HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

February 9, 2011

Walking With Rhinos

     Movement alerted our eyes to the 2 dark shapes some 3 or 400 hundred metres away.  As we watched and evaluated the approach, 2 young male rhinos were lazily feeding next to road on the other side of a dry river bed.  As part of the on going training as a guide, we must regularly approach big 5 animals on foot to ensure our calmness in the face of possible adversity, should the situation arise with guests in tow.  The bush is unpredictable.  Every animal of every species reacts differently on any given day so there is no substitute for experience. 

     Neil, my back up, and I discussed the approach, taking the topography and wind direction into account to ensure a safe view.  The plan was simple – head straight south, cross the river bed and view the 2 rhino from the tree line.  The wind and the sun were in our favour so we began our approach.  The grass this time of year is long and as we walked further away from the safety of the road, the bush began to envelop us.  Visibility is reduced drastically and your other senses compensate for this deficiency, especially your hearing.  A bird rustling in the grass beside you sounds like a stalking lion; a breaking twig underfoot, a gunshot.  There were times when I felt like I was in ‘Nam and that perhaps I should have exchanged my rifle for a panga or machete to cut a swathe through the jungle of grass.  Every now and again a course change was needed due to the presence of a golden orb spider web.  Some of you may know that I’m not too keen on spiders on the best of days, but these are the size of your hand and their webs can span 2 or 3 square metres.  The silk in them is so strong that you don’t walk through one, they stop you!  Random fact on these spiders is that their silk is so strong that a strand the width of a standard pencil, suspended across the sky, is strong enough to stop a 747 at full speed!  One of the spa girls is massively arachnophobia and she was very pale at times!

     Eventually we successfully negotiated the area of no man’s land and arrived at our perceived viewing area.  We were afforded only a very poor visual of the rhino as they were in an open area with no cover that we could use and were constantly changing direction, making a safe approach impossible.  After a while we decided to extract from the area and make our way to a termite mound and watch them from a distance of maybe 75 metres.  This termite mound was huge, perhaps 60-80 years old and its dome rose probably 4 metres about the ground at its zenith.  We managed to trek our way up without having to break out the crampons and settled down to watch the rhinos grazing.

     A few minutes later, as we were about to leave the area, Neil, my back up, spotted a third rhino closing in on our position from behind us.  We were stuck.  We had rhinos now in front and behind.  Our lofty vantage point meant that we were very safe as it would be very unusual for a rhino to climb the mound.  We watched in silence as the new rhino, a territorial male, made his way toward us.  White rhino’s eyesight in very poor but their olfactory capabilities are very acute.  From a distance of 30 metres we could hear him sniffing the ground, following the very path that we had trodden a mere 20mins before.  Obviously perplexed by not being able to locate the intruders on his turf, he was defiantly marking by urine spraying on top of our tracks.  Ultimately, the rhino ended up at the base of the termite mound.  It is officially the closest I have ever been to a full ground, 2 ton tank on foot!  If you take away our elevated position and placed us on level ground, I think 3 metres would have been a fair reflection!  However, from our position of relative safety we were able to appreciate the magnificence of one of the world’s most endangered mammals in its natural habitat, in its truest sense.  The lack of being surrounded by the steel shell of a land rover and the knowledge that that safety net is no long available makes for a thrilling experience.  I was never scared by the encounter but the adrenaline was pumping!

     Admitting defeat that he was unable to pinpoint our position, he slowly moved away and we prepared to dismount the termite mound and head back before the sun set.  However, our movements betrayed us and his awesome hearing alerted him to our presence.  He never approached the mound again but his proximity made us uncomfortable to descend on to a literal level playing field.  We waited.  He watched.  With the patience of Job!  After 10 minutes, the fading light meant we had to take matters into our own hands.  Some loud claps and a few branches thrown in his direction bought us enough confusion and indecision to bid a hasty exit from the area. 

     Once back, we reminisced on what had been a most humbling and wonderful sighting.  To be looking down from spitting distance to such a massive and prehistoric animal was truly awe inspiring.  I sometimes wonder whether the new rage of walking in the bush is worth the risk but after afternoons such as this one I renounce my wonderings.  That moment alone helped cement my appreciation and respect for these magnificent animals.  The experience could not have gone any better – very rarely will you be 3 metres from a rhino on foot and still be relatively safe.  It was another lesson in the fact that you never know what is going to happen next and that if you switch off or lose concentration, even for a moment, circumstances can change very quickly!