Written by: Berenice Meintjes of Characterstays for Isibindi Africa
There was a lot of anxiety about our first rhino walking safari from Plains Tented Camp in the Kruger National Park. Every day for several weeks we asked each other a new question, like “When they say rhino walking, do you think they actually try to get close to rhinos?” There were a lot of “What ifs?” The night before we departed on our walking safari our fears peaked and we secretly hoped for torrential rains so that we might be spared from this adventure, all the while being able to complain loudly about the unfair weather. Finally dawn broke on a crystal clear day.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of walking out in the wilds of Africa. All the senses light up in a primal re-awakening. I jumped at every whisper and when one of the guest’s stomach growled I almost hit the ground. But a thorough assessment of our guide, Doug Quail, and tracker, Amos Ubisi, reassured me of their professionalism and respect for nature. We stayed out in the open areas, avoiding the thickets, such that we may see far into the veld and avoid any potential danger. I started to enjoy the light, sounds and smells of the great outdoors.
Doug and Amos are passionate about their environment and brought us into their world by explaining which type of animal left its trail, when it passed by this particular spot, in which direction it was headed, its size and gender. I begin to look at animal scat with new appreciation, as Doug seems to have majored in the subject.
Suddenly Amos lifts both his hands, turns and motions in silence towards a quiet sound in the bush. We follow his gaze and see a mother and baby rhino to our right.
“Shall we try to get closer?” says Doug. Well, I guess that’s one question answered. As I open my mouth to form a diplomatic reply, another guest nods enthusiastically and I close my mouth thinking, “OK, I had a whole different answer planned.” If there’s one thing for which I have a healthy respect, it’s for a mother with baby animal in the wild. We creep up downwind towards the mother and baby.
The smallest gust of wind swirls in a different direction and the mother rhino hears my camera shutter snap. She turns to look directly at us. Doug holds up his hand, hisses “stop shooting” and we all freeze.
Time stands as still as we do, none of us even breathing. She is onto us, fully aware of our presence. With a snort and thrust of her head she moves between the baby and us and then, thankfully, they turn and trot off lightly (and with surprising speed) into the bush.
No sooner have they turned than we realise that there are four more rhino moving towards us from the left. We have all been unaware of each other’s presence. We crouch down and pray that the winds don’t change. The four rhino move unconcerned past us, munching grass as they go. We slowly let out a long breath.
“Wasn’t that fantastic?!” exclaims elated Doug. “Errrr, exhilarating” I reply, walking on wobbly legs until gradually I once again relax and with a spring in my step feel proud that we tracked our quarry so successfully.
Here are some answers to the questions we had about the rhino walking safari:
1. How real is it?
Very – this is no joke and it is an authentic walking safari in the open bushveld of Africa. These are wild animals, not tame ones, and they are focused on their survival.
2. How dangerous is it?
Your safety rests in the experience of your guides. The Isibindi guides are highly experienced, extremely well qualified nature guides, with a specialist additional qualification in leading walking safaris. The wish to encounter game is always preceded by concerns for safety.
3. How does it work?
We walk in single file, in silence, behind the armed guide and armed tracker. Only if the guides deem it safe enough do we break single file and discuss what we see.
4. What should we wear?
We start early in the morning, while the veld is still cool. But it is good to wear light layers, as by 9am the sun can be warm. Wear a hat or cap and good walking shoes.
5. How long do we walk?
That is up to you, and your guide will ask you the night before what you would prefer. Usually the walking safaris take about three hours, but you can request a shorter or longer walk if you like.
6. What should we bring with us?
Only a camera, binoculars and a hat. Everything else, including water, juice and snacks, is provided.
7. Which animals are the most scary to encounter?
Black rhino (which are very rare and keep to the thickets and have not been seen in the Timbitene Plains, which are more open), lion, buffalo and hippo. Injured animals and mothers with babies can be more aggressive than usual.
8. Will animals attack us if they notice us?
This is very unlikely. Animals will more likely run away if they become aware of your presence. It is usually only if you give them a fright and they feel cornered that they will attack. Even then they will give warning signs and usually do several mock charges to try to scare you off, and it would take a lot to provoke them into attacking you. The guides keep to open plains where there is good visibility and where it is unlikely that you will surprise an animal – the challenge is more to try to get closer to them without them running off.
9. What should we do if an animal charges us?
The most difficult thing – nothing. Stand still and do not run. If you run you lose your status on the top of the food chain and become prey. Most animals (even black rhino) will be put off by an animal, especially a group of animals, which stand their ground. They will also be put off by noise. The experienced guides will make a noise and if necessary, will discharge their weapons.
10. Could I be responsible for an animal being shot?
This is extremely unlikely. In the 19 years that the experienced rhino walking safari guide Doug has been leading these safaris he has never once had to discharge his weapon, let alone shot an animal. Once again, the aim is to avoid conflict, and the experienced guides wish for us all to appreciate nature from a safe distance.