July, 1999. I have three guests on trail; my back-up, Doug, quite experienced. The venue: Leeufontein. An area where you need to really stay focused: Dense, frequented by black rhino, on a major elephant and lion route. As Uncle Scar told young Simba about the elephant grave yard: “Only the bravest lions go there”.
We have a great walk, lovely birds, interesting tracks and signs, nice zebra, a few white rhino grazing peacefully.
The walk, as my walks tend to, lingers, and time passes. “We do”, the husband tells me, suddenly. “have a flight to catch”.
Oops. At least a 40 minute walk back to the vehicle. Too long.
There is that thicket. We can save a good twenty minutes by taking the short cut through the thicket. Not advisable, of course, but hey, I was younger then, and less risk averse… The thicket it will be!
Guests are briefed again – stay close, walk quietly in single file, react immediately to commands if anything happens.
Less than 100m into the thicket, one of the trails guide’s scariest sounds erupts, 30 metres in front of me on the footpath. Not dissimilar to a horse sneezing, a short, airy snort. A snort that shoots right through your liver in situations like this: The alarm snort of a black rhino.
Almost at the same moment, I see the bull getting up from the shade of a mountain karee, where he had been snoozing. I hear Doug moving the guests out. Fast, efficient, no running, into cover.
As lead guide, I need to stand my ground, be the barrier between animal and guest.Having a good back-up in a situation like this, takes off a lot of pressure. I know the guests are safe.
In seconds, the bull halved the distance to me, stops, sniffs the air.
He does not know where, or what, I am; the wind is wrong for him. He is going to find out.
Today, two decades of experience later, I may have handled the situation differently; I have learned that black rhino, contrary to their reputation, are not really aggressive. They are, however, very curious….
Very curious, indeed, and one can be forgiven to feel quite vulnerable when, at Usain Bolt speed, a one ton beast with two formidable weapons on its nose comes to investigate what’s up. More often than not, immediately identifying yourself, talking calmly, satisfies the curiosity.
But, back in 1999, I thought it best to hide.
So there I was, huddling next to a raisin bush, frozen, with the rhino bull making short, five-pace-long, investigative rushes. Every rush brought him five paces closer.
Across my legs lay the rifle; useless metal and wood. Never, ever, chamber a round in a rhino “situation”, my own little rule.
I had absolutely no idea what to do. No plan. I knew only that three investigations further, he would be right on top of me.
Twelve kilometres away, back at the lodge, in his cradle, lay little 3-month-old Casper. I saw his little face, and knew that he would grow up without having ever known his father. I really didn’t have any idea how to handle the situation, which had evolved in less than 30 seconds.
Another rush forward. Ten paces. Then another… And it was five.
Clearly, the next rush would be my crush. I clearly saw the bristles on his lip, the hollows of the follicles. His nostrils trembling.
Those four seconds seemed like many minutes. Hopeless ones.
Far away to the east, a Natal Francolin called forlornly.
Often dubbed the ‘heart-attack bird” by trails guides, these birds (now called Spurfowl) have a habit of sitting tight until you almost step on them, before exploding from cover with a massive noise.
The Bush, seconds before I should have been mauled, had told me what to do.
I exploded from my cover, shouting loudly, rushing off right through my raisin bush. As I glanced over my shoulder, I only saw the curled tail of the bull as he, too, rushed off – in the opposite direction.
My knees were shaking profusely for another forty minutes afterwards, and the guests missed their flight.
But, I listened to The Bush, and lived to raise two fine sons!