A Leopard-Wearing Man and the Terrible Twins

30 Oct

Matobo National Park curves around tall rocky hills that rise up over bushy fields in southern Zimbabwe. The hills are a mosaic of brown, orange, yellow, white, and green granite boulders, some of which are precariously stacked in rock towers that look like they will tumble down with the next light breeze that wafts through. But somehow these rock configurations stay balanced.

Some precariously stacked rocks

Formerly South Rhodesia (named after Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers and the Rhodes scholarship and a British imperialist in Africa in the late 1800s), Zimbabwe was granted independence from Britain in 1980 and named after Great Zimbabwe, the second biggest site of ruins in Africa (after Egypt’s ruins).

On our way to Matobo National Park, we stopped at these ancient ruins – dating back to the 11th Century – and toured what is thought to have been the king’s stone palace built between rocks on a hill overlooking in the valley below a circular stone complex that, according to our guide, housed the king’s 200 wives.

The king's view of the valley below

The king’s valley view was quite impressive, but I was underwhelmed by his kingdom’s ruins. Normally, I love trying to imagine what it would be like to be a person living in an ancient place during its heyday. But it was hard for me to envision a civilization living in what has been preserved of the stone structures of Great Zimbabwe.

Our next day was a day of exploration through Matobo National Park. We first took a “bush walk” (basically, a walk around the bushy wilderness) through the woods and up and over the rocky hills of the park.

The deadly tree

Along the way, our guide taught us about some of the flora through which we were traversing, such as the bush whose leaves are supposed to be an aphrodisiac for women and the tree with super poisonous sap that can kill a person who touches it in thirty minutes.

Despite the shock-factor involved with being so close (literally inches away) to a deadly tree, I was most enthralled with learning about the origin of colorful paintings on the walls of the rocks and caves. The array of giraffes, zebras, and men were engraved into the rocks thousands of years ago (30,000 years ago if we were to believe our exaggerative tour guide) by the bushmen, nomadic people who our tour guide told us have lived in Africa for over 200,000 years (again, I think he may have been exaggerating) and who some believe to be the holders of the gene from which all humans come from, the “Adam gene” (our tour guide would have had us believe that this has been conclusively proved).

Giraffes painted on a cave wall by the bushmen

Even though I was a bit skeptic about some of the grand assertions our tour guide made about the bushmen, I was fascinated that the extraordinary bushmen society still exists. There remain only a few thousand of the bushmen who practice the original lifestyle – moving from place to place, believing that land and things cannot be possessed, hunting and eating only every few days, sometimes eating as much as 30 pounds of meat in one sitting. They are very small – under five feet tall – with slanted eyes, lightish hair and skin, broad foreheads and pointed chins, and very big butts that store the fat they consume since their next meal won’t be for another few days. Sadly, they only live to about 35 years old, but, as our guide fairly pointed out, they live full, meaningful, happy lives.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet any bushmen, but it was cool to see their original artwork on the cave walls and to appreciate that in our technological and consumer driven world, there are still a few humans out there who live a traditional lifestyle without having any true possessions.

Some of Pondo's children and grandchildren

Next we stopped at the home of Pondo. An exuberant and energetic 79-year old man who doesn’t look a day over 60, Pondo is very proud of his ten children (five of whom have died of HIV/AIDS, a huge problem in Zimbabwe due to the lack of education) and thirteen grandchildren.

Pondo loves to show off the scars he received from a leopard he killed back in the 1950s. It wasn’t a completely unjustified killing – the leopard was eating his cows, which is one of the most prized possessions a man like Pondo can have. Pondo almost didn’t survive the fight – the leopard managed to pierce his leg numerous times and take away his sight in one eye. In the end, Pondo was victorious, and today he wears the leopard’s coat like a trophy.

Pondo wearing his leopard coat like a trophy

Pondo also danced for Queen Elizabeth at the dedication of a memorial site to Cecil Rhodes, another accomplishment of which he rightfully boasts.

We reluctantly said goodbye to the entertaining Pondo. But the day had only just begun. After a quick lunch, we headed back into the bushy safari park to go … rhino trekking! Yes, we were searching for white rhinos by foot, without the safety of a land cruiser to give us a quick getaway should they decide to turn against us.

It was a treacherous walk. Not only were we trekking huge beasts with horns on their heads, the sandy dirt ground was full of extremely sharp thorns. At one point, Adam had to piggy back me while three of our group members tried to dig one of these feisty thorns out of my shoe.

We marched through the sharp brush looking for rhino tracks and droppings for an hour to no avail. It seemed it wasn’t our lucky day.

Then, finally, we saw them. Two gigantic male rhinos, chomping on the grass right in front of us. They were nicknamed the “Terrible Twins,” said our guide. (I didn’t want to know why.)

One of the Terrible Twins staring right at us

We slowly and silently crept closer and closer to them, making it to about twenty feet away. More than once, one of them stopped chowing and glared meanly right at us. Each time this happened, I really thought we were done for. Apparently rhinos, despite their massive size, are quite fast, much faster than humans. Fortunately, they have incredibly bad eyesight. If they did decide to charge, our guide told us he would yell the safety code word, “Tree!,” which meant, climb the nearest tree as quickly as possible.

Obviously, we made it out alive. We are now headed northeast through Zimbabwe for more safari time in Hwange National Park.

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