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Zebras, rhinos and close encounters of a Zambian kind

By Errol Barnett, CNN
updated 10:36 AM EST, Mon January 23, 2012
Errol has a close encounter with a rhino Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia. Errol has a close encounter with a rhino Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia.
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Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia
"Inonge" and "Hope"
Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park
Mosi-oa-Tunya park
Mosi-oa-Tunya park
Banks of the Zambezi
Banks of the Zambezi
Banks of the Zambezi
Victoria Falls
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Errol Barnett has a close encounter with a bull elephant in Zambia
  • Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Breeding program aims to increase numbers of white rhinos
  • Zambians proud that their country is a tourist destination

Mosi-oa-Tunya, Zambia (CNN) -- "Stop the car, stop the car! There's a bull elephant in the road!" Words I listen to closely as they're being shouted by a man sitting next to me clutching an AK-47.

His name is John, a park ranger protecting myself and the CNN crew as we venture through the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia for "Inside Africa." We jump out of the car, cameras rolling; he tells me villagers nearby have complained of a rogue male elephant storming through, damaging crops -- this may be him.

Just 25 meters separate us and the elephant's enormous tusks. The magnificent animal stands defiantly at approximately three meters tall or more. It sees us but refuses to move, instead continuing to pull down branches, eat leaves and take his time. We don't know how long he will remain calm and we certainly won't challenge or disturb him, so we find another way out.

Bungee jumping over the Zambezi River

Discovering the real Zambia

Zambia's Jewish settlement

It was an incredible stroke of luck to find a peaceful bull elephant and get so close, especially since we were leaving after many fruitful hours of a walking safari. This park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes Victoria Falls, so the semi-wild animals here are protected by armed rangers like John.

He walked with me as we discovered beautifully striped zebras and stood in front of me as three dozen buffalo caught our scent and moved aggressively our way. John then took me to a distant part of the of park to show me something the rangers are extremely proud of; their white rhinos.

As we approach their grazing area, stepping over bushes, pushing branches aside, I could feel my heart racing. Then, all of a sudden, quietly and without ceremony, two rhinos appeared; a mother and her 12-month-old baby. They're shorter than I expect but much wider too, mud drying on their rough skin after a hot summer's day.

The ranger tells me the mother, they've named "Inonge," was brought here from South Africa, where poachers are pushing one type of white rhino to extinction. They're here in an effort to reintroduce the animals to natural surroundings and hopefully increase their numbers. It's a surreal feeling to be quietly occupying the same shaded space as such important creatures.

Dramatic elephant rescue

It's a surreal feeling to be quietly occupying the same shaded space as such important creatures.
Errol Barnett

Now I understand why the rangers are gushing over "Hope," the baby. It's the first of its kind born at the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and represents a Zambian success story. It also shows the extent to which locals truly care about preserving the natural wonders that surround them.

I saw the same level of appreciation along the banks of the mighty Zambezi river, meeting Zambians who literally live and work in the "mist that thunders." I approach one woman among a group of families enjoying the cool waters; her name is Mary and she is all smiles.

Her baby is also called Hope and is staring at me curiously, peeking over Mary's shoulder. Meeting two babies called Hope, it strikes me how optimistic Zambians are about the future. I discover that Mary and Hope are from northern Zambia, making their first trip to Victoria Falls together. She tells me it's a privilege to be able to come down to Victoria Falls, bask in the waters and socialize with the other parents.

Elsewhere, I meet a group of young men, snapping pictures of the massive waterfalls with their small cell phones. While talking with them I find that they're construction workers building a brand new ticketing office on the Zambian side of the main bridge over the Zambezi. This is their after-work stroll along what's described as the most magnificent waterfall in the world.

See Errol bungee jump at Victoria Falls

The men live in camping tents while working on the new building yet seem proud of their situation. One even tells me Zambians are "blessed people" and therefore it's their responsibility to maintain the natural attractions. It wasn't a salesperson's pitch, or a canned, prepared response, it was genuine expression of appreciation that people from all corners of the globe come to their home.

At this point I realize the encounters with wildlife were sublime but it was listening to people and their stories that really resonated with me. Hours walking with John the ranger, moments chatting along the Zambezi with Mary and her baby and talking to what seemed to be sensitive construction workers.

They all represent typical Zambia in some way, and I cannot get over the fact that my job is to meet these kinds of people all over the African continent.

My thrilling time here has come to an end, and next I'll take you to Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.

My journey of discovery "Inside Africa" continues ...

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