Matopo National Park is home to 56 black and 43 white rhino, both species highly endangered due to the value of their horns reaching a value of $100,000 per kilo. The difference in the species is primarily that the black rhino has a double horn, making it even more vulnerable to ugly poaching. We spent an entire day in the Matopo bush with our Zimbabwe tour guide, Norman, who himself had a very interesting story to share with us of his life as a white Zimbabwean who had elected to stay in the country despite the civil war and subsequent land grab that made life here so dangerous and difficult these past thirty years.
We set off from our hostel in the early morning hours, the many layers that I had put on still not offering much in the way of warmth in the freezing open safari vehicle we were in that blew the wind and rain on us on and off all day. It was not a warm day, and I was beginning to miss the unbearable heat…if that was possible!
Norman gave us some history of the English explorer, entrepreneur, diamond miner, and politician Cecil Rhodes who first came to Zim and found his home and a wealth of natural resources that he could exploit and profit from. Of course, the land was eventually named after him – Rhodesia – before the Mugabe government changed the name after the medieval ruins we’d visited several days prior. We saw his first homestead and ended the day visiting his grave. His story is rather impressive, and he accomplished much for someone who died right before achieving his 50th birthday.
The park itself has really cool rock formations that are basically layers of sedimentary deposits that have been weathered and subsequently formed really unique shapes, caverns and round, ball-like structures that were inhabited by the original indigenous of Africa – the San Bush men…who sadly, have dwindled in numbers as has their traditional way of life and culture subsequent to the migration of the Bantu and the white people into their homeland.
Norman was quite the expert, and knew a lot about rhino, the Matopos, and the anthropology and ways of the bushmen, making for a very entertaining and educational day.
Of course, the highlight was trekking into the sparse trees and bushes and discovering a family of about 7 white rhino and getting to observe them from a very close distance. Norman informed us of how to behave to avoid any provocation of these sensitive massive animals. We gave them our scent by approaching with the wind, and then stood quietly at a distance while they checked us out and indicated their comfort with having humans so close by deciding to lay back down in the undergrowth and mud.
What was most surprising and humbling about getting so close to the rhinos, was the sounds that they made! Especially the little one that was very vocal in communicating with its mother. The only way I can describe the noise they make is that it sounds rather like recordings I’ve heard of whales in the ocean. A rather sweet, high pitched little squeal.
The rest of the day Norman took us on bush walks and taught us how we could survive out here with no water, food, or shelter – something of a specialty knowledge he possessed . He also took us to some cave paintings that are estimated as being over 20,000 years old, but not containing any trace of carbon (the San people used bile from an animal’s gall bladder, mixed with it’s uric acid to create the paint they used) it is impossible to accurately estimate the age of the artwork.
Norman also gave us a fascinating history of the San people’s way of life, together with a demonstration of their remarkable language which is basically a series of clicks. Less than five feet in height, with a light brown skin, and slightly angled eyes…they do not resemble any other people in this part of the world, which I found very interesting indeed. Anthropologically, Norman said that they could easily have co-existed with today’s Australian Aborignies when the two continents were connected. There are certainly lots of elements of both people’s culture that is similar – the concept of ownership of things is very foreign to the San, only take from the earth what is needed at this very moment, live in harmony with nature, live in large family-based groups that share all resources…to name but a few.
I managed to capture on video Norman giving his best impression of their incredible language and I will, hopefully, be able to share it with you on YouTube once I’m back in the land of functioning wifi.
Norman himself also gave us an account of life during the war of 1975-81 which we asked about with trepidation, after having been giving some very severe warnings about refraining from any political conversations while in Zim. Together with an account given to us by another white national whom we met in Victoria Falls, I have now formed at least a semblance of an idea of what happened during this period in history, and more importantly, what it was like to live through it for someone who elected to stay in the country (Norman) vs. flee to South Africa as David had.
Roughly half of the 30,000 white army that formed to fight for land rights and for homes during the war perished. Both men recounted the names of friends and family members that they had lost. They talked about how their country used to be an economic stronghold, and major exporter of foodstuffs such as maize and beef, feeding much of Southern Africa, only to now be reliant on incoming aid and import to feed their citizens. They talked about the land grab of 1998, where thousands of white farmers had their land and homes taken from them by force, many of them losing their lives in the process. David, whom we’d met in Vic Falls, talked about how a friend of his watched in horror as her husband was beaten to death, only to escape into the rocky hills behind her farm and walk 40 miles through the night to the Mozambique border, and then re-settling into South Africa with nothing but the clothes on her back. The situation is far from simple, and there are improvements being made…but hearing their firsthand accounts was very compelling and makes me want to do more of my own research and reading on the subject.
The one thread or element in both men’s stories that united them was this – a palpable love for their home country. Nowhere else on earth would ever enter their hearts the way Rhodesia, and now Zimbabwe has.