Safety briefing dealt with and under strict instruction of silence, we headed into the Acacia thicket in search of the endangered Black Rhino. My heart was pounding and I felt myself breaking into a sweat which, I’m ashamed to say, could not entirely be attributed to the oppressive heat of the day or the physical exertion. I was quite sure the thumping in my chest was announcing our arrival to our quarry. 

The day started out as most early mornings do at &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge – an early morning wake-up call followed by steamy aromatic Fair Trade coffee, delicious home-made rusks and a healthy dose of anticipation of what the early morning game drive might yield. But this was no regular game drive, after brief introductions to Grant, senior ranger at Forest, as well as Sipho and Bheki, the specialist black rhino trackers, we were on our way. Grant and Bheki with us in one open game viewing vehicle and Sipho in another… “we have to increase our odds on finding the black rhino” said Grant nonchalantly.

My anticipation as well as my nervousness was increasing – it didn’t help that I had seen one of those ‘I shouldn’t be alive’ episodes on TV featuring a rhino incident! Concerns were soon forgotten as we encountered an African Fish Eagle on a Euphorbia tree and a plethora of water birds on the edge of a pan, including Spoonbills swaying their beaks gracefully from side to side through the water in the hope of a tasty morsel.

“A lion… there in the grass, no two or maybe three” – all the while Bheki had been scanning the surrounding area with his binoculars, the ever vigilant tracker!

Birds forgotten we carefully made our way to where he had seen the lions. Not three, but five. Three sub-adults leaping and rolling and generally just having fun, a lioness preening as well as a magnificent male lion in snooze mode, he gave us a brief glance then continued to nap.

A few slightly smelly bones of a zebra carcass nearby were all that remained of their evening meal.

Back on the trail of the rhino, and in constant contact with Sipho, it seemed we were going to be out of luck.  But we persisted, checking for tracks and looking out for fresh dung. And then it rained – not ideal when you’re tracking something as all prior activity is now obliterated. Suddenly the radio came to life, it was Sipho. He had tracks… “meet me on #####  road” he said – no specifics allowed here, the rhino aren’t even mentioned by name on the radio as this may alert potential poachers to their whereabouts. At this point I was beginning to have a greater appreciation of the scarcity of the black rhino as well as the serious implications and threat of rhino poaching in general.

Phinda has been relatively fortunate and has not been victim to the uncontrolled poaching that has affected so many of the other game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and indeed the whole of South Africa. Much of this can be attributed to their expertly trained guards as well as their good relationship and partnership with surrounding communities. As a result of this partnership and the subsequent ‘joint ownership’ of the rhino, community members are very quick to inform on any untoward activity and unaccounted for visitors in the area thus alerting the security team.

After studying the tracks in the road, Bheki and Sipho headed into the thick grassveld which through their expertise seemed to indicate the direction the rhino had headed. Back in the vehicles we made haste, the rain had gone and in the summer sun was now toasting.  After much this way, and that, we came to a stop.

Rhino dung. Fresh!

Bheki explained the difference between black & white rhino dung. He proceeded to rub some between his fingers yielding the regularly sized twigs that are evident in black rhino dung – they are browsers after all, feeding on shrubs and small trees, whereas white rhino eat grass.

We were thoroughly briefed on safety procedures and what to do in the case we were spotted or, worse case, charged. Grant had meanwhile readied his rifle, and chambered a bullet. “Yikes,” I thought to myself “I hope he doesn’t have to use it”.

“You all ok?” he asked, “if any of you feel uneasy, tell me and we’ll turn back now”. Well with that my nerves went crazy, and the reality of walking with rhino struck but there was no way I was turning back and anyway it was too late, we were headed single file and as quietly as possible into the Acacia thicket, Bheki in the lead and Sipho bringing up the rear. Ox-peckers had been seen flying overhead so the guys were pretty confident we would find the rhino.

A short while later hand signals indicated “stop”… white rhino to the left, not clearly visible but definitely there. Skirting to the right we continued. More hand signals, black rhino ahead under the trees, resting. In absolute silence now, we watched every step we made as the slightest sound could alert them to our presence. I looked around… only short Acacias and bushes, not much use if we needed a quick getaway.

Earlier, Grant had told us that the best sighting would be one where the rhino were totally unaware that they had been tracked – I sure hoped this was one of those sightings. From the relative cover of some bushes we were able to get a reasonably good view, a rhino cow with her calf. Such a privilege to be this close, and on foot, to this endangered animal, “how could anyone kill such an incredible animal, and just for their horn?” I thought.

Oops, a twig. Up went her head, more hand signals… it was time to get out of there – very quietly! Thankfully we made it out without her being fully aware of what the noise had been.  That was close. When we returned to our vehicle we found a herd of buffalo about 50 metres away watching us cautiously. Imagine that two of the big five on foot, well technically you could say three counting both black and white rhino! My nervousness now replaced with excitement and awe, we toasted our success with a Coke and a Crunchie biscuit. Couldn’t think of a better way to end off what was an amazing experience. Best of all is that all funds received from the rhino tracking experience goes to support the cost of maintaining guys like Sipho and Bheki who put their lives on the line to protect their precious rhino.

Black rhino are just one of the things to see at Phinda… there are way more than 101 things to see on safari during your stay…

(words & pics – Tessa Buhrmann)  

&Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve