Even now, our safari adventure in Zambia seems surreal. Moments ago, we met a truck full of Zambian security employees armed with guns inside a reserve and sanctuary. Now the group of us walk single file on foot behind an armed escort tracking a white rhinoceros. This field, this sanctuary, is silent but for the sound of us walking and the occasional comment from our leader. Stick together, never run, follow instructions and you will be okay.
The sun begins a slow surrender into the horizon, casting an incredible glow on this safari adventure. It is our last night in Zambia. We are on safari in SubSaharan Africa and that alone is magical and unexpected. We have been here visiting and working, interviewing staff, volunteers, and Moms across Zambia about their struggles to access health care, particularly lifesaving vaccines, for children. Our days have been long, scorching, educational and emotional too. We are here with the UN Foundation’s Shot at Life advocacy group. Together we are searching out and sharing the stories we find regarding Moms and their supernatural efforts to get their children what they need. Many of these Zambian Moms will walk as far as 20 kms to get their children lifesaving vaccines, or health care. We have heard many stories about innovation and success and the strength of women.
Tonight we anticipated going back to our rooms to pack, followed by a farewell dinner. But this is Zambia, in Southern Africa. Packing and rest can wait. When one of our members asked if there was anything uniquely local to see our driver advised us that we should go see the rare white rhinoceros. Why not? Together we are each expecting to take a few pictures of rhinos and drive back to the hotel. But, then we are greeted with a safari jeep and an actual safari tour at sunset.
Our grins are enormous when we realize we are getting so much more than we thought. The Zambians have over delivered yet again. Just like most everything we have seen and done here we are amazed and surprised at the hospitality. We are treated brilliantly and made to feel at home. Zambians are kind and friendly and we are overwhelmed by our visit here.
We venture through the reserve near our resort in Livingstone and scour the bushes for signs of wildlife. Then we turn a corner and three African male bull elephants are right straight in front of us. In a field to the right are bush bucks (they look like impalas) and dozens of zebras again. I will never tire of seeing zebras. They are so peculiar and exotic. Where else on earth would you find a creature so brightly adorned with stripes? Each time I spy a zebra I am overwhelmed with the desire to FaceTime my kids and show them what I am seeing but the time change makes that impossible.
We’ve seen elephants and bush bucks and monkeys and giraffes up close. A trio of bull elephants stood directly in front of our jeep as the driver and guide cut the engine and we sat, like sitting ducks taking pictures. Elephants can and will charge you but our guide explains that as long as we show them our presence here is not a threat and we leave them to graze we should be fine. So we do just that snapping pictures, admiring this encounter and revelling in a once in a lifetime adventure.
Our guide hands us each a leaf from a tree nearby and tells us we can eat it. Elephants eat this plant all the time, he says. It has a citrus-y flavour with a mint tone. We each try a bit.
Monkeys and their babies scamper out of the way of the jeep, hiding from cameras, and the sun slides lower in the sky. Then eventually we come to a guarded gate and a guide with a gun hops into our jeep. We are cleared to proceed, just as another jeep full of British tourists returns with great smiles on their faces. Our respective drivers trade tips – Find the bull elephants on the side road right now, our driver says.
The white rhinoceros is another thing entirely. The white rhinoceros group is obviously highly guarded and protected. White rhinos have often been targeted by poachers, who will kill them only for their horns. This has happened before here and entire herds have been slaughtered. Now the government supports wildlife conservation and takes preservation of these rhinos very seriously.
We walk a short distance and the tracker, guide finds rhino scat. He scrutinizes the dry plants for signs too. They are nearby, but we will have to walk a bit further. This is definitely not something we were expecting. On foot we each follow single file until he stops and points. We walk around the first mother and daughter pair, taking pictures. About 30 feet away from us they are grazing. Other than the rhinos, and the guide this savannah stretches as far as the eye can see, stopping only at the horizon. White rhinos are the only grazers of all the rhinoceros species.
I am thinking maybe they are extremely dirty white rhinoceros, but they are definitely not white. The guide must be used to this question because he explains: they were actually named wide rhinos by the Dutch but the locals at the time heard white rhinos. The Dutch word for wide sounds a lot like white. Regardless of the name white rhinos are unique and were nearly extinct in the 1900s. Now they are classified as near threatened. White rhinos are the second largest land mammals after the elephant.
The other guide spots another crash of rhinos but this time they are right side our jeep. We pause keeping the jeep between us and the magnificent mammals. It’s time to move on, back through the gates leaving these remarkable creatures behind. Before we finish for the day our driver stops along the banks of the Zambezi as we take some photos of the last Zambian sunset we will see. Our time in Zambia draws to a close, but what a way to end an amazing week.
I was in Zambia doing a fellowship recently with the UN Foundation’s Shot at Life global vaccination program. If you would like to read more about that see this Shot at Life post.