By Kaitlin Fletcher
Little did I know when my family left for our African safari to Zimbabwe that we would be encompassed by an international incident with a Minnesota connection.
My father received a text message from a colleague moments before we boarded our 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. It read that a black-maned lion named Cecil, a national treasure in Zimbabwe, had been hunted and killed by a dentist from Minnesota.
By the time we landed in Bulawayo the following day, the news had gone viral.
The people in Zimbabwe are incredibly friendly, polite and eager to know where visitors to their beautiful country come from. Just days before, most Zimbabweans may have had trouble finding Minnesota on the map. But on this day, nearly the entire country was more than familiar with the land of 10,000 lakes. We were met with sorrowful sighs when we answered their innocent question.
We are still several days away from visiting Cecil’s former home and begin our adventure at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matobo Hills, also known as Matopos. The stunning landscape contains endless formations of gravity defying granite. These massive arrangements of boulders are known as kopjes. The site also contains prehistoric bushman cave paintings only accessible by hiking on sacred land through the kopjes. It was overwhelming to think that I was standing in the same spot a man some 6,000 years earlier had painted the likes of the wildlife I would soon be seeing.
Matobo National Park contains an intensive protection zone for the critically endangered black and white rhino. Rangers living inside the park reserve guard them around the clock. Months prior to our trip we were granted permission to track the rhinos on foot. As the sun rises, my mother Rhonda, father Chuck, my brother Keith and I walk single file wedged between two park rangers armed with rifles. These rifles are not to protect us from the rhinos but to protect the rhinos from poachers. The rangers are instructed to shot to kill. We walk in silence making sure to step lightly when we encounter three adult and one baby rhino. Frozen, I hesitate to breathe as not to disturb the scene I am witnessing. They are unaware of our presence and continue to graze for a long while before we hear the call of a nearby leopard and the inevitable screech of the baboons alerting the animal world that a predator is nearby. And just like that, the rhinos disappear into the bush. As we walk out of the bush I contemplate that my children may never have the opportunity to see rhinos in the wild.
As we make our way across the country, our next stop is Hwange National Park, the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe and now famous for being the former home of Cecil the lion. Here we meet Dardley Tafuruka, a top professional guide in Zimbabwe for 22 years and Brent Stapelkamp, head of the lion research team that collared and tracked Cecil by GPS for the past nine years. Dardley, a tall massive man with a deep voice and gentle smile, will be our private guide throughout our time in Hwange. Brent, sleep deprived and mourning the loss of a beloved friend, has been dealing with the onset of media inquiries and inaccuracies and is eager to get back to his day job. Dardley had a personal connection to Cecil as well, having encountered him in the park on numerous occasions and witnessed his interactions with his recently born cubs. To hear the anguish in his voice when he talks about Cecil is heartbreaking. Several journalists converging on Hwange asked to hire Dardley to help them locate Cecil’s cubs so they could get a photo to run with their stories but he declined, preferring to take my family on day and night game drives instead. On our first daytime game drive in the park he takes us past the lone acacia tree where he last saw Cecil alive. He blinks rapidly but you can see the tears in his eyes.
The mood picks up as we pass hundreds upon hundreds of elephants. There are enormous males, adult females, babies and every size in between. They are drinking from the watering hole, eating leaves from trampled trees, bathing and playing in the mud. The sheer number of them is breathtaking. Days later we encounter a majestic young male lion and lioness eating the remains of a baby elephant while giraffe, zebra, kudu, impala, sable, roan, wildebeest and warthog watch from a safe distance. The white backed vultures descend to the scene. The jackal waits his turn. I hear the music from the Lion King in my head.
Our next destination is the great Zambezi River, the fourth longest river in Africa with Zimbabwe on one side and Zambia on the other. We spend our days here leisurely boating while watching Zambian children sing and dance on shore as the village men fish. We canoe down the river rapids sharing the space with the hippos and crocs and take walking safaris through the Zambezi National Park among the Cape buffalo. We watch every sunset in quiet tranquility as the sky is painted with shades of orange and pink. Our nights are spent around the campfire, gazing in wonder at the constellation Scorpio in the star-filled sky and catching glimpses of the infamous honey badger hunting its prey. It is true…honey badger don’t care.
Our trip to Zimbabwe wouldn’t be complete without visiting Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The powerful curtains of water create a mist that looks like smoke and thus the falls have come to be known as “the smoke that thunders”. We leave soaked to the bone and awe struck. It is a perfect way to end a perfect trip.
Zimbabwe is a magnificent country not without faults. It has tremendous political problems, rampant government corruption and an unemployment rate of ninety percent. Despite these situations, the population is well educated and the future is promising. I leave with memories that will last a lifetime and a strong desire to return. But when I do return, I hope they don’t ask where I am from.