By M. E. Schuman
Translated from the Karange dialect of Shona, Zimbabwe means "houses of stones”
Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, was a bustling city in 1992 as my partner and I stepped off a local bus from the airport. With backpacks and a city map we wandered until we found a room in a guesthouse as we looked for a car to rent. A year earlier while we were exploring Tikal, watching the sunset from the tallest ruin in the jungle, we listened to a story about a safe and easy country in Africa for those who like to travel independently.
“You don’t even need a visa!” our fellow traveler exclaimed.
As we had a month, our plan was to visit as many of the National Parks in Zimbabwe as we could. But first we needed to find a car. In 1992 the process to do this on a budget for a month, was by word of mouth. On the second day, after chatting with a valet at a nearby hotel, we scored a well-used faded baby blue Mazda. After re-familiarizing ourselves with driving on the left side of the road in Harare, with a map in hand, we headed to Hwange National Park, the largest natural reserve in Zimbabwe.
After securing a one room thatched hut with an attached screen porch for a few dollars a day, we jumped into our baby blue ‘tin can’ and explored. We had an hour before dusk, at which time the gate of the fenced compound would be locked, keeping not only humans out but also big game until dawn, the next morning.
The following is an excerpt from The Understory: A Female Environmentalist in the Land of the Midnight Sun:
“Justin was trying to avoid these large black mounds scattered across the narrow two-lane road. Steam was rising, even in the warm air. After nearly high-centering the Mazda, we stopped. I opened the door and saw dung beetles rolling small round balls from the mounds. At that moment, we felt the ground shake. The trumpeting was deafening as a herd of elephants engulfed us – one of the most powerful and magnificent mammals on the planet. I don’t think we breathed as our view became ‘gray’ from the massive animals. They were that close. I saw beautiful, long black eyelashes as a large matriarch walked by the front of the car. I looked right into her eyes and saw humanity.”
“Back at the hut, we sat at the picnic table and drank a cold beer. It seemed the nightly entertainment had begun. The rangers warned visitors to lock their doors and we soon found out why as a troop of baboons sauntered by. They work in pairs with one as a sentry and the other checking the screen doors on the huts. If the occupant leaves a door unlocked the thieves help themselves to any item, including beer, from the small refrigerator.”
Only in Africa.
After Hwange we made our way to Matopos National Park or referred to now as Matobo where we could camp in our very thin lightweight tent. Other than the park guard we were nearly isolated among the granite kopjes and acacia. With the exception of course, of the wildlife. We were greeted with the presence of white rhino and black rhino in their mutual habitats. And most spectacular and shocking: both species and the animals we saw, had their horns!
Herds of elephant, giraffe, hyena, zebra, antelope, and my favorite of the antelope, the sable greeted us every day. In the early morning and at dusk, we would visit a pan where we observed hippo and elephant, crocodile, and an abundance of birds. Each visit would provide a new viewing.
One late afternoon, a female giraffe followed by a baby, glided in front our vehicle with the grace of a ballerina, only to stop and feed on an acacia near the side of the road. We sat quietly watching the mom’s nimble tongue maneuver around the thorns, chewing on the delicate leaves.
Looking back on my first trip to Africa I am haunted by a picture in the news of a smiling woman from Montana, her firearm upright in her hand with a dead giraffe at her feet. I can still hear the story from a co-worker after spending tens of thousands of dollars after one of his many visits to South Africa, after killing a drugged lion.
I think of Cecil, one of the most well-known animals amongst the visitors. The male lion of Hwange was distinguishable by his black-tinged mane.
In 2015, at the age of 12 Cecil was killed by an American trophy hunter using an elephant carcass as bait, luring him out of Hwange National Park. Severely injuring him with an arrow, he suffered for ten hours until the hunting party tracked him and then killed him with a second arrow.
There are only 20,000 mature lions left on this planet. Although multiple countries have banned the import of lion trophies, the United States, the number 1 importer of hunting trophies in the world, is not one of them. Two years after Cecil's killing, his son Xanda met a similar fate. Unlike that of his father, Xanda's killing was not termed illegal, though it did provoke outrage.
As seekers of knowledge, it is our responsibility as a traveler, as a reader, and as a writer, to be the voice of those who cannot speak. It is our duty to protect these creatures from the ignorant and the arrogant. It is our choice as to what our legacy is to be. And to ensure Cecil’s legacy and pride survives in the wilds of Africa.
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