The beauty of blogging is the art of being able to tell a warm, personal story. And Jenny Bowen, the Director of Sense Africa, has a great one to tell.
This particular story involves getting close to the magnificent rhino, and in the heart of the picturesque Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland. To find out more about Jenny, and to find out the best things to do in Swaziland, Namibia and Botswana, head to her IQPlanner profile page to find out more.
I was leading a Walking Women holiday, and we’d already had a list of firsts for many, including myself. There were those 3 nights in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary where we’d walked with zebra, seen a lot of birds including the half-collared kingfisher — which is a near-threatened species — watched traditional dancing and been up execution rock.
We then transferred to Hlane, where we’d been on safari and seen lion stroll past our vehicle and elephant munching on grass only 20m away. During this period, we also saw a spotted genet streak in front of the land rover, as we drove back to camp for our gins around the waterhole.
However, of all the activities on this holiday, it was the rhino drive that most of us will remember, some with awe, some with trepidation and all with incredulity. Johannes, our guide, had been with us for our other safaris. That said, he knew that we were as interested in the birds and the tress as well as the animals. The safari started off with us spotting an African hoopoe and a red-faced mousebird to add to our growing and impressive bird list.
We drove around Ndlovu waterhole — Ndlovu meaning elephant in siSwati — and aptly so as we’d seen elephant there drinking from it the day before.
A wild and wonderful sight
However, it was a rhino in the distance that stole our attention, and we used our binoculars to get a good look at him.
Further on, we spotted a couple more lying in the mud behind the branches of a fallen knob thorn acacia. Johannes slowed the vehicle to get a better look and then pulled off the dirt road and parked in the shade. We managed to exit the safari vehicle and listed to his brief.
‘Walk quietly and single file and watch me for directions’, he instructed. ‘This means stop,’ and he held his hand up in the uniform stop sign. ‘This means danger and look to me for directions,’ he closed his hand in a fist. ‘This means come to me’ and he beckoned, ‘and this means back off,’ and he waved his hand away. It might sound obvious but in the heat of the moment, it was good to have this clarified to us.
Johannes gave us one last bit of advice, to ‘walk very carefully, and very quietly, watch where you put your feet so that you do not step on branches and crack them.’ We collected cameras and binoculars and stood in line with myself at the back. I was the end marker and had to check behind us as well as in front.
It was at this moment we walked towards the sleeping rhino.
As a group, we’d never been so quiet, ever! The nervous energy was palpable.
The rhino beckons
We made our way slowly towards the rhino, weaving between the Tamboti trees, mindful of where we were treading. And then, just like that, the rhino got up, and looked towards us through the branches.
At this point we were about 30m away, with a few dead tress between us and them. Either way the rhino started to walk towards us and we then realised that the second rhino was in fact two more and they had got up as well.
Johannes called us to quickly get behind him, and among the Tamboti thicket, a few nervous looking faces looked at me. ‘Move on’ I encouraged. I was at the back in the open, so it was for my benefit as well as everyone else’s that we closed up as a group behind the trees. There was definitely a notable increase in my heartbeat, which is rather an understatement!
The first rhino came out from behind the bush and was about 20m away. ‘They’re going to their midden to poop’ whispered Johannes. I was also counting our lucky stars that we weren’t in the direct line of the midden, or I might have pooped as well!
The rhino stopped to look at us, and we grouped together tightly, all behind Johannes who was carrying a knob stick, the traditional implement for walking in the bush. No rifle, just a thick stick. He waved the stick in front of the rhino and this large mammal stopped and peered at us.
Rhino have poor eyesight, but very good hearing, so we held our breath and Johannes waved his stick at the rhino and the rhino simply moved on. This moment made me wonder if the stick possessed any magical rhino deterrent properties. The rhino walked to the midden and we turned our attention to the other 2 rhinos. After also stopping to assess us, only 8m away, they continued on towards the midden.
Then along came 9 rhino…
What happened next took us all by surprise, especially as we’d thought the last rabbit had come out of the hat. A staggering 9 ‘crash’ of rhino walked past us and we watched in a heightened state of awe and nervousness. I’ve never been so close to so many rhino, and on foot too.
Johannes signalled for us to move away from the midden, and we hastily tiptoed away pretty quickly back to the safety of the safari vehicle.
‘Well, I’m glad I brought my binoculars with me’, quipped a member of our group, and we all burst into nervous laughter, though quiet, as the rhino were still near to us. ‘Anyone need to change their underwear?’ Another member asked, to which we responded with more nervous sniggers.
‘Do you want to take more photos?’ Johannes asked, to which we all said a resounding yes. So off we set again, this time without binoculars and instead armed with iPads, cameras and phones for pictures. We didn’t get as close, only 30m this time, yet it was a pleasure to watch the rhinos munching on the grass unbothered by a group of women saying “wow” at regular intervals.
We’d regained our composure and all seemed pretty happy standing within close range of these one and a half ton beasts. It’s amazing how used you can get to an experience. If this was our first sighting of rhino while on foot, I’m sure we would’ve been pretty unnerved by it all, instead we were verging on nonchalant!
Our group stayed with the rhino for half an hour, watching them go about their life, and in their natural habitat.
It was an absolute privilege, and a memory that’ll stay with us always.
All photos courtesy of Jenny Bowen and Sense Africa