The important thing, our guide Norman tells us at the start of our rhino trek, is not to make any sudden or fast movements. These big beasts might weigh a couple of tons but they can go from nought to 35 miles an hour in seconds. “Be slow and be respectful, these are the rules of engagement,” he says. “Basically we are knocking on their door. If you show good manners that’s when you get results.”
And can we please turn our phones to airplane mode. Poachers greedy for rhino horn – at $100,000 a kilo worth twice as much as gold – are always on the alert for GPS giveaways.
Matobo National Park
We are in the Matobo National Park in South West Zimbabwe where science and technology are combining with traditional knowledge not only to protect the rhino but to enable visitors to get close to them on foot.
We manage in the early morning light to find and walk to within 20 metres of a “bachelor’” herd of three young males and a younger female who eye us cautiously but not with any apparent hostility.
Then, perhaps inevitably, someone stumbles or steps on a twig and the herd takes off, but fortunately not in our direction. We have the obligatory armed ranger alongside us but no-one wants to put his skills to the test.
Back at the vehicle Norman tells us more about the preservation projects including a de-horning programme, a shoot-to-kill policy to tackle poaching and the involvement of the local community. Guest donations, for example, are given to the village every month but not if any animals have “disappeared” in the meantime.
There are nearly 700 species of birds, as well as 200 species of mammals and over 6,000 species of flora. We see dozens of wonderful birds on our game drives including eagles, vultures, cranes, storks, weavers and guinea fowl as well as the delightful secretary bird, so named because it appears to be walking on high heels and have a feather pen tucked behind its ear.
The stone city of Great Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has much to offer, both natural and man-made. An example of the latter is Great Zimbabwe near Masvingo in the South East, the ruins of an extraordinary stone city created by the Bantu civilisation between the 11th and 15th centuries, once home to kings, their 200 wives and up to 20,000 of their subjects.
The word Zimbabwe is a combination of Zi (big), mba (house) and bwe (stone); the designation “great” is to distinguish it from the 250 other “big houses of stone” scattered around the country. So significant is the place to the people’s sense of their history that the word was an almost automatic choice for the country’s name after independence in 1980.
They say its scale – the site covers 200 acres – and its architectural achievements – the valley enclosure has 11 metre high walls of 15,000 tons of stone all built without mortar – should rank it only a little lower than other giant stone structures like the Pyramids and Angkor Wat. The difference is that although this too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is relatively unknown outside the country.