Trip Diary: Crocodiles and Rhinos

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When I was very small, my father used to sing silly things to me, as many parents of small children do. One of his favorites was to sing the words “Heffalumps and Woozles,” from out of the Winnie the Pooh books, to the tune of “Politics and Poker,” from the Broadway musical “Fiorello!” I now understand the compulsion. All day today, I’ve been singing “Crocodiles and Rhinos” to myself, using the same tune.

I got breakfast early and came back to my room to wrestle with the GoPro. It took the combined efforts of me and Steve, who texted me helpful suggestions from halfway around the world, to persuade the little camera to start disgorging all the beautiful photos I took yesterday at Victoria Falls, but we did it, and I left it there to work on the pictures while I took the cellphone for a camera and went off with Tuylani to the crocodile farm.

Along the road, we saw a small herd of impala. They’ve got a black mark on their rump and tail that looks like an ‘M’ and the joke among many Africans is that it stands for “McDonald’s,” because the impala is the fast food of the African carnivore. Everything, but everything eats them. If you’re a halfway reasonably sized predator out here and you want an easy meal, look for an impala. They’re not too big, not too bright, and they’re everywhere.

They are, however, beautiful, and I was enchanted watching these bright-eyed antelopes (the word ‘antelope’ in Greek means bright eyes, in fact) as they grazed by the roadside. Later we ran across four or five cape buffalo doing the same thing. I love it that even when I’m just getting from place to place around here, there’s always the chance of seeing something wonderful by the side of the road. (Watch out for the elephants, though. Apparently they like to make a game out of getting out into the street and forcing drivers to back up for miles on end.)

Me holding a baby crocodile.

The croc farm breeds big Nile freshwater crocs… mostly for leather, but the deal with the government is that you have to return two percent of your babies to the wild if you took any eggs from the wild to start out. So they have a leather element and a conservation element, and a tourism element too, as they let people in to see the crocs as well as the other animals they keep just for the visitors. We began the tour with baby crocodiles, which the guide let me hold. I was enchanted. A baby crocodile is surprisingly soft except on its back… its belly skin feels like a snake, cool and soft and smooth. They don’t seem to mind being held, though they do get squirmy eventually if you keep them too long. The guide said that usually by about three years old, they reach the point where it’s unsafe to handle them without special equipment. Crocodiles live about as long as a human, so a three year old croc is still very much a juvenile. They reach adulthood, like we do, at around twenty to twenty-five… but as long as they’re getting enough to eat, they never stop growing throughout their lives. So the humongous crocs you occasionally see in zoos are probably old fellas in their sixties or seventies.

A bask of crocodiles. In the water a group of crocodiles is called a float.

They had thousands of crocs — about two thousand in pens separated by age, that were on display to the visitors, and another 25,000 in back as part of the breeding project. Apparently crocs are very easy to breed in captivity, to the point where eventually the government said “Enough!” and stopped asking breeders to return a percentage to the wild, because there were getting to be too many crocs in the wild!

There were also lions there — a pair of females, on the older side and not looking very happy. One of them growled at me through the fence. I told her, “Chill out, I’m not your dinner,” and she glared at me and went to lie down again. Their enclosure looked like the old kind of zoo; it was big, but didn’t have much to stimulate their minds, and they stayed near the bars. The lions made me sad; I hope to see them in the wild, but this isn’t how I wanted to meet lions here.

The crocodile farm had a whole snake room, which included both common, harmless types like the African brown house snake and the corn snake (which is very pretty, and a common pet in the US), as well as the serious vipers. Several species of cobra, puff adders, pit vipers, black and green mambas, as well as American cottonmouths and rattlers and coral snakes. They had an anaconda and a South African python who were friends and refused to be separated… they had been in adjoining tanks but the anaconda kept breaking through the wall between the two chambers and rejoining the python! Eventually, they just let them stay together. There was also another, much smaller python, which the guide offered to let me hold. I don’t think he expected me to take him up on it, but I did, and spent several minutes very happily petting a python while she draped herself all over me.

The last feature was an optional opportunity to go cage diving with crocodiles. I really thought about doing that, and if I had known about it in time to bring a swimsuit with me I think I would have. But I wasn’t dressed for the water, and even though they had some kind of borrowable gear, I decided that I didn’t want to go through all the changing. I regretted passing it up, but I knew I would need my energy to go looking for rhinos later that afternoon.

While I was talking to the guy who ran the cage diving activity, a small troupe of monkeys climbed the fence between the crocodile farm and the neighboring house’s back yard, where they’d apparently been playing with the drying laundry. There were four or five of them; a very pretty little species that the guide told me were called vervet monkeys. I hope I see more of them in my time here…. but if they’re common enough to be casually hanging out in somebody’s suburban back yard, I rather expect I will.

Later in the afternoon, it was time to go rhino trekking. The local park has black rhinos in it, and it’s one of the very few places I’ll be seeing this trip where there are rhinos — they exist in Botswana, but not in the areas I’m visiting. So I jumped on what might be my only chance this trip to see rhinos in the wild.

Nevertheless, the guide, whose name is Michael, was careful to limit my expectations. I already knew that I was visiting in the rainy season, and that could make it harder to see animals — both because it’s easier for them to hide among all that greenery, and because, with food and water everywhere, they don’t have to come to reliably known locations the way they do in the dry season. What I didn’t know was that the last several days had been pouring even by rainy season standards — very nearly flooding — and so most of the animals had probably slunk off to stay out of the weather. Michael made sure that I knew I might not see a rhino on this drive, but he was fairly sure that I would see several other species at least. I decided that would make it worth the excursion, even if he never could find me a rhino.

We set out from Batonka in the same open vehicle they use for the game drives. It’s not exactly designed for the highway. It’s got a fold-down windshield, and a pair of front seats with no seatbelts (the back seats also have no seatbelts, but are higher up and with less of a wall beside you). I sat in front with Michael on the way to the wildlife area, and then moved to one of the high seats in back once we arrived, so I could see out either side of the vehicle depending on what was there. I was the only one on the drive, and had to pay for two people, because they normally don’t run game drives with only one. I give Michael credit, though… he made that trip well worth the double cost. It was magical.

Things began slowly. We arrived at the park and had a safety briefing — no standing up without permission, no sticking your hands out of the vehicle, etc. Michael explained that when we’re inside, the animals see our Land Rover as just another big animal. Since it’s neither giving off predator smells nor is it small enough to be prey for anything, they ignore it. I was tickled at the idea of riding around in a fictional wild animal and having all the others treating us as one.

The first thing we saw was a herd of impala. Well, okay; they are actually the first thing almost everyone sees on safari. Impala are the most common type of antelope in Africa and there are zillions of them. But they really are beautiful, and to my great delight, they had a couple of calves with them. (I keep wanting to call impala babies fawns, because impala look so much like deer. But they’re really called calves.) One reason I came in the rainy season, despite it being harder to find wildlife then, is that it’s also baby animal season, and I wanted to see those! It looked like that decision was already paying off.

Before I had quite gotten over bubbling about the impala calf, we came upon a herd of zebras. They had young too — at least one foal hanging out with its mother near the center of the herd. Baby zebras are adorable. Their noses dish inward like little stripy Arabian horses. They don’t do that nearly as much after they’ve grown up.

We ran into a family of giraffes right beside the road, browsing among the tall treetops. Michael explained that the darker colored ones were usually male and the lighter ones were usually female, but also a giraffe’s color darkens with age. So the darkest brown giraffes we saw were probably old bulls, and the yellowish-tan ones younger females. No baby giraffes, but maybe I’ll see some before I leave Africa!!

We went down to the river so Michael could show me hippos. They were barely visible, just their nose and ears sticking out of the water. A hippo who’s submerged up to its nose is absurdly cute, for something I knew to be so big and aggressive in general. On the way up from the riverbank, we saw kudu (another type of antelope, this one a soft brown color instead of the impala’s bright orange) and a very busy troupe of Chachma baboons on their way someplace. The babies rode along on their mother’s backs, sitting up very straight, right in front of the tail. Michael called it the “baboon taxi.”

After all that, I was beginning to resign myself to not seeing any rhinos. I mean, everything we had already seen was so beautiful. And then Michael suddenly stopped the Land Rover with a jerk and said in a low voice, pointing:


My head spun around. There was just barely visible a big, dark body between the trees. I was enthralled just to get a glimpse of them, and said so, while trying to get pictures of the rhino through the heavy underbrush. But Michael wasn’t through yet. He backed up the van and slowly pulled it off the road. When it came to a stop, we were facing not one but two rhinos, clear and unimpeded, from a distance of barely fifty feet.

I very literally gasped. Michael said, in a reverential tone, “Beautiful,” and I had to agree. You don’t think of rhinoceros as beautiful, when you see them in pictures. They certainly aren’t pretty. But there’s a real magnificence about them, when they’re wild in their own space, that doesn’t come across in photos or even in zoos. I later found out that the black rhino was the animal which had brought Michael to work at this place. There aren’t many of them anymore, and he loves them more than any other animal. So he went to work in a place where he could see them and help them.

I asked Michael about there being two together. Rhinos don’t typically like hanging out together; they need their space. He explained that this was a mother and baby; they were just about the same size, because the baby was two and a half already (they leave Mama at about three years), but he was still nursing, so he would stay with her for several months yet. I watched them closely and sure enough, one rhino chomped at the leaves on the bushes, while the other just stood there looking at us. So I guess that was the baby, but he was as big as his mom.

We sat there quietly with the black rhinos for about fifteen minutes, and I alternately took pictures and just drank them in. I hadn’t really expected to see even one rhino on this drive, let alone two at such close range! Sometimes it almost felt like they were posing for my pictures, although it’s even odds they didn’t even see me inside the vehicle. Rhinos have very poor vision. But their hearing is excellent; they very definitely knew we were there… and didn’t appear to mind in the least.

After that, we went on with the drive. There was a long stretch where we didn’t find anything at all, except a good place to stop for sundowners. Sundowners are a beautifully civilized custom of the African bush, in which nearly all game drives will stop at sunset to look at the view and have drinks and snacks outside the van. With the cloudy sky, we couldn’t see much sunset, but Michael poured me red wine (he had a Coke; he was driving) and gave me a little snack bag with tiny samosas and miniature chicken kabobs with tomato and cucumber. (After the samosas, which were good but very spicy, I was rather glad of the tomato and cucumber.) We stood there, listening to the singing of insects and birds and the river beyond the trees, and eventually a few kudu drifted past us. Then we climbed back into the van and got on our way.

The kudu seemed to break the dry spell after the rhinos… there were more impala and zebras on the way back, plus a troupe of baboons all festooned over the branches of a big tree. The best of all, besides the rhinos, was the last thing we saw: on the way back to the park exit, there was a big bull giraffe standing right in the road in front of us. He clearly had a very tasty tree, and showed zero sign of wanting to move. Michael edged the van up closer, and the giraffe reluctantly pulled off to the side, but stayed with his tasty tree, super close to where we stopped the car. He even turned to look at us a few times.

And then that really was the end, and the heavens opened up in a pouring rain just as we got out to the main road. This was how I learned that the foldaway windshield had no wipers! I have no idea how Michael got me back safely in that — wind and rain and low visibility, and a vehicle neither made for driving in the rain nor in the dark. But the rain had waited until we were finished with the actual game drive, for which I was deeply grateful. And Michael got me back safely, if wet.

I overtipped on purpose, to thank him for finding me the rhinos. They were special.

Next: I move out of the town of Victoria Falls into my first actual game camp, on the Zambezi river. What will that be like?

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