Thursday, August 6, 2015

Tracking the Last Rhinos on Foot II

Snugly wrapped in a fleece blanket, I set off with three trackers and five other travelers at 530 a.m. in search of black rhinos. We drove down to the Klip valley looking for fresh rhino tracks. Because rhinos tend to drink during the night, our plan was to first lookout for signs around water holes frequent by the rhinos and go from there. Grootberg Lodge in the Khoadi /Hoas Conservancy was the ideal base. The lodge itself is nothing short of breathtaking - standing at the top of a plateau near the edge overlooking a network of canyons. I took a short sunset drive on the plateau the day before and it was incredible to say the least. The game density was exceedingly high - oryx, mountain zebras and springboks abound on such a small area (the plateau is about 8 km long). Because of the elevation, it produced a visual effect of infinity with the animals at times appeared to be standing nearer to the edge than they actually were. And whenever the drive took us close to the edge, the view was stupendous. We stopped for a sundown drink at the opposite end of the plateau from the lodge. It was lovely and I would have wanted to stay longer but a troop of baboons was ominously closing in on us. Next morning en route to the waterhole, one of the trackers spotted a rhino near the top of a plateau a couple of kilometers away. We stopped the 4X4 along the riverbed and went on foot from there.

 my rhino trackers and the black rhino
Following our lead tracker, we climbed steadily up and across the rocky slopes. Halfway to the top, we walked downward and across and then up again before reaching ground level. Tracking epitomizes abilities that humans have almost completely lost - to read the landscape and be aware of its smallest details. Nearly an hour past and our trackers conceded that we had lost the rhino. We made our way back to the river bed where our 4X4 was already waiting. As we enjoyed a cold drink, our trackers spotted another two rhinos a few kilometers away. They were on the slope but this time nearer to the river bed hence more accessible. We drove along the river bed toward them and set off on foot again. A few minutes of walking before reaching the foot of the plateau, we came within 30 meters of a bull elephant. It was eating from the thorny branches of an ana tree. "He's not bothered by us," one tracker whispered. We detoured and increased our pace once we passed the elephant. After a short climb, we found the rhinos. They were on higher ground roughly 50 meters away behind an ana tree. The calf was suckling. Keeping ourselves at a distance, we stood in silence and enjoyed the tranquil landscape. The rhinos then started to move and we tried to keep up discreetly. We then came face to face with the mother rhino barely 30 meters away. Waves of emotion rushed through me as I stood still before her. It's a moment I will never forget.... and the rhinos get to live.

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