We had used nature guides before—Costa Rica, Yosemite, Vancouver Island. Without them our uninformed urban eyes see very little. But in Zimbabwe, the guides are absolutely critical and a wonderful part of the African experience. It is possible to drive yourself through Zimbabwe’s national parks, but Themba, our guide in the Hwange National Park, laughed at how frequently they end up following a guide’s vehicle to see the animals. We also found out that beyond the obvious tracking skills, our guides were raconteurs, encyclopedias of local knowledge and history, security guards, and, occasionally, baristas and bar tenders in the bush.
Our guide at the Ruckomechi camp on the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe was a young man of about thirty, Mundoga. Our guide in Hwange National Park, Themba, was a study in contrasts—but more about Themba later.
Mundoga was a fast talker with a wicked sense of humor.
Constant banter and joking. “Hey, Peter, there’s a huge crocodile…I think he’s dead….would you go over and check please.” He had nicknames for many of the birds—the Jesus bird because it walked on water (jacana), Cain and Abel bird because the one of the two chicks invariably pushes its sibling out of the nest (Fisher eagle), the good husband bird because it fed the female (the little bee eater). And when we’d hit a very bumpy patch on the road and the Jeep became a bone rattling experience, he’d turn and smile….”African massage”.
Despite the humorous banter, we learned very quickly that Mundoga was incredibly skilled, intense and knew every inch of this huge park and its wildlife.It took him seven years, much of it in university, to become a guide—culminating with a comprehensive and very expensive test to get a guide’s license. Tourism is, however, about the only real industry left in Zimbabwe, and one of the few places to find jobs, so guiding is a sought after profession. Good work, but still with its downsides. His schedule was 54 days on (seven days a week) and then 14 days off. His wife and three sons—18 months, 6, and 9 —were a long’s day and two bus rides away.
We did two game drives a day set by when animals are active —one in the early morning, starting at first light (difficult for those of us who hadn’t seen a sunrise in years) and one in the late afternoon extending into the evening after the sunset. We were thankful because the midday October heat was punishing. As we drove, Mundoga would give lessons on the flora, stop to identify birds or small animals. He would scan the horizon for large game and would spot them well before any of us had even see a thing. Kudus, eland, impala, warthogs, sable antelope, Cape buffalo—all around us, and we would likely have missed them. He would then maneuver the Jeep into a position to intersect the animals and wait—giving us a chance to get great pictures.
The one exception were the elephants—they were everywhere, often in the middle of the road and, not surprisingly, difficult to miss.
But It was the big cats which brought out Mundoga’s extraordinary skills. The second day we were at the Rukemechi camp on the morning drive, another guide radioed that he had located a leopard nearby. Mundoga sped to the location in “Ferrari Safari” mode, as he put it, and when we got there the leopard was barely visible in the undergrowth.
On a very good hunch based on years of experience, he took us back to the same spot later to find the leopard clearly visible on branch in a very large acacia tree.
Our last morning at breakfast Mundoga asked us if we had heard the male lions roaring last night? Of course, we hadn’t. He would find them for us—for sure. Almost immediately he found fresh lion tracks. “They’re out there, I know it!”he said, pointing off to a large open area. We circled the area several times—nothing. You could sense his frustration. But then luckily we ran into a researcher studying wild dogs and, yes, he had seen two males five minutes ago. Off again, picking up more tracks. Several more frustrating minutes, and then, turning a sharp corner, two spectacular young male lions, resting in the shade. Mission accomplished.
Our guide in Hwange National Park, Themba, was older than Mundoga as his gray hair indicated.
Themba had risen to manager status in the Davison Camp and was clearly highly respected by his colleagues. Themba grew up in a small village in the bush and lamented that his three sons had no interest in returning to his village and that life. He loved the bush and his knowledge was tempered with a close connection to the land.“You rub this plant on your skin to repel bugs…you use smoke to catch an aardvark…this is how you snare a steenbok.” He admitted at one time the he had been a poacher—not for money but for food for his family. He was now a passionate conservationist, and a little embarrassed by his past. His family scrimped and saved enough money to send to him to a Quaker high school, a boarding school, and to college. He took the guide’s test and studied hard because he said he only had the money to take the test once. Failing was not an option. He had a deep, husky voice with a booming laugh.“Good people, here is what Themba proposes for the day…” he would say, usually referring to himself in the third person. He knew every bird in the park in all its variants, had all the superb tracking skills of Mundoga, and an intimate knowledge of the bush.He found lions everyday and pulled the Jeep right up next to them for our photo ops.
He pointed out every interesting detail on the elephants—this one a three split trunk—rare he said—this one was pregnant, this one had an ear disease that would cause it to have a blind spot on its left side.He located the rarest of the antelopes for us.He found the largest male giraffe in the park.
Themba’s real passion came out in our walk through the bush. Armed with a rifle, he lead us single file off into the scrub land.
Even without any large animals, this walk was magical. He would stop and talk to owls, imitating their calls.
He pointed out porcupine tracks, edible fungus, the wild basil his mother used for fragrance around their home, he showed us how to follow elephant tracks to water, and identified various animal holes, including the very large aardvark holes. He told us that during the war of liberation, his wounded brother was hidden in an aardvark hole until his comrades could rescue him. The walk ended with him very, very carefully blowing sand out of an insect hole to reveal a single larvae, the earliest stage of termite development, which he put in Mary’s hand
Our guides, Mundoga and Themba, opened our eyes to a world we would never have seen without them.