“Come and look here,” motions Sam, the Khaya Ndlovu Safari Manor guide, “these tracks are heading in an easterly direction” he says in his accented English, pointing out the large three-toed club-shaped imprint in the sandy road. “I think these rhinos may be going to Hippo Dam, it’s been a hot day and they need to drink.” He indicates the direction in which they are walking and points to an obvious game trail winding through the trees in a dense block of wildest Africa.
I had dreamed of this day from my early childhood, my first African safari, an interest nurtured after watching endless television programmes on Discovery and Animal Planet! Although I had only landed at the Eastgate Airport in Hoedspruit two hours earlier, I was ready! After hopping aboard the open-air safari vehicle, I listen eagerly to the pre-safari speech; a few easy rules; like always staying seated and not calling out to the animals.
Thanks to the modern-day indispensable attachments of Instagram and Facebook, I had read so much about the crash of orphaned rhino that had been released onto the Rietspruit Big-Game Reserve, and after expressing my desire to see them, Sam and tracker, Lovess seemed determined to fulfil my wishes.
Looking around at the vast expanse of never-ending African veld as we slip across the drainage line heading away from Khaya Ndlovu Safari Manor, I wonder how my guiding team are ever going to find the rhino orphans. Needle, haystack, I whisper to myself, not wanting to dampen their enthusiasm or reveal any signs of my doubt.
Almost immediately, a scene from Animal Planet opens in front of me as a warthog scuttles off into a clearing where a herd of impala graze peacefully on fresh green shoots that have sprung up after the first rains of the season. They are the most successful mammals out here, I learn from Sam, as they can adapt their feeding habits from grazing to browsing depending on the season.
We drive on, the low hum of the land cruiser unable to compete with the loud and persistent, descending calls of the migratory Woodland Kingfishers announcing their arrival from central Africa. Lovess jumps off the tracker seat, specifically attached to the front of the vehicle so that the tracker can watch out for interesting animal tracks before they are obscured by the wheels of the vehicle. He ambles nonchalantly off into the dense African bush. “He will try and track the rhino on foot,” says Sam putting paid to my banal thoughts that possibly nature is calling. “What?” I gasp “through this thick and wild bush, is he not afraid of being eaten? “No, we grow up in these areas, we are aware and careful, we can read the bush,” Sam states casually, pointing out a small cone-shaped pit that has been formed by an ant lion over one of the rhino tracks. Not wanting to show my ignorance, I make a mental note to google ant lion when I am back at the Lodge, but Sam seems to read my mind and helpfully explains that it is the larval form of a family of lace-winged insects.
The radio crackles to life, and a muffled voice expresses something that only Sam understands. “It’s time to go” he urges, packing me back into the vehicle, “I think we are in luck.” Carefully winding the vehicle off-road through the trees in a safari game of gymkhana bending poles, Sam guides the vehicle, deftly missing the tyre-piercing stumps and pointing out the overhanging branches with his raised hand. I soon learned that this is an indication to duck! We continue quietly through the bush, with me nursing a secret concern that Lovess is never going to be seen again, when he suddenly appears like a ghost from behind the dappled trunk of a Marula tree, and jumps effortlessly back onto the slow-moving vehicle, his finger pointing slightly to the right. In an unspoken pact, Sam steers in the indicated direction and silences the quietly droning engine.
At first, I think I am staring at a rock, a large grey form looms ahead of me, partially hidden in the trees. I focus, and refocus, pinching the skin on my wrist as the enormity of the moment dawns. Here they are, the famous five that I had read about so often, scrolling the pages of my Instagram account. I always stop on the rhino posts and read every word!
“This is Ringo,” said Sam, “although we call him Fatty. He was the second baby that came into the orphanage when he was 9 months old, just two days after that one there” and he points to another large peaceful rock, smacking his wide rubbery lips over the short shoots of young grass. Checking through his binoculars, Sam confirms we are looking at Ubuntu. “He was the first baby to come to the rehab centre. Poachers killed his mother on a neighbouring reserve when he was just six to eight months old.” I stare in awe taking in every detail of these perfectly prehistoric-looking animals, whispering a silent prayer of thanks to the cloudless sky above.
“Ah Nkonzo, why you always want to cause trouble?” exclaims Sam, clipping his words, as a third rhino walks determinedly into view, his big head held low. He forces himself into Ubuntu’s space, competing for his patch of grazing. “This one,” giggles Sam shaking his head. “He is trouble. He is lucky to be alive as he was attacked by hyenas or lions before being rescued after his mother was poached. He was a very, very angry and confused baby when he arrived at the orphanage with battle scars all over his body.’’ Sam reminisces, but the earlier giggle has given way to a sad and pensive look.
Slightly to the left of the bulls, a cow grazes alone. ‘’That’s Chipoko,’’Sam continues. ‘’Chipoko means ghost in the local language, and the rhino nurses named her that when she came into the orphanage because she kept disappearing into the bush and hiding when the helicopter was looking for her, after the poaching.” Sam continues, shaking his head. “There was a terrible drought that year, and it was a scorching hot December, she was drinking mud, as there was no water around. She was sick from the mud, it impacted her stomach, and she had colic many times when she first arrived. The nurses sat with her night and day.’’
We sit in perfect silence apart from a soothing smack-smack that can be heard as the impressive ungulates crop at the sweet, rich grass. A bunch of ox peckers play a quiet game of musical chairs flitting from one mountainous hump to the other in search of a delicious tick of sorts, whilst a majestic giraffe ambles past with nothing more than a disinterested glance at the rhino group, and one spell-bound onlooker. I pinch myself again.
Sam sees that my eyes have welled with delighted tears and asks if I am ready to move on. ‘’Let’s leave them to get on with their day” he says. “We will search for another surprise.’’ Manoeuvring the vehicle back out of the dense forest, Sam fills the space with exciting tales of the bush, telling me how he once walked into a lioness giving birth, and on another occasion, he followed a drag mark believing he would find a leopard kill stashed up a tree somewhere, but instead he found a massive python being devoured by a honey badger. There are many more stories all delivered with an unbridled passion and quiet unassuming wit.
“Any idea of the collective noun for these small carnivores?” questions Sam, pointing at a group of dwarf mongooses gathered on a termite mound. Without giving me a chance to answer he announces, “It’s a business. You see, they are always going about their business!” he laughs at his own joke, as the gregarious 20-strong pack scamper across the road ahead.
As the crow flies, we are only about 700 metres or so from the group of rhinos that we had left when Masingita came into view. Now my day is made! Masingita had given birth to a female calf a year or so earlier. “This is why she stays apart from her original crash mates,” muses Sam, “although she is never that far away from them.’’ She is grazing, keeping a watchful eye on her baby, Lesedi who wrestles playfully with a broken branch, one of a few toys found in the bushveld playground. “Ah, Masingita was very scared when she came into the orphanage’’ says Sam. ‘’Her mother was poached at dusk, and she would squeal and rush the walls of the bomas as soon as the sun set. The nurses realised this quickly and would keep the orphanage lights on for her all night. ‘’But it’s a happy story now’’ Sam continues, ‘’she has a baby, there is the father.’’ Sam points to a massive bull grazing peacefully, a short distance away.
He is the dominant bull on the reserve. I am amazed that Sam can identify all these animals individually. They all look the same to me, but he explains that to him it is the same as any person recognising their friends. They all have unique characteristics and mannerisms, which Sam has come to know.
Just as I am thinking that my day cannot get any better, I hear Sam and Lovess debating a “puza stop.” It is almost as if the elephants are there to welcome us. Using their dexterous trunks to slurp from the opposite side of the Hippo Dam that Sam had spoken of earlier, he has chosen a perfect spot for a sundowner stop. I take a deep breath!
Sam hands me a glass of chilled, proudly South African, Sauvignon Blanc to complement a snack tray that includes strips of beef biltong, another South African favourite. Watching the last of the gold-red sun dip below the mountain to the tune of deep elephant belly rumbles echoing across the water, I pinch myself for the third time in as many hours!
As the blue haze of the day lifts completely, Sam fires up the cruiser to head back to the Lodge. As if to solidify the moment, a lion calls in the distance. “Tomorrow morning, we will look for the big cats,” he says.
An innocent comment that I instantly know has put paid to any chance of a good night’s sleep!