Unforgettable walking safari with rhinos
Leading a Walking Women holiday in Swaziland was a first for me, and we’d already had a list of firsts for many, including myself. We spent three lavish nights in Mlilwane, where we strolled among the zebras, experienced colourful sights of different birds, including the half-collared kingfisher, which is a near-threatened species, travelled up Execution Rock and were delightfully entertained with traditional dancing. We were then transferred to Hlane where we enjoyed a safari with lions sauntering past our vehicle while elephants were nibbling on grass only 20m away. We’d also noticed a spotted genet streak in front of the Land Rover as we travelled back to camp in the dark, for our gins around the waterhole.
And then there were rhinos
However, it was the rhino drive that I suspect left its mark on everyone's memory, some with trepidation, some with awe, and all with amazement. Johannes, our guide, had been our guide on the other safaris, so he knew that we were as interested in the trees, birds and 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 spotted an elephant there drinking the day before.
We used our binoculars to get a good look at the rhino in the distance. As we travelled further along the trail, we saw a few more rhino relaxing in the mud behind the branches of a fallen knob thorn acacia. Johannes slowed the vehicle down 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, feeling rather nervous 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 into a fist. “This means come to me”, and he beckoned, “and this means back off,” and he waved his hand away. All pretty standard information, 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”, Johannes instructed. We gathered binoculars and cameras and all stood in line with me at the rear; I was the end marker and was to check behind us as well as in front.
We walked towards the sleeping rhino, and as a group, we have never been so quiet, ever! The nervous energy was palpable.
We slowly crept forward, moving between the tamboti trees, cautious of where we were placing our feet. The rhino then got up and looked towards us through the branches. At this moment we were around 30m away, and there were a few dead trees between us, not much but enough to give an excellent sense of invincibility, or perhaps it was vulnerability. Either way, the rhino started to walk towards us, finally 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 questioningly. “Move on” I encouraged. I was situated 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 felt a slight increase in my heartbeat, which is an understatement.
The first rhino came out from behind the bush and was now 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 glanced at us as we bunched together tightly, all behind Johannes who was merely 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 they make up for it with excellent hearing, so we held our breath, and Johannes waved his stick at the rhino, and the rhino quietly moved on, I did wonder if the stick possessed magical ‘rhino deterrent’ properties. The rhino strolled over to the midden, so we turned our attention to the other two who also stopped and assessed us, from only 8m away, before lumbering on towards the midden.
Oh did I say there were rhinos?
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 than you expected. A staggering nine ‘crash’ of rhino walked past us where we watched in a heightened state of amazement and nervousness. I have never been so close to such a large amount of rhino, and this being on foot.
Johannes gestured for us to move away from the midden. While watching our steps, we hurriedly tiptoed away 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?” Johannes asked, followed by an overwhelming chorus of “yes please”. So off we set again, this time without binoculars and instead armed with iPads, cameras and phones for pictures. Although we did not get as close, only 30m this time, but 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 pleasantly happy standing with these one and a half ton beasts nearby; it is incredible how quickly you can get used to an experience. If this were our first sighting of rhino while 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, admiring them meandering through the bush and following them on foot. It was an absolute honour.
That memory will stay with all of us, nothing is going to beat that sighting of a serious ‘crash’ of rhino.
Source: Travel Africa
Thanks to Jenny Bowen for this amazing piece.