If the mighty Victoria Falls is the pumping heart of Zimbabwe, Hwange is its soul.
In our fast and furious lives, we all need ‘time out’ every now and again… and we all have our special place for that; the place that nourishes and replenishes our souls.
When I say ‘time out’, I don’t mean Matopos or Mana Pools. While amazing in their own way, they’re as much to the senses as a busy highway or a crowded sidewalk. The excitement and information overload can be immense, and sometimes there’s almost too much to take in. I’m not suggesting that Hwange’s dull with nothing to offer – not at all. It simply offers something completely different.
Like a good dog, Hwange senses your mood and works with you. He allows you to be yourself, providing the space in your mind to pace yourself; to grow. Hwange is more the space to uncover yourself than just a place to explore and relax. But yes, you do that too. He’s generous that way, by not making it all about himself. Hwange’s a destination in yourself, a place whose soul allows you to find and nurture your true self. He reflects his own soul and, if you accept it, he’ll guide you through the experience.
I’ll never forget waking up at dawn in a luxury lodge adjacent to the park, overlooking a waterhole. The elephants were there! No matter what else happened that day, I knew I’d never forget that hour. I made strong, black coffee, pulled up a cane chair and watched. Like lists of promises or notes marking the events of a good day, they came to drink. The ragged-looking pachyderms drank and left – no nonsense, no playing around. They looked like a wild herd, not used to people but driven by thirst and clearly on the move. Hwange is massive and wild and this was a large herd.
The rest of the day was marked by the promise of that first beautiful hour, with various groups of elephant coming to the waterhole to drink and play. We watched for hours, but my mind constantly returned to that first, skittish herd which announced the day. Life is strange that way: some people or places remain etched on your mind, while others, even though they may have brought happiness at the time, are soon forgotten.
wange and its elephants are like that, embellished on you forever. At times he’s almost aloof, and you may begin to feel isolated. He holds back, showing you little until you realize he’s providing you with time to think; time to find yourself again in the tranquil silence and open spaces as the endless mopani shrub flit by; almost motionless… purposely monotonous. The rhythmic monotony allows the real you to germinate amongst those infertile and sodic patches. Your thoughts carve canyons in your mind and the deepness of the bush soothes you into a perfect wilderness trance. I’ve often felt that for every good thought a new mopani tree will grow.
Then, just as Hwange allows you the quiet space to find yourself, he surprises you, ripping you out of your thoughts and giving you a lone kudu bull as a gift for your understanding, for submitting to him. You switch off the engine. In a different place you may have slowed down to glance and carried on driving… but Hwange makes you stop and look and actually see. The ox-peckers fly up momentarily, settling in the low branches, and as the universe stands still, one by one they return to their host and continue grooming. These small events spawn new thoughts and the punctuation’s followed by more monotonous text in the story of the mopani-scrubland. The scale of Hwange consumes you; you submit to his presence, accepting the need to be patient. In Africa, patience is everything.
Then, in the late afternoon, the mood changes rapidly; a lightness stirs in you like the breeze announcing a different scent and you emerge from your halcyon mopani dream. Just as abruptly the soil changes and the vegetation obeys, transforming into open acacia woodland. Like the beginnings of a family gathering, the impalas arrive and play with the dappled shadows amongst the trees. Even the staunch old wildebeest lose all restraint and run in circles, their bouncy gait as light and carefree as the sensation building within.
Again you stop. If the kudu bull punctuated the mopani scrub, this is the end of the chapter and the start of new one. I sit back and read the opening paragraphs. Gently Hwange changes your mood, bringing you out of the broody mopani scrub and into light, fine-leaved acacia woodlands. I wonder if it was planned that way; your journey from Main Camp would consume your day so you would transition to Sinimatella at this specific hour. Or did Hwange plot it all alone?
At the next waterhole Hwange takes control again, showing us the day’s main concert… hundreds of guinea fowl, bringing a complement of their own predators: a few jackals, a caracal and the ever-present eagles. Insensitive tourists glance over the theatre and wander away.
Then the dance ignites! A sky full of guinea fowl descend to drink – there’s safety in numbers – but their nerves trigger a massive and synchronized retreat in a symphony of noise and flapping wings. The sky is so full of birds that many remain pedestrian: stopping, retreating, returning to attempt to drink.
A crocodile slinks noiselessly into the water. The plovers demand attention, but their familiar solos are dampened by the main symphony. The jackals’ extended trot suggests they’re not really interested, and the caracal starts grooming… or is it just part of the act?
We drive towards Sinimatella, and as we look back over the flat stretch of Africa representing our day’s journey, the quality of the light changes. Our eyes fathom the landscape, and in the distance we remember the kudu bull. His companions are now nestled up a tree. They’ll find each other again in the morning – or will they? I wonder about the rhythms of Africa, the relationship between different species and the impact they have on one another.
The twigs absorb the heat from the match and the little flames turn them into ashes, releasing the energy of years of growth and commitment. My mind wonders again… how can so much energy be bound in the growth of hardwood? How much energy in this one place, in so many different forms?
Suddenly the children are there; wide-eyed and excited they announce in whispers the presence of an elephant bull in the camp. We stalk around the back of the hut and look, listen, smell and experience. We hear him breathe. Shiny ivory, scratched and scarred; scribbled stories of many attempts to dig water or open the bark of a hardwood tree. If only we could decipher them. He walks past us, evades a rocky artwork of an overzealous gardener from yesteryear, and disappears into the distant sunset.
The unholy laughter of hyena draws us back to the fire. We huddle around it, each with our own thoughts, directed, guided and mentored by the ever-present, soulful Hwange.
Text and photography by André F van Rooyan
André F. van Rooyen holds a Ph.D in rangeland ecology from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. He started his scientific career in community-based wildlife management, but his interest and passion soon turned to the challenges faced by small-scale farmers, predominantly their interaction with the fragile environments in which they farm in Africa. In 2003 he moved to Zimbabwe where he now works for an international agricultural research institute (ICRISAT) on the doorstep of the Matopos. André has developed a deep passion for the landscape, her people and her wildlife, in particular the conservation of the rhino. As an amateur photographer he has documented all these aspects, and his work from his travels around the world including Zimbabwe and Matopos in particular, has been exhibited by the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo as well as appeared in various publications, locally and internationally.
© André F van Rooyan. All rights reserved.