Kruger Stories written by Linda Oosthuizen
My husband, Steven, is a trails ranger in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. He takes guests on 4-day walking trails out into the middle of an unspoilt wilderness area of the park. Thanks to his job, we are able to live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Before our children were born, I was able to join Steven on quite a few of his trails. I loved them! Walking in the Kruger is my favourite way to experience the bush and the trails in particular are a fantastic way to break away and enjoy Kruger’s wilderness to its fullest!
On one of these trails, Steven’s guests were eight Italian gentlemen from Johannesburg. What a fun group they were! A little bit noisy, as Italians are, but we still had lovely sightings during our walks.
We walked by a huge herd of buffalo one morning, and while we were having snacks under a big jackalberry tree (still watching the buffalo) a rhino walked through the herd right past us! There was also a pair of giant eagle-owls in the tree overhead; it was a lovely experience for us all.
The afternoons in camp were not as quiet and peaceful as usual. The SANParks helicopter had been very active in the area around the trails camp, which is located on the southern bank of the Olifants River. Each afternoon we could see and hear it fly up and down the gorge and over the hills towards Mozambique.
Rhino poaching was then, and still is, very bad in the areas close to the Mozambican border, and we figured the helicopter must have been chasing poachers as they were making their way through the park and across the border.
During that time, the army and the Special Forces were deployed in the park. They were in the Olifants wilderness trails area too. We could see the army vehicle tracks on the road, going to their pickets, but we never saw them or the Special Forces. They would patrol the area, but preferred to stay unseen by tourists. It was a good feeling that they were here though. A feeling that at least something was being done to stop the senseless killing of rhinos in the park.
On the last morning of the trail, we left camp after breakfast and were on our way back to Letaba. The guests were chatting as we drove, they had had such a lovely time on the trail and were still asking Steven all sorts of questions when as we came around a corner Steven suddenly slammed on the brakes!
On our left were two men standing in camouflage looking at us. There was a third man lying on the ground. Next to him was a blue bag with something inside. Steven switched off the car and got his rifle out.
The two men turned out to be undisclosed Special Forces troops. The person on the ground, lying under an apple leaf shrub, was a poacher. In the blue bag next to him was a freshly poached set of rhino horns…
One trooper was tall and slender, with a bandana around his head. We nicknamed him Rambo afterwards, because that was who he reminded us of. He was still very worked up, full of adrenaline. He told Steven what had happened, and for once, the Italians were dead quiet.
You see, the Special Forces don’t like to be seen by tourists. So when they heard the sound of the cruiser and the chatting Italians, they hid by the side of the road waiting for us to pass. But before we were in sight, a group of three poachers had also heard us and they were making a run for the border.
So as the two soldiers were waiting for us to pass, they all of a sudden saw three poachers running towards them. They broke cover, trying to make an arrest and a shoot-out occurred. I don’t know any of the finer details, but we arrived minutes after they apprehended the man we saw lying on the ground.
Steven was visibly upset. This was his wilderness area… this was one of his beloved rhinos! Everyone was devastated. Another rhino lost so that someone in Asia can have an imaginary cure for cancer or an aphrodisiac… they might as well just eat their own fingernails – they are made of the same material: keratin.
We left as the army ambulance and other people were arriving. It was a very quiet drive back to Letaba…
Neither Steven nor myself have been in a similar situation since, but the fight against rhino poaching continues every day by the rangers, field rangers and dogs here in the Kruger. They are fighting a war and risking their lives so our children and their children can still come to this beautiful place and see black and white rhinos in the wild.