When we head to Lake Chivero, a national park outside of Harare that has been a favorite spot of Z’s family for decades, I have high hopes of seeing a rhino, despite the fact that none showed themselves when we visited on my first trip two and a half years ago. Then, it was the height of summer and everything was green and overgrown, so I left without “rhinoceros” ticked off my list but was sure I’d see one if we returned sometime in winter when the landscape is more barren, like it is now.
Rhinos look a lot more like rocks than you might imagine. I think I’ve spotted about fifteen within the first ten minutes of our bumpy game drive into the heart of the park. I haven’t. What I see is only a few big roundy, rhino-shaped rocks. So much for my new prescription sunglasses.
When you grow up in a land where Holsteins are easily spotted as they stand in pasture against the razor edge of a skyline, it’s a shock to realize how animals in their natural habitats blend in so seamlessly. You’d think, for instance, that a zebra would be the easiest creature to see because of its black and white stripes, or a giraffe because of its long neck, but it turns out the patterns and shapes their coats and bodies make are better camouflage than Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. On the last trip, I had trouble seeing the animals at first. On this trip, I see them everywhere, only most of the time there is nothing there. At one point, I am even convinced I’ve seen one of Z and Z-ma’s beloved rock rabbits (Google it—they are more meerkat/tiny elephant than rabbit), even though they haven’t been in the park for years.
Fortunately, a giraffe has the good grace to stand in the middle of the road in plain sight, and this gets the game-sighting party started.
Before long, we’ve seen about twelve giraffe, several zebra including a baby that was suckling, and a variety of buck. (I’m never excited about buck since there are approximately two deer to every one resident of Indiana, but Z’s family gets as excited about “lesser” animals as they do the Big Five, and their lack of favoritism is a quality I love about them). And then a rock moves. And the rock has a horn. And another rock with a horn. And another.
When I was a kid, I had an alphabet pop-up book, which I now realize wouldn’t have been so engaging without the animals of Africa to illustrate the different letters. I was never a fan of the “R” because a rhinoceros popped out of the center of the book aggressively, its horn pointed right at me. Last time we were here, I must have had this image in my head, because while we were picnic-ing, I saw a rhino headed straight towards us, only to realize after my heart had amped up to 800 beats per minute that it was a game warden on a bicycle with a gun slung over his shoulder. (This is why I have new prescription sunglasses.)
While I am happy to see these rhinos (a different type has recently gone extinct because of poaching, and given the stupidity and greed of some humans, I realize how lucky I am to witness these in their natural habitat), I’d be lying if I told you I am disappointed that mostly we see the backsides of them, lumbering away from us through the tall, dry grass.
Before we leave today, we will also have added a couple of anxious looking warthogs to our list, as well as a bush pig, which I’m assured are usually hard to see. The warthogs are one of my favorites. Their tails remind me of the teasel weed that my mother used to have stuffed into a pitcher for decorative purposes, and that’s what I see first before I realize an animal is attached. We look at each other for a moment, this particular warthog and I, and then it goes skittering into the bush. We see it running parallel to the car as we drive, like it’s hoping to keep tabs on us and won’t feel safe until we’re nothing but a cloud of dust.
But before we see the warthog, we make our way to Bushman’s Point, our picnic destination. We are disappointed to see other people already there, so we situate ourselves in a less perfect picnic spot next to a thatched information kiosk highlighting the animals that are in the park and could, if they want, interrupt our lunch. Z has regaled me with tales of his niece’s birthday party here when she was little and how a monkey snatched her baby brother’s bottle. I’m keenly aware that there is no security fence between us and the animals we’ve seen on the drive, and I won’t even let myself think about how you can’t really create a snake-free zone so near a lake.
Z suggests that I join him on the wall of the kiosk instead of sitting on the ground. It would be a good vantage from which to eat my cheese sandwich, except for the part where I am incapable of hurling myself onto the wall, nor am I able to climb up and on to it. It seems like it should be such an easy thing to do, but it is high and I am not athletic. (I instantly feel the failure of every elementary school gym class when the teacher would decide it was “pole” day and we needed to try to climb this slick, wooden pole that hung from the ceiling of the gymnasium to demonstrate our worth. Mostly it was an exercise in mortification because I could never get myself any higher than wherever I first placed my hands, meanwhile classmates were shinnying up to the rafters, at which point I would try to make myself feel better with the knowledge that I usually scored higher on math and spelling tests than the best pole climbers. And then I’d worry that one of my classmates would fall.)
Finally, I flopped myself onto the tarp with a sigh, and then the flies came. They couldn’t have had less interest in Z or Z-ma, but they were trying to fly up my nose and into my mouth. I flapped my hat at them, furiously, and realized how I looked like a caricature of an American tourist in Africa, fussing about a few pesky flies. In my defense, they were so annoying and persistent, and I was relatively certain that just before trying to crawl into my mouth they’d probably been sitting on the giant rhino poo we’d seen on the road. If we weren’t on a sort of pilgrimage, I would hop in the truck, rolled up the windows, and demand that we drive away from the rigors of high kiosk walls and overly extroverted flies.
The truth is, though, I love this spot for a lot of reasons and so don’t want to leave. It’s a beautiful. Huge rocks balance on each other in impossible contortions, there’s a lovely tree canopy, and the lake is in the background. While the rest of the park looks dry and brown at the moment, the area around the lake is verdant. When you see water in Zimbabwe—especially in the dry season like now—it feels kind of holy. This place especially so because of the San (or bushman) paintings on some of the rocks near the water, and because Z’s father’s ashes were scattered on the lake fifteen years ago, three years before I met Z. His family has made regular trips here to celebrate his life, which to my mind is a lot less depressing than going to a cemetery because the place is alive.
The walk to the water is rocky and worn. Chipped stone steps and pathways leave me lumbering like a bear, and huffing and puffing like an asthmatic, which I wouldn’t feel so bad about if Z-ma, who has almost three decades on me, weren’t navigating the path better than I am. We stop when we are almost at the water and Z tosses some rose petals on the wind near a tree where his aunt’s ashes were scattered a few years ago. Z-ma says hello to her younger sister, using a pet name, and we move on.
We stop next at the San paintings in a recess in the rocks. They’re behind a fence, but close enough that I could touch them if wanted to. When I see the reddish pigment on the canvas of the rock, I have a lot of questions about who they were and the meaning of life and what I would have done if I’d been born a hunter-gatherer, since I can’t handle the insects, rough terrain, lack of indoor plumbing, or, let’s face it, lack of indoors period. Looking at the paintings, I feel the way I did when I first saw Stonehenge or Poulnabrone dolmen in Ireland, which is to say, I can’t take it in in any sort of satisfactory way. It is too huge a thing to contemplate.
Finally, we move on to the cement jetty, where Z and Z-ma cast their petals onto the water, and I stand back, wondering what the appropriate way is to mourn or offer homage to a man I’ve never known. Though I don’t feel it here, when I am back at Z-ma’s, I’m very aware of Z-dad’s absence and what I’ve missed out on by nature of having come to the family too late to meet him. At the house, I look at his rose bushes, the structures that used to encompass an aviary, the now irretrievably empty pool where two proud-looking lions used to spit streams of water. At night when we watch the one channel of TV that Z-ma manages to get, Z sits in his dad’s old chair, and I can imagine his father sitting there, even though my vision of him is only a guess, based on what I’ve seen in photos and what I’ve sussed out by watching Z and his brother: how they speak, the way they hold themselves, their strong senses of self.
It’s another mystery I can’t solve, and so after a few moments, I get distracted by lizards, sunning themselves on the rocks.