“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” – Jack Kerouac
Austin and I had come to Rhino Camp in Damaraland in search of black rhinos and to see Austin’s friends, Emsie and Chris.
During the night, a fierce wind tore across the desert and shook the sides of our heavy tent until we thought it would be ripped out of the ground. Eventually the wind died down to a soft breeze and soon after, the guests, as well as Emsie, Chris, Austin and I, assembled with the indigenous African trackers at dawn and prepared to search for desert rhinos. Chris and Emsie took Austin and me and their little dog Tier in their vehicle, and the trackers took the guests in two others. We gave the trackers a head start to allow Austin the space he needed for photographs, and we communicated with both of the other safari vehicles by radio as we searched for rhino tracks and enjoyed exploring new areas of the desert. In places the ground was so rocky and steep that we were forced to hold on to strategically placed bars in order to remain in the vehicle. It was three hours before we found the first tracks of desert rhinos in the dry riverbeds, some of which still contained clear blue pools of water from the last rains surrounded by vegetation, and it was four hours before the trackers radioed in to tell us that rhinos had been found. Chris translated the crackling Afrikaans message from the radio and informed us that a female black rhino with a calf at foot had been tracked to a bush in which they were sleeping in one of the dry riverbeds. It was decided that to avoid unnecessarily waking the rhinos, we would come back in another four hours towards evening in hopes that the rhinos would then be moving down the riverbed to a nearby waterhole.
We all stopped for lunch and listened to the guests as they told us of their adventures on previous African safaris, and Austin answered their questions about his new television series. Afterwards, Chris distributed bottled water and then drove Emsie, Austin and me through the desert to see the magnificent thousand-year-old welwitschia plants, which Austin once quite aptly described in his first television series as looking like a ‘giant upside-down dead octopus.’ We whiled away the hours until our rendezvous with the trackers photographing desert hares, which remained frozen on the ground, relying on their camouflage to shield them from us, and watching the herds of overly-curious mountain zebras that looked enquiringly at our vehicle. We also found and photographed a large pink and white gravid desert chameleon that quickly darkened her colours to black when Austin rescued her from the track, and we saw another black and white chameleon perched in a nearby tree. A powerful wind was once again howling across the desert and Austin lost his cap numerous times and had to jump out of the car and run after it.
At the agreed time, we met the trackers and guests on a ridge overlooking the riverbed containing the rhinos. We sat quietly scanning the riverbed below with our binoculars for an hour before the trackers decided to attempt a long walk down the ridge and across the riverbed to try to locate the rhinos from the other lower side. Everyone was invited to come along for the walk, but Austin immediately declined to place himself so close to black rhinos after being charged and chased up a tree by one while filming a few weeks earlier. He told me I could go with the trackers if I wished, but he advised me not to, explaining that we would have a better view from our high ridge if the mother rhino led her calf past us in the riverbed below to get to water. I decided to stay with Austin, Chris, Emsie, Tier and one of the other guests. Chris wanted to keep Tier quiet at a distance should we be lucky enough to get a sighting. We were able to monitor the trackers and guests from the ridge by sight, and occasionally checked their progress more closely with the binoculars. Shortly after the walking party began to cross the riverbed, Tier started to growl, and we saw from our vantage point that the mother rhino and calf had appeared, feeding on trees as they moved towards us. Emsie, Austin and I kept watch through the binoculars and Chris immediately tried to warn the trackers by radio that the rhinos were now on the move. For some reason, we could not establish radio contact, and no amount of waving our arms in the air could attract the attention of the walking group, who were focused on the rugged terrain in front of them. The rhinos stopped to feed on a particularly green bush, and the walkers climbed out of the riverbed and up the low ridge on the opposite side. One of the trackers turned and waved, and I breathed a sigh of relief, confident that the rhinos would not be inclined to scale the low but very steep ridge and reach the walking party.
The adult female black rhino had two very large, magnificent horns. The front horn was most unusual in that it curved outward over her nose rather than arching back in the usual manner and the end of this front horn was split. Chris whispered that this female was ‘Desiree’ and that her calf, whose horns were still small, was approximately two years old. Both rhinos were a dark, dusty brown colour that perfectly camouflaged them. They were beautiful animals. A black rhino’s hearing and smell is as acute as its eyesight is poor. We were lucky that the wind seemed to be mostly in our favour, blowing towards us. We watched, enthralled, as the rhinos walked directly across in front of us. I never thought we would have such a perfect view of them. It was clear that the trackers and guests on the opposite side of the riverbed could also see the rhinos, and they all remained motionless as the calf wandered a short distance away from his mother to feed on another bush. Just then, the breeze seemed to change direction slightly. It must have blown our scent to the rhinos because their reaction was instantaneous! The calf tossed his head and growled and squealed in fear. He ran into the bushes to hide and his mother came charging out to defend him. She snorted repeatedly so loudly that the sound reached us clearly from where we sat on the high ridge. I had never seen such a large animal move so fast! The female rhino ran in circles around her calf, ready to lash out at the unseen intruder who threatened her baby. She was magnificent in her fury. When no obvious threat emerged from the riverbed to confront her, she went to her calf and the two rhinos effortlessly charged up the low ridge straight towards the walking party, who were sent into a state of barely controlled panic! The trackers and guests ran with their binoculars in hand and hid behind a large euphorbia plant, remaining absolutely still and quiet as the enraged rhinos stampeded past them and onto the plains, the mother rhino still snorting loudly. After they had gained some distance from the riverbed, both animals stopped and looked around them before continuing their run for safety into the vastness of the surrounding desert.
As we breathed a collective sigh of relief, the pale faces of the guests appeared from behind the euphorbia, and the dishevelled trackers led the group from their hiding place to begin the long walk back to us up on the high ridge. When they finally reached us, we were treated to the guest’s hilarious re-enactments of the narrow escape before commencing the long drive back to camp at sunset.
In the course of one afternoon, I had gained a new respect for the awesome power and blazing fury of black rhinos. The mother and calf had gone from peaceful to potentially deadly in a matter of seconds, and I was glad that Austin and I had remained to watch the spectacle from the relative safety of the high ridge. It was Wilderness Safaris’ policy not to disturb wildlife in any way, but despite doing our best to observe the rhinos without them being aware of our presence, we had found it impossible on that occasion to avoid detection. As we prepared to leave, I reflected on the inevitable impact human beings have whenever they enter a wilderness area, despite doing it with the best of intentions. I felt very privileged to have seen rhinos in the wild, but I regretted that we had accidentally caused them undue stress in the process.
To be continued in Chapter 39, when I wrestle an oryx, and we find ourselves making an urgent trip to Australia…