Populations of southern white rhinos can be found within Matobo National Park in central Zimbabwe. // © 2018 Wander Africa/Jay Parmar
I felt like a downright trailblazer as I trekked through the grassy plains of Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, hopscotching over fallen branches and crunchy, dried leaves.
Up ahead, a group of fellow explorers had formed a tight semicircle, with their eyes fixed to the ground and grins stretching from ear to ear. I picked up my pace and caught up, only to be met with a steaming pile of … poop.
The fanfare had nothing to do with the dung itself, but rather what it represented. These droppings were fresh; they had been left by an adult southern white rhino that was likely just minutes ahead of us on the trail. At that moment, we made a silent pact: move swiftly, remain quiet and, hopefully, see one of these majestic creatures up close.
Don’t let the name fool you — white rhinos aren’t “white,” but rather light gray in color. They are also much larger than their darker counterparts and have a longer head and wider mouth, according to Jay Parmar, owner of U.S.-based tour operator Wander Africa. Another helpful identifier? You guessed it: the animal’s poop. While the waste of black rhinos is made of splint-like materials — usually chopped off at a 45-degree angle — white rhinos will produce a much grassier manure.
The park, which is located in central Zimbabwe, has populations of both black and southern white rhinos. We were tracking the latter — a species of grazers introduced to the area in 1964 from neighboring South Africa, according to Emmerson Magodhi, tourism manager for Matobo. White rhinos are found in multiple parts of the park, while black rhinos are confined to a special game area. An Intensive Protection Zone distinction protects these creatures from poachers, and armed security rangers patrol 24 hours per day (we were accompanied by one such ranger throughout our visit).
Matobo also attracts tourists for its many hiking trails, unique landscape and rich history; the land features rock art left by ancient dwellers and is home to the grave of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. It’s also only about a 40-minute drive from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and an international hub serviced by South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Emirates and more.
Tracking rhinos here is much like a game of hide-and-seek, and it’s a task made easier by using the animal’s “natural” clues, and the fact that these so-called “hiders” tend to move very slowly, only changing sleeping positions once every 30 to 40 minutes.
“Rhino tracking is one of those rare opportunities in life for tourists to come close to an animal that is a ‘world over’ while in its natural environment,” Magodhi said. “It is one of the most adventurous experiences one can do in their lifetime."
We walked for just five minutes more, and then we saw them: two white rhinos, their slate-gray hue serving as a form of camouflage against a background of towering granite rocks. The pair patiently allowed us to play paparazzi — not a bad ending to our grown-up game of hide-and-seek.
A rhino-tracking experience needs to be booked with the park at least one or two days in advance. Those interested in reserving this should contact park officials at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.