Leading the Blind: Our African Guides

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.

Sleeping with Elephants

At 5:30am a young man with an unmistakable Zimbabwean accent stood outside our tent and shouted “knock! Knock” or “Wakee! Wakee!” The sun hadn’t quite risen on the Zambezi River just beyond our tent. As we got ready for the morning game drive, we could hear the hippos snorting and splashing in the river a hundred yards away. Tea and a light continental breakfast was ready on the main veranda. Light breakfast was a relative term — usually hard boiled eggs, fresh bread toasted over a fire, sweet rolls of some sort, cereal, yogurt, juice, fresh fruit and cheese and meats.

By 6:30 we loaded into the jeeps and began the morning game drive. Peter road shotgun, a Danish couple in front, and Malcolm and me behind in a vehicle that could hold seven. Our guide, Mundoga, a slight, fast talking guy, kept up a happy chatter, exchanging jokes with us and laughing at our responses. A different Mundoga emerged when he was tracking animals — focused, intense and alert, leaning over the side of his door, studying tracks. Once or twice, he grabbed his rifle and walked a ways, leaving us in the safety of the Jeep. Without him we would have seen little, even if the animals had stood up on their hind legs and waved their arms.

When Mundoga spotted animals, we stopped. At least that first day. As the days went on we drove past the more common elephants, baboons, impalas and Cape buffalo. But initially we all got out our cameras and clicked away. The Danish couple had brought three bags of camera gear. They even had to buy an extra seat on the small aircraft that took us to the camps. Malcolm and me with our little Olympus cameras were clearly out classed. Peter was more respectable with our new Nikon.

We bounced along dirt or grass roads rebuilt each spring after the winter rains. Apparently, the “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures” philosophy sort of applied to the design of the roads. Any potential obstacle to the road was left where it was. The roads weaved around fallen trees, between termite hills and up and down through ravines carved by the winter rains. It made for a lot of swaying and jostling and slow speeds — our guide called an “African massage”. The smoother, but not necessarily speedier routes were the dried up riverbeds. Riding along them felt a bit like riding on compact snow and ice — some sliding and skidding, always with the potential for getting stuck. Even these four wheel jeeps with their low gears were challenged and at one point we did indeed get stuck in soft sand, requiring all of us to hop out the give a hearty push.

By 7:30 on our first day we could have left Africa having “bagged” most of the major animals, except for the lions and leopard. There would be no rhinos—we were told they had been removed from this area to protect them from poachers. Around 9:30 Mundoga stopped along the banks of the Zambezi, set up a folding table, placed a cloth on top, began to make fresh tea or French press coffee for us, served with a shortbread cookie while we watched the hippos in the river. Across the way we could see Zambia and its mountains.

We loaded back in the jeep and went off in search of wild game for another hour or so. Mundoga periodically picked up the radio and called to the other guides, sometimes speaking to them in Shona, his native language, and occasionally in English to share the location of the more elusive animals. The prized sighting was the lions. Once located, we drove within a few feet of them, where they remained unfazed, even bored, by our presence. Once they moved to sit in the shade of our Jeep.

Back to the camp for lunch. We were greeted by the staff with cold wash clothes to eliminate the worst of the road dust. And if time, and the elephants allowed, we might have time for a quick shower. Elephants allow? Yep. At Ruckomechi, the elephants rule. They wander through the camp at will, up to five or six of them at a time, an occasional male, several mature mothers and their babies. If the elephants were between you and your destination, you simply waited. In more extreme cases, the staff drove you to your door. More than once we were held captive as five or six of them surrounded our tent.

The baboons were another hazard. While they clearly ran from us — we suspect because they had learned humans carry slingshots — the real problem was they loved to drop from the trees shading our tents onto our tents, treating the tents as trampolines. Malcolm’s tent was one of their favorite landing sites.

Through the heat of the day we lounged, wrote a little, edited our photographs, read a bit, or went for a swim. Then headed back to the veranda for afternoon tea at 3:30. Tea for some consisted of beer or wine, but we generally stuck with iced tea with the appetizers and sweets served. Then back in the jeeps for the afternoon game drive.

Game was less abundant in the afternoon. But the elephants, the Cape buffalo and the hippos were visible any time of day. And then the safari ritual of a sundowner. Just before sunset, Mundoga again set out the table, often on the banks of the Zambezi where we watched the hippos, and tracker/guide turned bartender. Gin and tonics never tasted so good.

In northern Zimbabwe, on the border near Mozambique, when the sun sets, it gets dark almost immediately. The drink helped calm our nerves for the ride home with only a red light, used primarily to spot nocturnal animals and less for navigation. It was at night that we saw the painted dogs.

One morning our guide, Mundoga, urged us to load up earlier than usual. A leopard had been sighted, triggering a mad dash across packed dirt roads, onto soft sands in the riverbeds, through six foot high mounds of grass and down narrow animal paths through the scrub brush. Without our guide we would never have seen the leopard laying at the base of a tree. Even after he pointed to the spot I had trouble seeing the cat, he blended in so well. Mundoga was experienced enough to bring us back to the spot in the afternoon to see the leopard draped across the limbs of the tree, a dramatic sight.

We returned the camp for the happy hour before dinner at 8:00 to share around the fire pit stories of each group’s adventures. With a staff of 25, and only 12-18 guests we were well cared for. And well fed.

The last duty for Mundoga or one of the other guides was to grab a rifle and escort us to our rooms. Anytime after dark we could only walk around the camp with an armed guard. I thought at first this was over doing the protective bit until I saw a very large male lion with his kill about 500 yards from our tent.

Lights out shortly thereafter, as 5:30 am came quickly.