“Anyone need a change of underwear?” It’s been a serious heart-stopping, nerve-wracking and exhilarating moment. How close had those rhino really been?
I was leading a Walking Women holiday in Swaziland, the first one for me, and we’d already had a list of firsts for many, including myself. We’d had three nights in Mlilwane where we’d walked with zebra, seen lots of birds including the half-collared kingfisher which is a near-threatened species, watched traditional dancing and been up Execution Rock. We had then transferred to Hlane where we had been on safari and seen lion saunter past our vehicle and elephant munching on grass only 20m away. We’d also spied a spotted genet streak in front of the Land Rover as we drove back to camp in the dark for our gins around the waterhole.
But it was the rhino drive that I suspect everyone will remember most, some with awe, some with trepidation, and all with incredulity. Johannes, our guide, had been with us for our other safaris so he knew that we were as interested in the birds and trees as well as the animals, and the safari started off with us spotting an African hoopoe and a red-faced mousebird to add to our ever-growing bird list. We drove around Ndlovu waterhole, Ndlovu meaning elephant in siSwati and aptly so as we had seen elephant there drinking from it the day before.
There was a rhino off in the distance and we used our binoculars to get a good look at him.
Further on we spotted a couple more rhino lying in the mud behind the branches of a fallen knob thorn acacia. Johannes slowed the vehicle to get a better look and then pulled off the dirt road to park in the shade. We managed to extricate ourselves from the safari vehicle and listened to Johannes’s brief.
“Walk quietly in single file and watch me for directions. This means stop,” and he held his hand up in the uniform stop sign. “This means danger, and look to me for directions,” he closed his hand in a fist. “This means come to me” and he beckoned, “and this means back off,” and he waved his hand away. All pretty obvious, but in the heat of the moment it was good to have this clarified.
“And we must walk very carefully, and very quietly, watch where you put your feet so that you do not step on branches and crack them.” We collected cameras and binoculars and stood in line with myself at the rear; I was the end marker and was to check behind us as well as in front.
And thus we walked towards the sleeping rhino. As a group we have never been so quiet, ever! The nervous energy was palpable.
We slowly crept forward, weaving between the tamboti trees, mindful of where we were putting our feet. And then the rhino got up and looked towards us through the branches. At this point we were about 30m away and there were a few dead trees between us, not much but enough to give a very good sense of invincibility, or maybe it was vulnerability. Either way the rhino started to walk towards us and we then realised that the second rhino was in fact two more and they had got up as well.
Johannes beckoned us quickly to get behind him in the Tamboti thicket, and a few nervous faces looked at me questioning. “Move on” I encouraged. I was at the back in the open so it was for my benefit as well as everyone else’s that we closed up as a group behind those spindly trees. I noticed a slight increase in my heartbeat, which is rather an understatement.
The first rhino came out from behind the bush and was now about 20m away. “They are going to their midden to poop” whispered Johannes, I was counting our lucky stars that we were not in the direct line to said midden (or I might have pooped as well).
The rhino stopped and looked at us as we bunched together tightly, all behind Johannes who was simply carrying a knob stick, the traditional implement for walking in the bush. No rifle, just a thick stick. He waved the stick in front of the rhino and this large mammal stopped and peered at us.
Rhino have poor eyesight but very good hearing, so we held our breathe and Johannes waved his stick at the rhino and the rhino simply moved on, I did wander if the stick possessed magical ‘rhino deterrent’ properties. The rhino walked to the midden and we turned our attention to the other two who also stopped and assessed us, from only 8m away, before lumbering on towards the midden.
There then ensued one of those magic tricks where you think that the last rabbit has come out of the hat but no, there are more that you expected. A staggering nine ‘crash’ of rhino walked past us and we watched in a heightened state of awe and nervousness. I have never been so close to so many rhino, and on foot.
Johannes motioned for us to move away from the midden and, while watching our steps, we hastily tiptoed away pretty quickly to the relative safety of the safari vehicle.
“Well, I am glad I brought my binoculars with me”, quipped Jan, and we all burst into nervous laughter, quiet nervous laughter as the rhino were still very near to us. “Anyone need to change their underwear?” asked Chris, to more nervous sniggers and titters.
“Want to take more photos?” Asked Johannes, and he was overwhelmed with a chorus of “yes please”. So off we set again, this time without binoculars and instead armed with iPads, cameras and phones for pictures. We did not get as close, only 30m this time, and it was a pleasure to watch these rhinos munching on the grass undeterred by a whole load of women going “wow” at regular intervals. We had regained our composure and all seemed pretty happy standing with these one and a half ton beasts nearby; it is amazing how quickly you can get used to an experience. If this was our first sighting of rhino whilst on foot I am sure we would have been pretty unnerved by it all, instead we were verging on nonchalant!
We stayed with the rhino for half an hour, watching them meander through the bush and following them on foot. It was an absolute privilege.
That memory will stay with all of us, nothing is going to beat that sighting of a serious ‘crash’ of rhino.
And my underwear may have needed a wash…