A Walk To Remember

Saturday was truly magical! While the day may have started early and I may have been freezing my buns off up until about 10 o’clock, it was soooo worth it!

Picture this: it’s a Saturday, people have been outside drinking for most of the night and were super loud about it, and your alarm goes off. It’s 5:45am and it’s time to get up because you leave in an hour for your final excursion. You’re exhausted because, well, drunk people aren’t considerate people, and you’re not sure if you’re up for bracing the cold morning and drive that lies ahead of you. If you can picture that, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what our Saturday morning started as. However, our fingers and toes were crossed that it would all be worth the freezing cold open jeep drive through Livingstone and to Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, and you know what? It totally was!

For our last excursion in Zambia, Braydan and I booked an early morning Walking Safari adventure through the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. This is the second smallest national park in Zambia, covering only about 66 square kilometers in total. Despite the small size though, this is home to some of Zambia’s only white rhinos. The walking safari through the park is led by a park anti-poaching ranger and a safari guide, both of which track rhino trails in order to (hopefully!) lead you to see the rhinos.

Our guide’s name was Skinny, and yes, he was actually quite skinny. After helping to serve us some tea, coffee, and biscuits, Skinny and the park ranger led us into the bush of the park in search of rhinos. I feel I should mention that literally everyone BUT BRAYDAN was still bundled up at this point. Braydan, on the other hand, has a body temperature that I swear runs about about 100*F always so he rarely gets cold. It was a comical sight to see eight of us in jackets and then him in a short sleeve t-shirt.

As we ventured farther into the park, we were reminded of our visit to Chobe. However, unlike in Chobe where we never left the dirt roads, we went right into the bush, completely off the road. If we had gotten separated at all, we probably would’ve been lost for good. Or, at least until we came to the park fence. Regardless, I felt like an explorer as we hiked across the park, over rocks, hills, and fallen trees in search of the rhinos. As we journeyed, Skinny would stop us periodically to explain how to tell the different tracks from one another, how to tell the different scats from one another (yeah, it’s actually pretty cool), and even found one of the Little 5 for us called the ant lion. They’re these little beetles that burrow in cone shaped holes and attack the prey that falls in by sucking out their juices. Yummy.

Suddenly, as we were walking, the park ranger stopped, turned to all of us, and asked if we’d said our prayers that morning. A little confused, we all just looked at one another, and as he stepped aside, we caught a glimpse of some very large rhinos on the neighboring hill. There were two of them, a momma and her 2.5 year old calf. There are nine rhinos in the park, and we we got to see two of them within our first 15 minutes of walking. Wild! I thought that was the closest we’d get, which was perfectly fine with me, because, you know, RHINOS. But, our guide led us farther on and we came within about 20 yards of the rhinos. Naturally, everyone in the group was buzzing with excitement, be we also maintained a reverence that I’ve yet to hear anywhere outside of a church service.

After everyone got some quality photos, we ventured around another side of the hill, and the guide explained some about the white rhinos and why there is a fence around the park. Due to high poaching rates of rhinos between the 1970s and 1990s, the rhino population was absolutely decimated. Poachers are only interested in one thing from a rhino–its horn–and would slaughter the animals just to cut it off and sell it on the Chinese and Vietnamese black markets. In some traditional Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, ground up rhino horn has medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, so people will pay thousands upon thousands (between $85,000-$120,000) for 1 kg of ground up rhino horn. Most rhino horns weigh between 17-18 kgs, so you can see why they’d be alluring to poachers. However, the horn is actually made of keratin, the same substance that makes up fingernails and hair, and as such has absolutely no medicinal or aphrodisiac properties whatsoever. In fact, ingesting it is pretty much the same as eating one’s own finger nail, which no one in their right mind would do because it clearly doesn’t have those properties.!

Regardless, poaching of rhinos and elephants is still a big thing in Africa, so much so that Zambia has instituted a shoot to kill policy for the anti-poaching rangers if they spot a poacher while on patrol. Yeah guys, it’s that bad. Two of the parks rhinos were poached in December, including the only male that was mature enough for breeding, so not only did they lose two rhinos, but they now have a minimum of eight years to wait before the next male becomes sexually mature enough to mate. And in that time, who knows how many more will be lost. Our guide shared with us (and we fact checked later and he was right) that there is a subspecies white rhino called the northern white rhino that only had three rhinos left in the wild, one male and two females. However, some time last year, the male was poached for his horn, and because of this, this species is now effectively extinct. It boggles my mind that anyone could justify ending a species for a hunk of useless keratin, but that’s what the poachers are trying to fight everyday.

So back to the fence. There is a fence encasing the park that serves the dual purpose of keeping rhinos in and poachers out. The guide said the fence usually has an electric current running through it to prevent poachers from simply hopping over it, but the occasional bull elephant will get upset with a tree or the fence and knock a tree into the fence in order to pull part of the fence down. This effectively shuts off the current in that section of the fence, so the rangers are constantly checking the fence perimeter and going on patrols to make sure they haven’t missed anything.

We continued walking for a bit and saw some cool trees and birds, but then it was time to head back to the jeep. The jeep picked us up along one of the other roads through the park, and as we started to drive through the park again, we looked to our right and spotted a whole group of rhinos! There were seven in total, meaning that we got to see all of the rhinos in the park during our visit, which is rare according to the guide. These creatures are absolutely beautiful! Seriously, I was stunned by them. Some were sleeping in and others were play charging one another, and it was a sight to behold. We had to drive away after not too long though because the green of the jeep apparently attracts the rhinos since it looks like grass, and once they started walking towards us the driver decided it was time to go.

We drove back to the entrance of the park and enjoyed some light refreshments while overlooking the Zambezi river which leads to Victoria Falls. Once everyone had gotten their fill, we set out again for a “bonus” game drive through another part of the park. Not too far along though, we were greeted by a massive bull elephant and his female. Needless to same, the bull was not happy and he began to charged the jeep. His mock charge was just a shake of his head and then he legit charged. It was both terrifying and thrilling all at once as we reversed along the road as the bull kept walking at us. We were lucky he never got it in his mind to run at us because apparently not too long ago one of the bulls in Zimbabwe filled a jeep over when he charged them, and if he had run at us, we wouldn’t have been able to out drive him in reverse.

Luckily though, he eventually accepted our retreat, and we quickly turned around to head a different direction through the park. On the way, we saw a ton of impala, which our guide jokingly referred to as the fast food of Africa because of the black M marking they have on their bums. We also saw a weird deer that apparently barks like a dog when spooked? To be fair, it kind of looked a cross between a deer and a dog, so it made sense. But still. A barking deer. We saw two of them together, which our guide also told us was considered to be a sign of luck in some tribes, so clearly our luck hadn’t run out for the day.

We kept going, seeing more giraffes, zebras, baboons, buffalo, and even a wildebeest! The wildebeest is part of the African Ugly 5 in case you were wondering, and if we’re being honest, it’s not an inaccurate title. As we drove, we spotted a ton of warthogs (which are named because they actually have warts!) including a group of babies and their parents. The little tails were so funny because they stuck them straight up in the air as they ran away from us. This is supposed to be like a radio signal to other warthogs that there’s danger and to follow the leader’s tail.

Needless to say, our time on the safari was fantastic! We payed the guides when we got back to the backpackers facility, and then took the time to appreciate the silence and lounge for a bit. However, our original plans to write blog posts were thwarted when we realized that Zambia had started instituting its load shedding policy and shut off the power to the facility from 10am to 2pm. So there went our plans for using the internet. Instead, we ordered lunch and were just getting ready to play a round of ping pong afterwards when Sitali, a worker at LBP, came up and told us that the safari guides were back because apparently our US bills weren’t being accepted by the bank. As you can imagine, we had a little heart attack thinking that none of the money was accepted, but as it turns out, the banks here are really strict about the US money they accept, and a couple of the bills we had given them had nicks/tears that the bank wouldn’t accept. Luckily, we had some other bills that could replace them, so no harm no foul.

Some rounds of ping pong later, we decided to take advantage of our free time to take a nap and go sun bathe for a bit. After getting baked like a cookie, we got dressed and headed out to dinner. We went to a lovely Indian Restaurant here called the Golden Leaf. Y’all. It was absolutely scrumptious! Braydan got a butter chicken dish which was good but not my favorite, but I got a mutton korma that was simply divine! It was creamy and full of garlic and other spices and the gamey flavor of the mutton wasn’t super strong, so it was quite palatable. I also got some garlic naan, which I haven’t had in ages because in the states it’s typically made with wheat flour. However, the lady at the restaurant taking our order told us that the naan was gluten free, so I tried some and while the texture was too good to be true, I didn’t have my typical gluten reaction afterwards, so I was thrilled!

Leaving the restaurant, we went to Shoprite for some toothpaste and Q-tips, ran back to the backpackers to put our stuff away, and scuttled up to Da Canton with Lauren for our last gelato. We came back and chatted with Lauren for a bit about school and then headed back to our room to pack and watch a movie while hiding from the mosquitos. As our day came to a close, we realized that in just over a day we would be leaving the place that has come to feel like a home away from home for us. Our time here as simply flown by, and we couldn’t be more grateful for the wonderful opportunity we had to be here for the last four weeks. But, we still have one more day, so until tomorrow, ¬°adios!

-Gabrielle Bezzant

Author: Gabrielle Bezzant

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