It was probably when I called the middle-aged Italian guy a jackass that I abandoned all hope of turning things around with my tour group.
Warning signs were there from the start. When I arrived at the truck on the first morning of our five-day “Best of Zimbabwe” tour nobody seemed to be making an effort to meet anyone else. Two Polish couples were giving off a vibe that was at least standoffish if not overtly hostile, and a silent Italian husband and wife had already marked their territory by spreading themselves out over four of the truck’s best seats. Our average age had to have been north of 40, including a frail 72-year-old Portuguese gentleman with a wet, hacking cough.
Don’t overreact, I told myself. Stay positive and give the group some time.
We left Victoria Falls and spent the morning driving to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest wildlife reserve. Just a couple of years ago Hwange made worldwide news when an American hunter killed a lion named Cecil in the park, unleashing a torrent of international outrage.
We set up our tents, ate lunch, and headed out on a game drive. The two red-faced Polish couples, however, decided to stay at the campsite and drink. Only one of them spoke English, and she explained that they wanted a break from doing things.
Hwange is known for its elephant population, and almost immediately we had some close encounters.
Towards the end of the drive, just as the sun was setting, we came across a lion pride slowly walking from a waterhole towards the road.
That night around the campfire I introduced myself to a 20-something woman sitting next to me.
“I’m Anna,” she said.
“Are you from Argentina?” I asked. On the truck she’d been sitting with a guy named Leandro, who’d said he lived in Buenos Aires.
Anna looked at me as if I’d slapped her. “No!”
“Oh, sorry,” I apologized. “Where are you from?”
“Are you with the other people from Poland?”
Another look of shock. “No! I am traveling alone.”
“Ah, OK. I also met a Polish couple in Botswana last week. Is southern Africa a popular destination for people from Poland?”
“I don’t know,” Anna replied, avoiding eye contact. I didn’t try to talk to her again and she never said another word to me.
The two Polish couples finished off another wine box before retiring to their tents and snoring loudly. The next morning they started drinking and smoking again before breakfast. Well, technically only three of them smoked. The fourth one vaped.
I managed to get a conversation going with a British couple in their mid-20s who’d spent the last two years living and working on the tiny island of St. Helena. They said they’d just finished the same Cape-Town-to-Victoria-Falls tour I’d done a little while back. “Are the group dynamics of this tour totally different than your last one?” I asked.
“Totally different!” the woman laughed.
The Italian couple was doing the “accommodated” version of the tour, which just meant they stayed in rooms instead of tents, and that morning they were a little late walking from their room to our truck. When they saw that we were all waiting for them they seemed to slow down instead of speed up. Another discouraging sign.
As we drove away from Hwange our guide Amen – a Shona who was born and raised in Zimbabwe –commented that the park’s campsite facilities hadn’t been improved since 1980. “The buildings are still Rhodesian,” Amen said with a laugh. “Nothing has changed.”
I’d been reading about Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s 30-year reign and was curious to hear a local’s perspective on the rash of farm invasions, but Amen steered clear of controversial topics. “Mugabe is very smart,” Amen proclaimed. “Very, very smart.”
“How is the economy doing?” someone asked.
“Not good,” Amen admitted. “The unemployment rate is 95%.” Cash crops had been replaced by subsistence farming. The country’s ATMs had no money.
In the early afternoon we arrived in the town of Bulawayo, and that afternoon a local guide named Ian picked us up for a game drive in Matobo National Park (formerly called Rhodes Matopos National Park). Ian was passionate about the plight of rhinos. In China and Vietnam rhino horns are highly prized as a key ingredient in traditional medicines as well as a kind of organic Viagra (despite a total lack of evidence that it actually works), and strong demand has led to a spike in poaching.
“Do you know the current market value of rhino horn?” Ian asked. “Around $100,000 per kilo, many times more than gold. A big horn can weigh 10 kilos, so that’s a million dollars from one rhino.”
For over half an hour Ian lectured us in a little hut by the entrance to the park. He strongly believed that the governments of southern African countries should release their stockpiles of rhino horns (confiscated from poachers and taken from rhinos that died of natural causes) to help satisfy global demand and bring down costs. South Africa alone apparently has 60 tons of horns. But Ian wasn’t optimistic that governments would ever agree to legally sell the horns, given that corrupt politicians, soldiers, and park officials were making so much money under the current conditions. Apparently one of the rangers who led anti-poaching operations at Kruger National Park in South Africa was recently caught killing a white rhino. “If things keep going this way,” Ian said, “rhinos will be extinct within a couple of years.”
As much as I respected Ian’s passion and was genuinely interested in what he had to say, I wished he could have saved his preaching for after the sun went down. We had fewer than three hours of daylight to look for animals in Matobo – a place I’ll probably never visit again – and more than a fifth of that precious time was spent standing around the entrance gate.
It didn’t take Ian very long to redeem himself. Just inside the park he stopped, got us out of the safari jeeps, and led us on a hike into the bush. Not far from the road we found two adult white rhinos and a baby. They were grazing happily no more than 20 feet away from us. Getting so close to them on foot was a thrill.
“Do you worry that by taking tourists right up to the rhinos you get them comfortable with people and make it easier for poachers to kill them?” I asked Ian.
“No, because the rhinos know me,” he said. “If I wasn’t here they wouldn’t let you get near.” Hmmm.
At sunset we found another rhino mom with a baby. They were far more skittish than the others and ran away when we approached.
After breakfast the next morning I climbed aboard the truck and found Tom, the British guy, getting frustrated with the Italian husband. Our group had decided to rotate seats each day so that nobody could hog the best spots, but the Italian decided he liked being in the front row and wouldn’t move. I didn’t want it to seem like Tom was alone in his objection, so I jumped in.
“You understand that the group decided to change seats each day?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the Italian guy gruffly. “But I no move.”
“Well that’s really selfish and rude. Do you understand the word ‘rude’?”
“Yes, I understand. But I no move.” Then he mumbled something in Italian that I’m guessing wasn’t a compliment.
So I got angry and called him a jackass. I regretted it almost immediately. You never know what’s going on with someone. He was tall and maybe his legs needed the extra space in the front row. Or maybe he went on this trip hoping to save a troubled marriage with his grim-faced wife, but it was going terribly and the last thing he needed to worry about was some stupid seat rotation.
Probably, though, he was just a jackass.
At our next stop Tom came up and put a British spin on my exchange with the Italian. “Yeah, a proper jackass,” he said with a laugh.
That afternoon we explored Great Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site of stone buildings that date back to the 11th century. It was the first time I’d ever encountered stone ruins in southern Africa. I would have happily traded the Great Zimbabwe visit for another game drive in Hwange or Matobo, but it was still cool to see.
The next day we crossed into South Africa and spent the night at a bizarre lodge and campsite in Tshipise. The massive property – surrounded by a barbed wire stockade, like almost every place in South Africa – was crowded with long-term campers packed side-by-side as far as the eye could see. Many of their tents were creatively-constructed multi-room complexes with flat-screen TVs and satellite dishes. I’d never seen anything like it.
The following day we ended our tour in Johannesburg. I couldn’t get away from the group fast enough. Only one of them – Leandro the Argentinean, who seemed like a good guy – would be doing my next tour too, and it was a relief to escape the toxic cloud of unfriendly Europeans. What a difference a good group makes!