, rather than its political associations.