When I was up in Letaba during my student year, I didn’t encounter many rhinos on foot, as the populations there were still relatively small. If you wanted to see rhino you had to follow their tracks and often they would be too far on a morning walk to catch up to them in the time available.
When I walked from Olifants shortly after my student year, there were areas with more rhino. And it was great fun to find them, study their behaviour and learn how to approach them on foot. The first of my first close encounters only happened a few years later though.
I remember from my early days in Letaba that whenever we found good rhino spoor to follow, Salious, our Shangaan second rifle with many years of experience, would pick up a rock or a stick. The first time I saw him do that I asked him why he would pick up a rock before picking up spoor. A friend translated because Salious could not speak English or Afrikaans and I didn’t understand any Shangaan back then.
It came down to this: When you encounter a rhino on foot and he runs your way, the best thing to do was to throw a stone or a stick to change their direction. “Brilliant!! But why pick up a stick when we start tracking?” His reply was one I will never forget: “Well, often when you need a stick or stone at a rhino sighting, Murphy will make sure there are none available. So better have it with before you start!”
So when I moved to the South of the park, the number of rhino encounters was incredible. I gained such valuable experience and had numerous close encounters with both white and black rhino.
I remember my first black rhino encounter on foot like it was yesterday… Black rhinos are notoriously bad-tempered. So as soon as my colleague Hein and I realized it was a black Rhino ahead of us, we immediately moved the guests away. And we made sure they could climb a tree expecting this pointy pachyderm to come crashing through the bush at full charge towards us at any time.
After minutes of silence and looking at the guests’ petrified faces behind us, Hein and I got curious. We wanted to see why this bad-tempered Bicornis did not do as everyone told us it would. I stayed with the guests while Hein quietly snuck forward to see if the rhino was still there. He came back with a smile on his face and whispered to me that the old boy has passed out! So I took a turn and slowly moved forward. There he was passed out on his side. This Black Rhino sure was not as bad as people make them out to be!
Anyway, after getting all the guests to peacefully view the old rhino we snuck out there, leaving him fast asleep and snoring. He never even knew we were there.
When I moved to Crocodile Bridge to be a relief guide there, I got to explore many more walking areas. And on one very chilly, clear day, I would gain valuable knowledge on just how a White Rhino calf can make your life difficult…. very difficult. In fact, I think I can say that of all the close encounters I have had with White Rhino cows and calves, most of the time the curious calves are the cause of the trouble. Those calves sure caused a few close encounters.
That morning, we started the walk from a very popular dam. As we moved north, Billy and I heard a pair of mating leopards on our right in the Vurhami Riverbed. Now, this wasn’t the best direction to approach as we had the rising sun in our faces. But if the cats were in the riverbed like we thought, we could hopefully view them from the high riverbank in safety.
As we approached the direction of the leopard love pair, a white rhino cow and calf came running up the bank in our direction. The calf must have been about two-and-a-half years old. We immediately moved out of their way. I thought they were probably nervous of the leopards. So we gave them room to run away from the riverbed. With Rhino encounters on foot it is important to always give them space to escape and never to block their paths.
So we circled back to a rather large sickle bush. With the guests behind the prickly scrub and Billy and I in front of it, we had a bit of a standoff with the rhinos. They had all the room to move. Yet they stood there, looking at us with those myopic eyes of theirs, trying to make out what we were.
I told the guests to stand dead still and hoped they would move off. But they didn’t. They just stood there looking at us. After a while, the calf started to get agitated and started moving in circles. This is when I learnt that often the calves cause the trouble!! And that huge Rhino mommy’s are never far behind to protect their little ones.
So when the calf started this movement I decided to get a nice throwing stone. But before I could select a good stone, the calf started trotting towards us. I immediately threw what I could at the rhino calf, but with no result. The calf ran straight at me, with its mother hot on its heels.
I lifted my rifle and as I took aim the cow ran past the calf towards us and was now dangerously close.
Now I must add that none of us wants to shoot anything – Especially not a rhino. They are so endangered and mostly gentle. So as I was aiming at the cow I decided to lift my rifle and fire a warning shot. Most times warning shots don’t work. And often can get you into more of a tricky situation.
But I am glad I tried a warning shot on this day because the cow immediately turned to her left. This, however, knocked the calf over! On my right, Billy fired a warning shot as well and because he was stepping back, his foot caught on a shrub and he fell down. The calf realized mom was running away and it squealed. It jumped up in circles and ran over Billy’s legs after his mother. Luckily he didn’t step on Billy! Although young, this baby rhino he still weighed a few hundred kilograms.
After ensuring both the rhino ran off, I quickly checked on Billy who was still on his bum. Then I looked back at the guests. All were ok, thank goodness! I said to Billy “I want to make sure the rhino did not get hurt in the process.”
So I sprinted after the rhinos as fast as I could. Eventually, I caught up with them in an open area a few hundred meters away. They were completely relaxed again. The calf was even suckling. So they were ok. Much to all of our relief!
As I walked back to Billy and the guests, the entire sequence of events played through my mind like a cinematic slide show. I wanted to get there quickly to see they were all ok… What I saw was hysterical! Now during our safety briefing before the walk, we always urge guests to stand behind us and not to run. But honestly, I couldn’t blame anyone that wanted to risk a sprint to a better tree than the bush we had available.
Two of our guests, after realizing the Rhinos were coming straight for us, decided to run to a russet bush-willow and climb the tree. The others that were behind the Sickle Bush tried to enter the bush for safety. One guest named Peter dived headfirst into it. Now, this bush, as many of you know, has nasty spike thorns. And poor Peter had very little to no hair on the top of his head.
So after extracting himself from the Sickle Bush thorns, he looked like he had a crossword puzzle on the top of his head with all the scratches. Everybody was fairly shaken up, but at the same time happy no one, including the rhinos, got hurt.
After everyone had calmed down after our close encounter I contacted the section ranger. Then we carried on with our walk. And the leopards? Well, needless to say, that after all that commotion, they moved to a quieter spot in a hurry to carry on with their honeymoon.
Until we meet around the fire again!