The day I learned to track a rhino
There is something wondrous about the bush. No matter how many times I go there, the possibility of seeing giraffes towering over trees and elephant herds strolling through the savannah never ceases to cause a giddy reaction within me.
My trip to the Korongwe Game Reserve, which is south-west of the Kruger National Park, was for a different and worthy cause, though. I was going to learn to track rhinos, and find out more about this hunted beast.
Throughout the trip our nature guide instructor, Will, drops a few tips and tricks on how to quickly spot animals in bush. For example, you’ll spot an animal quicker if you scan the bush right to left, as your eyes are not trained to read in that direction.
We wake up at six o’clock on Friday morning to give ourselves enough time to track rhinos. We trudge along in the Land Rover under the overcast sky, grey as the animal we’re looking for, eyes peeled, consciously scanning from right to left. Right to left. Will stops the car and asks us to jump out – it’s a rhino spoor. We’re on track.
How do you know if you’re looking at a rhino footprint? Well, that’s easy, of course. Size is one clear indication but rhinos are three-toed ungulates, which means they have an uneven number of toes on their hooves.
We examine the spoor for quite some time and realise that more than one rhino has passed the area. We see they are going in different directions, which tells us there might have been two males sparring. Will demonstrates in rather animated fashion what two rhino sparring might look like – he bends his torso forward, arms bent wide at his sides to give him girth, and he stomps along in what I think is rhino fashion and moves around in different directions. It’s a funny sight, but we get the idea.
Further along we find an area where a dominant male bull has marked his territory. Rhinos mark their territory by defecating, then spread their dung by kicking it around with their hind legs.
It’s going on to two hours and we still haven’t spotted a rhino. I’m getting nervous. It’s a bit chilly and looks like it might rain at any moment, so maybe all the rhinos are huddling together deep in the bush to keep warm.
We persevere at looking for signs in the bush, however. “Look for what looks like a big grey rock,” says Will. Right to left. Right to left. Right to left.
Our spirits are dampening. Four hours’ driving around the 9 000ha reserve, and still no rhinos.
We break for breakfast and can hear Will radioing to find out if anyone else has spotted any rhino today.
We hop back on the Land Rover with renewed energy and hope. We even try tracking the elusive beasts on foot.
We trek through the bushes silently in a single file, looking for any signs of rhino – flattened grass, dung, prints, anything.
After another hour in the car and we finally spot the rhinos. I’m like a child. Overwhelmed, excited, it’s dizzying.
Four big masses stroll out of the bush, not realising the panic they almost put us in. Sighs of relief are quickly followed by frenzied camera clicks – it’s as if we’re all afraid they’ll disappear into the bush, and we’ll never see them again.
There's something poignant about seeing the two couples – two young males and two young females – knowing what we know about the endemic rhino poaching happening in the world.
We follow the four around and I can’t help but wonder if they’re on a double date. Will says they are too young to be mating, but I’m a romantic at heart.
The rhinos trudge along, their leathery skins full of marks from where they’ve been scratching themselves to remove parasites.
It’s been a long day, but well worth it.
I love the bush; there’s always novelty about it. An unexpectedness, how animals just exist and do their own thing without following any rules.