In the Wild-Zimbabwean EditionReading Time: 7 minutes
Believe it or not, there are people who grew up on the motherland but have never set eyes on a wild animal. In Africa, they have urban and rural areas. Contrary to common belief, in urban areas there are generally no monkeys hanging on the ledges of buildings, elephants at every water fountain in the local parks or domesticated lions running around in people’s gardens for security purposes. In the rural areas, the wild animals will not normally live amongst the residential homes but more in the forests and admittedly hardly make guest appearances close to the residential areas.
Therefore apart from the monkeys I had occasionally seen on the highways of Zimbabawe when taking random trips; where we were repeatedly told not to eat fruit with the windows open or stick our heads out of the windows because the monkeys would teach us a lesson in sharing our fruit or try reach into the car with their sticky arms in search of food. The other exposure we had were visits to Lion and Cheetah Park, Snake Park and many zoos where the animals were in confined environments. The experience was initially interesting, until I realized that many of these animals were not very active and their natural instinct was inhibited therefore all they did was walk, occasionally jump around, stare and sleep. Nothing like the scary animals we read in about or saw on TV.
We were going to the largest national park in Zimbabwe and this experience was going to change. Staying in a chalet outside of Hwange National Park surrounded by savannah grasslands was the closest we were going to, knowingly, sleep in close proximity of wild animals. We were told not to venture too far away from the chalets in the dark as an unexpected visitor may get a fright (I wonder which visitor they were referring to…us or the animals). Once the night filled the sky with twinkles, we enjoyed the view from the safety of the chalet balcony for a while as we discussed which animals we might see the following day. We hoped to see the Big Five in Africa i.e. the lion, the elephant, the leopard, the rhinoceros and the buffalo. Its interesting to note that the term ‘Big Five’ was actually coined by hunters based on the top five animals in Africa that are difficult to hunt on foot but the term was adopted by Safari Tour marketeers.
The guide had informed us that the best viewings would be at dawn when the animals went to the watering holes. So although we felt it was an ungodly hour to get up we did and quickly perked up after arriving at the first view point. We were surprised at the number of jeeps that were already there packed with tourists parked as they watched a scene that looked like it had been taken straight out of the Disney, Lion King illustration room.
It was interesting to watch the elephants drink, wash themselves and their little ones with their extremely dexterous trunks. When they walked towards other animals, it was clear that they seemed to have some sort of ranking as the other animals would walk away. A pride of lions and their cubs ate away at what looked like a wildebeest. It was fascinating to note that the cubs and the lions feasted while the lioness watched. The guide told us that if we returned a couple of days later we would see vultures going for the carcass.
The giraffes, with their long extending legs bent their long necks while doing what almost looked like the splits to have a drink, at this point I had to ask if a giraffe had ever fallen over or broken in half, but apparently it had never happened.
Watching the hippos, emerge from the water was like seeing the water between two islands dry up to reveal the rock beneath, you only noticed that it was a hippo when you saw its beady eyes and its mouth open so wide you wondered if its jaws were still intact. It was very interesting to see how the animals interacted with each other and moved around in their natural environment.
As we continued our drive around, the guide showed us some animal droppings which he explained were sometimes eaten by people for their healing properties. He asked us to try some, but it was too early for the food adventure session of the day. We also came very close to eland, antelope and elephants in the park.
The guide explained that there was a very large population of elephants and that some were actually moved to other national parks across the continent as a way of controlling the populations. There was also a problem with poachers killing elephants for tusks which was becoming more challenging to control because as the elephant population grew, elephants sometimes ventured outside the National Park and occasionally elephant corpses were found. There were various campaigns in place to raise awareness of the protection of elephants in Zimbabwe and in the surrounding countries, as well as campaigns to try and stop the illegal trade of ivory which drove the crimes in the first place.
We only saw two out of the Big Five (lions and elephants) which we were a bit disappointed about. There are a couple of reasons why we may have missed the other three iconic animals, the first one being that we were not there for long enough to go round the park more extensively at different times of the day or the other reason which is equally plausible is the fact that Black rhinoceros is critically endangered with a population of 5,000 which can be found between Kenya and South Africa, Leopards and white rhinoceros are both threatened and thus not many of them are spotted and I am not sure where the buffalos were hiding-their populations are in decline but we should have seen at least one or two.
A few days later we had changed location and the baboons of Victoria Falls decided to harass us repeatedly. They had 1) decided to assault our eyes by insisting on love making in the open area as we headed to the Victoria Falls market (get a room!!!), 2) stolen a fellow tourist’s bag in the hope of finding food but then throwing the contents back at us in disappointment after only finding sunscreen and then, 3) chasing us back to Zimbabwe on the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe and testing my brother’s protective instinct.
The only way we were going to view animals here was from a significant distance and therefore we were lucky enough to go on a helicopter ride over the Victoria Falls and spot a couple of elephant, antelope and zebra herds running across the terrain (again, Lion King anyone?).
We were later welcomed to the Zambezi River Sunset safari by some traditionally dressed entertainers who sang beautifully and danced to the beat of African drums. It totally got us in the mood as we started on a slow and serene cruise.
It took us across a quiet expanse of the river that seemed to extend to the horizon surrounded by bushveld. As the sun set (queue in background music) you could not help but sense that romanticized ‘I’m in Africa feeling’ which quickly disappeared as fellow cruisers announced the spotting of some crocodiles with loud shrieks and overexcited pointing.
The boat went quite close to the crocodile, it looked like if one had held a piece of chicken over the boat it could have grabbed it without expending too much effort. The excitement eventually died down as the crocodile did absolutely nothing and people returned to their seats.
Before long, the boat stopped with no announcement or explanation. The first thought that came to my mind was one of panic as I remembered the crocodile we had left not many metres away, which probably had a family and friends who may have never tasted human flesh before and the breaking down of this boat so close to their home was their prime opportunity. But thankfully I was not left to linger too long with the hyper activity of my imagination as I heard people enthusiastically counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4’, ‘no no it’s 1, 2, 3’ followed by cackles of laughter. It turned out this was a prime location for the hippos to rest and there were about half a dozen of them near our boat, swimming, sinking and coming up for air (as they are mammals they have lungs but can stay underwater for about 5minutes).
Their appearing and disappearing is why people kept restarting their counting. It was so beautiful and was such a beautiful way to end my introduction to the wild side of the Southern African Savannah.
If you have been on Safari, where did you go? What did you enjoy the most about it and which of the animals fascinated or surprised you the most?