Abbiott welcomed me to Zimbabwe with open arms, literally.
I’m 6’6″ and the top of Abbiott’s head came to about the bottom of my ribcage. He squeezed me hard with his skinny arms. “Welcome, welcome, welcome back. I’m so happy to see you!” he said.
I’ve witnessed a limited range of emotions when arriving at the entrance gate to one of Africa’s national parks, from bored indifference to officious pomposity. I’d never been hugged until I went back to Hwange this year.
Mrs Blog and I first met Abbiott a few years ago when he was a pump attendant at Masuma Dam, in the middle of Hwange between Main Camp and Sinamatella. Shush, don’t tell anyone I said so, but Masuma is probably the best wildlife viewing spot in the park.
I don’t think we’d ever met anyone quite so passionate about game viewing and animal behaviour as Abbiott. His job was to keep the diesel water pump going at Masuma, living alone in a tin shed at the dam for months at a time without a break. He was surrounded by wildlife, but he never grew tired of it.
Abbiott would talk animatedly to us – to any of the few people who made it to Hwange in the grimmest days of fuel shortages and currency craziness – about the sightings he’d had in the course of his day. He knew when the wild dog would come to drink; what time the leopard would start its evening patrol; where the resident lion pride was lazing.
One day, Abbiott told us he’d seen the lions not long before and he would take us to their resting place. We told him we’d love to go, but as our old short wheelbase land rover only had two seats we couldn’t take him. “No problem,” he enthused. He climbed up onto the front fender, like a game scout, and with an imperious wave of his hand pointed the way.
When Abbiott spotted the lions’ spoor on the road he told us to stop and jumped of the truck and jogged into the bush. Soon after, he came scampering back, reefed open the passenger door and scrambled up onto Mrs Blog’s lap. The lions appeared shortly after.
I didn’t recognise Abbiott this time, until he got close enough to cuddle me. He’d been transferred to the comparatively glamorous position of gate attendant, at Hwange’s northern gate on the road in from Victoria Falls, and the Pandamatenga border post, where we’d just crossed from Botswana.
He was dressed in neatly pressed, if slightly frayed, national parks khaki, instead of the patched and torn old overalls he used to wear at Masuma. My other vivid memory of him was the way he’d seemed as much a part of the environment at Masuma as any of the wildlife that came to drink from the water he supplied.
When the pump ran out of fuel Abbiott would heft a full jerrycan of diesel onto his shoulder and stride boldly across the barren dusty ground to the pump. The elephant and the kudu didn’t run from him, but rather parted to let him through. They needed him, and he loved them.
I was a bit sad, in a way, to see him stuck up on the gate, but as soon as he’d released me from his bear hug, and we’d caught up on gossip, he was pointing down the road to where he’d just seen herd of buffalo cross the road, and telling me about the lions that called all around him at night.
Mrs Blog and I had travelled to Hwange for the annual volunteer game census, conducted by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe. It’s the highlight of our travelling year, and we’ve been coming for twelve years now. Abbiott was over the moon to see we’d brought along other friends from Australia and South Africa for the game count.
He shook everyone’s hand and even offered a few more hugs.
The 2010 game census yielded many more animals than the 2009 count – mainly because it didn’t pour with rain throughout the 24-hour survey period this year, as it did last year. The count is always variable – in years where there is plenty of water the game count is low, as the animals are widely dispersed, but in drought years the numbers are high as game congregates around the remaining water and is easier to count.
The bottom line is that despite problems with poaching in the park, and parlous state of the rest of the country, there is still plenty of game to be seen in Zimbabwe.
It’s a fun time, on the count, and a real privilege for volunteers to be able to spend a day and a night out in the bush alone. This year we counted with friends at Chingahobe Dam. It was a beautiful spot and we notched up a reasonably healthy total of elephant, impala, zebra, warthogs and a few other species. Other counters saw wild dog, lion, leopard and a host of other interesting sightings.
After the count we were able to stay in a couple of the park’s picnic sites, at Deteema Dam, and then Masuma, where we’d first met Abbiott. This is a real drawcard for Hwange, as the picnic sites are generally overlooking a waterhole, and only one group at a time can camp in them.
As we left the park, we saw Abbiott again and hugged him goodbye.
He’s like so many people I know in Zimbabwe. He’s friendly, welcoming, motivated, passionate, and he’s just so damn glad to see people coming back to share with him the beauty that’s all around him.