Close encounters in Zimbabwe
"You might not realize it, but this is a completely wild elephant bull standing just a couple of meters away and the only thing between him and us is this broken down wooden fence."
It was only after Jordan whispered those words that I understood that I was not in a zoo but in the middle of the unforgiving African wilderness. Our drive to Hwange was long and exhausting, the roads through Botswana and Zimbabwe are uncomfortable at the best of times. Waves of gaping potholes would appear in the darkness, unpredictable mine fields that require the driver to be on highest alert. Then there are the animals. Cows, donkeys, elephants - they all seem to be drawn to the lusher greens on the other side of the road. Having such massive animals appear in front of you in the dark will make your heart bounce.
Hwange is the biggest national park in Zimbabwe. Our guide for the day was Jordan, a laid back 26 year old white guy, born and bred in Zimbabwe. It was just him, his rifle and the five of us, on a hunt from dawn till dusk in a 38 year old land cruiser. Jordan had it all covered – animal spotting, background stories, bush craft – it was by far our best game drive yet. We had couple stand offs with angry elephants, but Jordan wouldn’t back down. "If we back down they will think they won, and then they may become really dangerous. We mean them no harm, they should know that. But good thing you all signed your waivers before entering the park, eh?"
Early afternoon we reached a secluded spot at the rear end of the park – a round, fenced area with a couple of rudimentary huts. We stopped here to have some lunch and escape the hot midday sun. Then Jordan jumped up. "There are elephants coming our way. Follow me, be quiet and stay low". We stayed behind the last hut at the far end of the area while Jordan sneaked to the fence. Before him, a couple of meters away, were two male bulls. They are attracted by the Marula Tree – chocolate for elephants. They shake it to make the fruit fall to the ground, an impressive and intimidating display of raw strength. Jordan gave me a sign to join him, not something I was too comfortable with. We saw a couple of very aggressive elephants in the last couple of weeks, but always from the safety of a car. We were so close we could hear them chew – an amazing and surreal experience. "Don’t do this anywhere else. We actually shouldn’t be this close, but they look relatively comfortable. But if I give you a signal, move back behind the hut, slow and low". The signal came 10 minutes later.
Back at the camp Jordan offered to take us on a night ride outside of the park - "It’s full moon and we might have some wild encounters". So we all jumped on the jeep (which still had no windows or window screen), packed in the warmest clothes we had. It was the 6 of us, a crate of beer and a bottle of scotch. Sober driving is open for interpretation in Zimbabwe. After a bit Jorden stopped the car and turned off the lights, on the middle of some railway tracks. "This is second longest railway in Africa..." – I didn’t hear the rest. There was a light coming closer. "Jordan man, there’s a light there" – David spoke it out first. Jordan was not stopping his speech. Something about coal mining I think, I might be wrong. There were more pressing issues than African mining history. "JORDAN!". He finally stopped, in the dark I could see the cheeky grin on his face. "Don’t worry, it’s further away than you think…"
Our next stop was the Hwange Safari Lodge. This is the place where you will most likely encounter the most dangerous predator in Africa – the rich white man. It’s the first time I felt poor since entering this continent. Water ponds, expensive looking bars and elegantly prepared camp fires overlooking a personal water hole. There’s chart on the wall showing the animal sightings on each day. They see more animals here in one day than we did in three weeks, and that without leaving the comfortable chairs and the cold Heinekens. This was no place for us, and Jordan knew that. This was part of the sightseeing.
On the way back there was a sudden howl in the night. Once more Jordan stopped the car and turned off the lights (blocking both lanes). Then he started howling. "I think there’s something moving" – Nikki whispered. Jordan turned on the spot lights – we were facing a pack of Hyenas, standing on the middle of the road, 2 meters from the car. That’s the first time we saw them on this trip. They were looking at us, confused by Jordan’s howling.
Back at the camp we sat around the campfire, opening a fresh bottle of Jonny Walkers and listening to some of Jordan’s stories. He used to work for the Zimbabwean Conservancy, chasing animals and poachers. He was part of the hunting party that was chasing the famous Lions of Bikita, a pride of lions that were causing rampage throughout the country, killing cattle and people alike. Heavy rifles, shotguns, gruesome finds and uncertain odds – Stuff Hollywood is made of. But that is a story for another time.