One of the most frequent questions I am asked during a starlit dinner at the lodge is ‘what made you get into guiding?’ A genuine passion for wildlife is the obvious answer and very true, but there are many vocations in which one can be involved to simply scratch that itch. What I truly love about my job and what helps me get up at 4.30am every morning is that no two days are ever the same. The unpredictability of the bush is its biggest gift. Every morning is a blank canvas and the desire to get out there and see what today’s sunrise has brought with it is more than enough motivation to leave the comfort of a warm bed!
|A rhino mother and calf graze in the morning sunrise|
After a successful few days of safari, I decided to conduct today’s afternoon game drive in an area of the reserve known more for its topographical beauty than its animal density. Unknown to us at the time however, my guests and I were in for a treat. As we rounded a bend in the road we inadvertently found ourselves in the middle of a warzone. Male rhinos are territorial animals and the dominant male will have to defend his interests regularly to ensure mating rights and a safe environment for his offspring to grow. The ensuing battle was fascinating and we were gifted front row seats to something that felt like a scene out of Gladiator.
|The dominant male fends off another attack from his younger challenger|
The setting of the skirmish was picture perfect. The rhinos were engaged in conflict within a natural amphitheatre of a high banked waterhole. Iconic fever trees lined the arena and we settled in to watch only about 15 meters away from the action with the rhinos so wrapped up in their engagement they seemed oblivious to our presence. For the next 30 minutes we watched with jaws agape as a younger male launched raid after raid against the dominant bull. Water is nature’s life blood and it seemed no coincidence that the battle was being fought on wet turf. With the dry season coming, the most sought after territories will contain water.
|The challenger mounts another offensive|
The dominant male stood firm in the water repelling repeated attacks from his smaller foe. The rhinos’ battle cries were audible from afar as deep booming growls accompanied the clashing of horns as they jousted with each other probing for the killer blow. Each time the larger male got the better of his adversary, the challenger retired a few meters, scent marked in a sign of defiance and rallied to attack again. Mud and water erupted from beneath their huge feet as 4 tons of prehistoric aggression clashed in the shallows making for a wonderful spectacle. We watched with mouths agape as this epic encounter continued and finally after about 40 minutes the loser accepted his fate and melted off into thick bush. After a successful defense of his territory, the winner basked in his own glory by submerging his massive bulk in the muddied water. I almost felt like standing and applauding his victory in true coliseum style but with his adrenaline levels still spiking, we chose to leave him to celebrate in peace before he considered us a threat to his dominance!
|The victorious male celebrates his victory by rolling in his hard fought waterhole|
|The mud covered male stands proud in his defended territory|
As the sun began its inevitable descent behind the distant little Drakensburg Mountains we were presented with a final treat. They say that the best things come in small packages and on this occasion, this oft over used phrase could be no more poignant. Greeting us around the corner was a rhino cow and her newborn calf. Everyone is aware of the plight that faces the rhino at present and to witness the next generation is the epitome of hope for the species. In 6 years of guiding I had never seen such a young rhino. He could not have been more than 3 days old yet his level of boldness was endearing. The mother’s high levels of habituation gave him enough confidence to cautiously investigate this intruder into his new life and we watched in silence, afraid to move or make a sound in case we spooked him and destroyed such a special moment.
|The next generation looks one under the watchful gaze of is mother|
|The newborn rhino explores his surroundings|
The contrast in size is almost unfathomable. Weighing in at about 90kgs, it seems impossible to comprehend that he will tip the scales at over 2 tons in the future. There was no evidence of even a horn on his nose as he unsteadily evaluated us from the safety of his mother’s side. High pitched squeaks accompanied his investigations. Whether they were an attempt to communicate with this strange animal in his midst or cries of reassurance to his mother we will never know but our hearts melted as one in the face of such delicate beauty. There was not much I needed to say to my guests as the picture truly spoke for itself and as the female moved away from the road with her legacy in hot pursuit, we decided to leave them in peace and moved on in silence as we all soaked up a wonderful sighting.
|A tiny bump is all that hints at the magnificant horn that will hopefully follow|
It is days like this that epitomize the joy of being a guide in Africa. I have seen rhino many times but every sighting is different. Interactions between species members all culminate in different behaviours and outcomes. Sightings of the younger generation carry with them joy but hint at the forthcoming battle the individuals and species must face as they struggle to survive. Nonchalance is a guide’s biggest enemy and especially when considering a critically endangered species such as the rhino. The day I become complacent about seeing one these prehistoric throw backs is the day I move on. If that day ever comes, I would consider myself not worthy to be in such an enviable position and it would be selfish of me to deny that opportunity to other more passionate guides in waiting. Every sighting is a gift and should be treated as one.
|A mother and calf beautifully reflected in the water|
|A territorial male embarks on another patrol|
|A curious calf leaves the protection of his mother to investigate our landrover|