Chapter 47 – Rhinos of Halali

The car trouble that forced us to remain in the vicinity of Halali Camp had become a blessing in disguise. It gave us the opportunity to become very familiar with the animals around Halali waterhole, especially black rhinos.

Earless black rhino calf with mother at Halali waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Earless black rhino calf with mother at Halali waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia. Photo by Austin J Stevens

The following night, the earless rhino calf and its mother returned to the waterhole, and as they drank leisurely a spotted hyena approached the waterhole on the opposite side. The rhino mother and calf raised their heads to watch the hyena as it lapped at the surface of the water. At that moment, an exceptionally large adult black rhino appeared out of the bush near the mother and calf, and stopped mid-way through greeting the pair when it noticed the hyena drinking opposite. The large rhino positioned itself between the hyena and the mother rhino and her calf in a blatantly protective gesture, tossed its head and trotted with high steps towards the hyena. The hyena was immediately on guard and backed away from the water, but not far enough for the rhino’s liking. The rhino snorted loudly. Raising its front feet off the ground and pivoting its enormous body to face the hyena head-on, the rhino launched into a rapid charge that sent the hyena running for cover. The rhino then pranced back and forth in front of the waterhole as if warning the hyena not to return. We were fascinated by the behaviour we had just witnessed, and lamented the fact that it was simply too dark so late at night to photograph the unfolding dramas of the African bush. We were further astonished when over the period of the next half hour, the three rhinos were joined by another five rhinos, one of which was a large female with two calves at foot. One of the calves was large enough to soon leave her and begin the mostly solitary life of adult black rhinos, and the other was less than a year old. All eight rhinos greeted each other and the three adults new to the waterhole that night were attentive towards the earless calf, rubbing their noses on the calf’s chin. We noticed that one of the adult’s ears had been nicked for identification purposes at some point in its life. The rhino group remained together for a couple of hours and each animal wandered back into the bush in its own time until only the earless calf, its mother, and another adult rhino were left.

The deep, resonant hoots of a pair of giant eagle owls pierced the night and the spectacular birds alighted in the tree tops to our right, bathed in the light of the full moon. One owl turned its head towards us, its massive eyes just visible to us in the darkness before it spread its enormous wings and glided silently through the bush. Soon after, the second owl followed and the pair hunted the area around the waterhole for rodents and other nocturnal prey. Austin and I got up slowly and quietly from our seat and crept among the rocks to the ledge closest to the trees. We sat on the broad rocks with our legs hanging over the side and waited to see if the owls would come back into view. Not a minute later, the adult black rhino wandered over to us and began feeding on a bush directly underneath my dangling feet. Austin squeezed my hand and I smiled broadly at the close proximity of the giant animal, who was totally undisturbed by our presence. The rhino was so close I could hear the rush of air as each breath it took caused its massive sides to expand, followed by the gentle huff of expulsion. The magical scene surrounding us tugged at my heart and I felt that I could have remained there always, completely content to say goodbye to civilisation forever.

Spotted hyena at waterhole. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Spotted hyena at waterhole.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

Although we encountered the most wildlife by the waterhole at night, days in the camp were far from uneventful. The area around our little bungalow was home to a family of tree squirrels. If we left the door of the bungalow open for more than a couple of minutes, the squirrels began to sneak inside and were often successful in making off with our biscuits and other snacks. Two adults and one small baby would dash out the door carrying our biscuits in their mouths which they procured by knocking over the biscuit box and reaching inside. They would then eat some of their loot before hiding the rest under nearby pebbles for later retrieval.

The days flew past like minutes and suddenly it was time to attempt the journey back to Swakopmund. After starting the Mazda and leaving the camp shortly after dawn, we were forced to begin the drive across Etosha National Park in second gear without stopping, as starting the car again was extremely difficult. Unfortunately for the Mazda, just a few kilometres outside camp, we encountered three cheetahs dragging a freshly killed springbuck to a nearby tree! Austin immediately stopped the car and we both stared in astonishment. We had feared that cheetahs may have become extremely scarce in Etosha; it had been so long since we had heard of any sightings. The three cats moved with a svelte grace despite their heavy load. The group appeared to consist of a mother and her two sub-adult offspring. Their long bodies and spotted coats gleamed in the early morning sun, and they were only visible for a few moments before vanishing behind the tree and into the undergrowth with their prize. We battled to start the car once again, and continued to drive in second gear for the next five hours until we reached a service station that could replace the rubber on the clutch cylinder. We reached Swakopmund very late that night, by which time our Suzuki had been repaired.

Amy Stevens demonstrates size of elephant skull. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens demonstrates size of elephant skull.
Photo by Austin J Stevens

The next day we exchanged cars, and set about completing all the tasks that had accumulated while we were away. Each was completed with a fair degree of disruption, as Austin’s post-operative symptoms had been worsened by the long periods spent sitting in the car while travelling. He hit a rough patch once again and was left wondering whether he would ever recover to the point where he would be able to return his old lifestyle of more extreme travel and adventure.

A month after we returned from Etosha, Austin’s production company needed to fly him to Johannesburg for voice over recordings for the films he had completed prior to surgery, but he would not go without me to assist him in the event of worsening symptoms and to provide moral support. Since the operation, several sleepless nights had seen us preparing to make rushed trips to hospital when Austin found himself unable to empty his bladder, but so far, we had been lucky in that the situation resolved itself. He was still experiencing bleeding from the operation and I grew used to the sleep deprivation that resulted from monitoring his condition constantly. When he was told the budget for the series simply couldn’t accommodate my flights to the voice over recordings as well as his, Austin became nervous about travelling without me for the first time since the surgery and immediately decided to drive to South Africa in order to take me with him. He was exasperated with his long recovery and felt that he needed a distraction, something to stop him dwelling on his physical state. We knew that the cure for his depression was activity; occupying his mind.

We had not been back in Swakopmund for long, but Austin was growing restless once again and began pacing the house, visualising wild open spaces and animals. I knew from experience that such behaviour would herald another adventure, and sure enough, the very next week we decided to work the necessary voice over recordings for the series into our most ambitious journey yet – a 7000 kilometre round trip by road from Namibia through Botswana to South Africa and back again. Our goal was Kruger National Park.

To be continued in Chapter 48, when we begin our road trip by crossing into Botswana…

To locate chapters of the story that came before this one, please visit the Blog page for a list of posts.

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