“Black rhinos are very aggressive, very territorial”, our guide told us, pointing to tracks on the ground. “This is the print of a black rhino. Look, come closer, you can see from the dung. It is fresh.”
This is not the first thing you want to hear on a rhino encounter, as our group gathered closer to inspect, in single file. That you, a measly human being, are on a big horned beast's turf. And not only are you nowhere near your vehicle but you're also out in the open bush in the long grass in a lonely part of South Africa with poor eyesight, one deaf ear and two left feet. In my mind's eye, I could already see the buzzards circling above my head.
The term 'rhino encounter' was enough to make me nervous. I imagined being driven up to two rhinos and made to approach them, like a child offering a horse carrots. Or a bear bait.
As we stepped out of the confines of our vehicle and met our guide Truman, my initial fears lifted. Truman was a guide for over twenty years, he had a deep understanding of the land, good sense and most reassuring of all, he had a gun. Only to scare the game if they get a little frisky, we learned. Had he ever needed to use it? 'Not yet'.
We were in fact very lucky. South Africa is one of the few countries, where tourists are permitted to go on walking safaris and we were in Thanda Reserve in remote Kwa Zulu Natal an award winning park, whose name in isiZulu signifies love and the harmonious union of power between man and beast. Or so we hoped.
Truman spotted them first. He gestured with his hands, whistling then pointing to his eyes and out to the far hillside. Black rhino. A mother and her young. Truman stood for a moment undecided. “Mothers are very protective of their babies”, he whispered, cautious. “Come. We walk into the wind and they cannot smell us. Let's go to them.”
Step by step we edged our way around the hillside, closer and closer, out of sight and most importantly out of smell, until we neared the top.
A few sparse, low trees. Then the young rhino and her mother stood a less than a hundred metres before us.
Truman turned, fingers to his lips and beckoned us forward.
Quietly grazing and peaceful with a pearly grey armour covering a deft yet muscly bulk, we peered behind the branches enchanted. Beyond the strange and exotic nature of wandering into a giants’ back garden, there’s something so incredibly intimate about standing face to face with big game in the wild, it's hard to explain. Until then I was worried we would be charged. Now I was hooked. I wanted to do it again.
But first, we had to make our way back to our vehicle, in one piece.