Each day in Hwange National Park, we were woken up before sunrise and led out on a walking safari through the bush. Our guide Thembe led the way, with a rifle at the ready, and the rest of us followed behind in single file.
Themba’s skill and knowledge was astounding. He could see, hear, and smell things that were completely imperceptible to the rest of us. He could casually identify the call of any of the hundreds of birds in the park. He could stick his finger in a pile of elephant dung, taste it, and tell us the the sex of the animal and how long ago they dropped it. He never ceased to amaze us, and it was fascinating to watch tracking in action.
Despite the proximity of so many wild animals, I generally felt fairly safe walking in Themba’s footsteps. It was only as we were waiting to get on our plane out of the park that Themba admitted to us that he had once led a walking group that was surrounded by 12 angry lions. He managed to get them out alive, and avoided leading us into the same scenario. We did have a few close encounters, however.
On our first morning, we were enjoying a rest under a tree when Themba cocked his head at a sound. “Elephants,” he said. We strained to hear them walking away from us to our left. Themba checked the wind by throwing some ash in the air, and determined that it was blowing the same direction. We walked forward, spotting the herd of elephants moving through the trees.
Suddenly, Themba stopped. Just ahead, we spied more elephants through the foliage. The herd was bigger than we originally realized. Themba cautiously guided us to the right. But by then the wind had changed, and the elephants were confused. Having caught our scent, they changed direction and were heading directly toward us. One large mother, in particular, was making a bee-line for us.
As big as they are, and as leisurely as they walk, elephants can move surprisingly fast when they want to. Themba loaded his weapon and turned us around, instructing me to head the other direction. It was only then, without his reassuring presence in front of me, that I began to get nervous.
Luckily, we managed to put enough distance between ourselves and the protective mother. She let us walk off unharmed, with only significantly raised heart-rates.
On our second night, we had heard the unnerving howling of hyenas as we lay in our tents. Themba guessed there was a den nearby, so the next morning we trekked out in search of it. Even with two other guides to help in the hunt, we weren’t able to find any hyenas after a few hours of waking.
But the Johnsons don’t give up that easily. On our second to last morning we set out again behind Themba and another guide. They pushed deeper into the bush, guided by subtle smells and prints while we trailed along, straining to pick up the clues. We walked for an hour or so following false leads when the guides stopped abruptly. Behind some bushes just ahead of us, a few hyenas and their babies were moving about. We watched them for a few breathless moments before they noticed us and scampered off into the bushes.
Following behind them, we came across their den, a hole in the ground a few feet wide, curving off to the left and right. From inside, we could hear the whimpering and scrambling of hyena cubs, too small to run away. It took all my willpower to not stick my hand into the hole and pull one out. We didn’t stay long at the den, to allow the mothers to come back, but the guides’ excitement at the find impressed upon us what a special discovery it was.
We did not spot as many animals on our walks as we did from the car, simply because they could hear and smell us coming long before we could get near them. It is very hard for a group of 8 people to walk silently in knee-high grass, it turns out. But it gave us the opportunity to see and appreciate a side of Zimbabwe that we never would have noticed from the car.
We learned what plants could be eaten or turned into rope or used as medicine. We saw two of the “Little Five” – the lion ant and the rare rhino beetle. I am proud to say that I can now differentiate the tracks of a waterbuck from an eland from a wildebeest, and can identify the dung of a hyena or the bones of a zebra.