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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tracking Zimbabwe's Elusive Rhinoceros




The big head with the massive black horns swung round aggressively to face us. The rest of the powerful body was hidden by the grass. He stared at us long and hard, and I was glad there was a small river with steep banks between us. Still watchful, the buffalo pushed his way into a thick clump of bushes, and maneuvered his great frame round to face us, horns just visible.


"He looks just like the bull that charged me last year," Leon Varley said casually as we walked to a termite mound from where we had a good view. "Old bulls like that are the worst. They get very bad-tempered in their old age, full of worms and arthritis."


Leon, a former professional hunter who now specializes in walking safaris, leaned his .458 American-made Ruger, powerful enough to stop an elephant, against the white pillar made by the termites. Stephen, his Matabele tracker, slipped off his rucksack and passed round the water bottles. Ann Fitzgerald, the only other masochist on the safari, and I sat down gratefully for a short rest.


"What happened with the buffalo?" I asked Leon.


"Well, we walked into him and he took off. We kept walking because we were going in that direction anyway. Suddenly he appeared again, about 60 meters in front of us, and charged. I had my rifle up to fire when one of the clients who had come up to take a photograph, turned to run, knocked my elbow, and the shot went wide. At the last moment, the buffalo swerved and disappeared." Leon paused, reliving the moment. "We were lucky. I've never known a buffalo that didn't charge all the way before."


We had started early, the grass wet from a heavy dew, the air cool, the only sound the rush of a dove's wings. Leon pointed to a blue mountain shaped like a tortoise. "That's Tundazi, sacred to the Batonga. They believe that when God comes to destroy the Earth he'll use Tundazi as his stepping stone."


We were in Chizarira, the remotest of Zimbabwe's 11 national parks, a wilderness lying along the top of the spectacularly steep Zambezi escarpment. We walked in single file, Leon first in shorts and sandals, shouldering the Ruger; immediately behind him Stephen, a descendant of Mzilikazi's impis who conquered Mashonaland, later part of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the 1800s, then Ann, who was born in Chicago and had just finished a year in Namibia with UNICEF, and lastly me. After an hour Leon's watch beeped and we stopped for our first rest. The country was relatively open, dotted with strange-shaped baobab trees. A pair of black-shouldered kites were circling between the baobabs and acacias when a larger bird of prey intervened with a harsh scream.


"Dark chanting goshawk," said Leon. I noticed another smaller raptor hovering motionless. "Looks like a kestrel," I ventured. Leon raised his binoculars. "It is. Wait a minute. Yes, it's a Dickinson's kestrel, which is quite rare. Well spotted."


We were following the Masekele river through thickish bush when Leon suddenly stopped. Craning over his shoulder I could just make out a large bull elephant facing us on the far bank. He was partly obscured by bushes on which he was feeding, but he looked enormous, the great ears flapping like a giant punkah to cool his huge body. One of his tusks was broken and it looked as if he had lost an eye, possibly in a fight with another bull.


"Very poor eyesight, but very acute hearing and sense of smell," Leon whispered. What little wind there was blew from the elephant to us. If we kept quiet and still, he would probably not know we were there. "When you're on foot, you have to keep your eyes on the animal all the time."


We had walked more than 14 kilometers by the time we stopped to picnic by the river, which splashed and gurgled over sandstone slabs into a green pool. Orange-tip butterflies and brown-veined whites swirled in the sunlight and a large black and yellow citrus swallowtail raced past, jinking and swerving at a speed that almost defeated the eye. We stumbled into camp that night dog-tired, having walked more than 22 kilometers. Leon was obviously breaking us in the hard way.


The next day, after failing to track the lion we had heard roaring near the camp all night, we made a big circle through the hills, eventually approaching camp from the west with the sun behind us. The going was soft near the river so we swung left to harder ground. We were in single file in thick bush when, unmistakably, a lion growled. Everyone froze. After a whispered consultation with Stephen, Leon retreated a few yards and then tried to detour past the lion. Twenty yards up the hill, another deep growl -- low in the throat, and which seemed to make the ground reverberate -- stopped us in our tracks. Leon raised his rifle to his shoulder, ready for instant action.


"Back!" he ordered, facing the direction the lion would come from if it charged.


"Back!" Stephen repeated, and then as I stumbled, "Don"t run!"I wanted to say I had no intention of running, but concentrated instead on trying to prevent myself falling flat on my face. Walking backwards over rough ground without tripping is, in my opinion, an impossible exercise. As if to prove it, Ann and I collided a couple of times as I attempted the impossible.


Leon decided to retreat to the river, giving the still invisible lion a wide berth. Reaching the bottom of the hill we started to force our way through a dense bed of reeds seven feet high. Something exploded out of the reeds in front of us, making my heart pound.


"Reed buck," said Leon as it crashed off. Suddenly it gave a high-pitched alarm whistle -- it had probably scented the lion. As we walked along the river to find a crossing place, I found myself glancing back apprehensively, just in case we were being followed.


But it was rhino I had really come to see, and there are no rhino in Chizarira. They were nearly all massacred for their horns by Zambian poachers from across the Zambezi in the late '80s and early '90s. "There were skulls everywhere," says Leon Varley who is passionate about rhinos. "It was an absolute tragedy." The few that survived were moved to safer areas, including Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest national park, and Matusadona, on the shores of Lake Kariba.


Norman English, Hwange's game warden, says there were 2,500 black rhinos in Zimbabwe in 1985; today there are only 320. But he is optimistic. "We haven't had a single rhino poached since 1994. And the annual rate of increase is between seven and 10 percent." Interestingly, there are more rhino in private "conservancies" in Zimbabwe than in the national parks: almost two to one, according to Nicholas Duncan, director of the Save Foundation of Australia which has raised more than 350,000 Australian dollars ($235,000) for rhino conservation in Zimbabwe.


To try to find one of the few remaining rhinos, Leon took me to the northern tip of Hwange, bisected by the broad sandy bed and imposing red cliffs of the Lukosi river. Early one morning, we moved quietly into a secret world of dense bush and riverine forest. After half an hour, Stephen took the lead, eyes down, all senses sharp. The bush seemed to be holding its breath.


A golden oriole shot silently overhead like a molten arrow. Stephen pointed. I could see nothing. "Rhino tracks," whispered Leon, "from late last night." Five minutes later, he pointed under a bush in thick shade. "Rhino midden ..." I knew that rhino, unlike elephant, keep to one area, and are neat in their personal habits. In the next hour, we saw several more middens.


"Tracking is the oldest profession," Leon joked while we rested. "Without it the other one wouldn't exist."


Then, suddenly, the tracks disappeared, obliterated by a herd of elephant. Disappointed, we drove back to camp. Rounding a bend, we saw a leopard strolling serenely across the road 100 meters ahead. As we drove up, she slipped out of the bush beside the road and ran low through the grass, dropped flat, ran again; looked back one last time and disappeared.


Even Leon and Stephen were excited. Although there are plenty about, leopards are so secretive they are rarely sighted. "That's four out of the big five you've seen," Leon enthused. "Elephant, buffalo, lion at the Nyamandlovu Pan, and now leopard. Only rhino to go." It would have to be tomorrow, our last day.


Another perfect morning, the air cool as we start walking, no wind, the bush silent in the early sunshine. Common grass yellows, the color of buttercups, dance in front of us. "We'll go along the river bed, and see if we can pick up any tracks there," Leon says. The great stretch of sand is empty. We pass a pool where we saw tracks of a rhino and her calf the day before and walk along the edge of the riverbed. Stephen stops and points. "Rhino track, male, very fresh." We follow up the steep bank.


A grey lourie, the go-away bird, reports our passage. Stephen moves like a green wraith, the faintest scuff mark enough for his uncanny eyes. The bush thickens. I remember stories of how more British soldiers were injured by rhinos in the Aberdare Forest in Kenya than were wounded by Mau Mau. "We've lost him," Leon says finally. To give us a better chance he and I go one way, Stephen another. The sun is directly overhead. Even the doves are silent.


We come to the road. A little later Stephen joins us, dejected. They confer, and then Leon explains. "We spooked him, and he took off." Stephen says he saw the tracks of a rhino running. We walk down the road. Leon bends down. In the sand, unmistakable, are the tracks of a rhino at full tilt, the imprint of the big toe an a few centimeters deep. I peer into the bush on the far side of the road. "Can't follow him, I'm afraid," Leon says. "That's a no-walking area."


I felt cheated, until I remembered April and Ian Piercy. They had invited me to Lake Kariba to meet their foster daughter, Chewore. Ian warned me she might give us such a friendly welcome, that there was a danger of being trampled. "She is, you see, a baby rhino and she weighs nearly 800 kilos."


Two days later, we drove to Kariba and boarded the Piercys' motor yacht Kamba, which means "tortoise" in Shona. I took off my walking boots, and lay back in almost sinful comfort, a glass of Boschendal white in my hand as we purred smoothly out of harbor into the blue expanse of Lake Kariba. The dam itself, built in 1958 across the Zambezi to generate electricity for Zimbabwe and Zambia, is a marvel of engineering. But once away from the towering dam wall you are in the wilds of Africa, among great herds of elephant and buffalo, surrounded by a multitude of birds -- from mighty fish eagles to tiny jewel-like malachite kingfishers -- which inhabit the sunken forests along the shore.


After dining alfresco, I turned in early to my spacious cabin, its mahogany furnishings copied from the old Mauretania, and proofed against mosquitoes. Soporific from fresh air, good South African wine, and the thought that I had at last made the social register -- Princess Diana's brother was a recent guest -- I was soon asleep, only to be woken at 6 a.m. by a brilliant red ball invaded my port window. Above, in the saloon, Ann was dispensing early morning tea and plans for the day.


"In half a hour we"ll land at Tashinga, headquarters of the Matusadona national park, where we'll meet Zeff, the game warden. He used to run the anti-poaching unit for the whole country. He'll take us to see Chewore and her new friend."


Zeff, who looked as if he could deal with anything on two or four legs, walked us into the bush behind his office. Somewhere in here Chewore was lurking. As April and I waited for the onslaught of a three-quarter ton, overly affectionate rhino, she described how she and Ian had come to be foster parents.


"As a small baby, Chewore and her mother were moved here to escape the poachers. Chewore came by helicopter, but the mother was darted, which is pretty traumatic, and transported by road. When she arrived her milk had dried up. So they asked for volunteers to feed the baby round the clock. Ian and I drew the short straw, the overnight shift from six at night to six in the morning. She was tiny then but she still needed three to five bottles per feed."


A movement caught my eye. Advancing on us down the narrow path came a hefty grey shape with a sizeable horn, and the sweetest expression on her leathery face. Immediately behind her trotted a relatively pint-sized rhino called Mungofo, which means cheeky, whose mother had been killed by poachers.


"Chewore is only 2 years and 9 months," Zeff said, "but she is as big as she would be at 6 in the wild. She'd only have had a liter of milk a day from her mother, but now she gets 20 liters a day, plus vitamins."


Zeff handed me a branch thicker than my finger, covered in thorns. To my surprise, young Chewore crunched up the branch, thorns and all, as if it were a piece of celery, her lower lip working overtime -- the black rhino is also called the hook-lipped rhino. We patted her, stroked her horn, and photographed her for half an hour, her manners remaining perfect throughout. She was obviously completely at ease with humans, but one thing worried me. Could she and Mungofo ever be returned to the wild?


"Sure," said Zeff. "We're planning to release both of them in a little over a year. She'll be four then, and ready to calve."


Later that day we sailed into a bay, cut the engine and drifted close to a 300-strong herd of buffalo chewing cud and sunning themselves on the lush green torpedo grass at the water's edge. Sacred ibises paced gravely among them, while white cattle egrets and red-billed oxpeckers searched their hide for parasites. For half an hour we sat entranced, the birds and animals ignoring us. I told myself this was what primeval Africa must have been like. "Kariba is the only place I know in the world where you can see game like this," Ian said.


Reluctantly we started the engine and sailed back to Kamba. As we climbed aboard, sunset had turned the lake to black and gold, and filled the sky with bright pink clouds. I watched a gaggle of Egyptian geese fly low and silent across the water, until they vanished.


Getting There


There are no direct flights to Harare from Moscow. British Airways flies five times a week via London for $1,254 return plus tax. Air France flies via Paris for $1,047 return plus tax. Try AC Travel, Tel. 956-1807.


Safari Drive, of Wessex House, 127 High Street, Hunderford, Berks RG17 ODL, Tel. (44) 1488 681611 fax (44) 1488 685055, organizes tailor-made safaris including self-drive Land Rover safaris in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.


The walking safari was organized by Leon Varley, or Backpackers Africa Ltd., Vic Falls Adventure Center, P.O. Box 44, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe tel. (263) 4424/2053/2189 fax (263) 13-4510, e-mail zaibmgllaib.mail.com who operate a variety of walking safaris for parties of up to seven people, price $205 per day, including the 10-day Tundazi Trail backed-up safari in four Zimbabwe National Parks (Chizarira, Hwange, Kazuma and Zambezi) price US$2250 to $2515 depending on season; luxury safaris on request.


The trip to Lake Kariba was organized by April and Ian Piercy, P.O. Box 139, Ruwa, Zimbabwe, tel. (263) 73-2858/2841 fax (263) 73-2612, owners of luxury MY Kamba, which can accommodate a maximum of 8 passengers in 4 double cabins, each with toilet and shower (3 large, 1 smaller) price $1,100 to 1,400 per night depending on season, all inclusive. Walks can be arranged in Matusadona National Park with licensed guide for an extra $250 per party per day.


Staying There


The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge on the edge of Zambezi National Park, five minutes from Victoria Falls, built of local materials in traditional style, has 66 double rooms costing from $154 per person and six duplex suites from $205 per person. It overlooks its own waterhole, floodlit it night for game viewing. Escorted game walks are available.


Sandy Gall was the guest of Safari Drive Ltd., British Airways, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, and April and Ian Piercy.