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Desert Rhino Tracking in Damaraland8th January '15

“I will give you a wake-up call at 5.30,” briefed Bons, “and let you know if it is safe to come over to breakfast or if I need to escort you”.

He waited for my reaction. Well, it was quite early, but I was expecting this, and there were a few wild animals knocking around and I didn’t particularly fancy being anybody’s early morning snack. I was in my element.

“Brilliant”, I responded which resulted in Bons raising an eyebrow and giving me a smile. He was obviously used to people exclaiming about getting early or about the dangerous animal situation.

I was staying at Desert Rhino Camp in the heart of Damaraland, north-west Namibia, and I was being briefed by Bons about how the following day was going pan out. I was also learning about the importance of the work that Save the Rhino Trust does in the area. I couldn’t believe how vast the concession was, and it was here where there is the largest free-roaming desert adapted black rhino population in Africa. Now that is certainly something to be proud of. And our goal tomorrow was to see whether we could spot any of these elusive animals.

5.30 came around far too quickly, Bons had told me that it was safe for me to walk from my tent to the communal area, so I quickly got ready for the day and made my way over to where breakfast was being served. My ‘tent’ was enormous, very plush inside, I had struggled to get out bed because it was so comfortable and the views from my veranda stretched out over what seemed the whole of Damaraland. I can not recommend this place more highly for its exclusivity and its stunning location.

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As I was wolfing down my breakfast in anticipation for a quick departure I overheard Bons talking to the trackers who were already out on the ground. The trackers were a dedicated team of four, who dealt with this particular part of the concession, and although the rhino were known individually they still had to track the rhino just using their incredible skills. The rhino were not collared, had vast territories and were easily spooked. So Bons and I had to be ready to spring into action once the location of a rhino had been determined. The only issue was that where the trackers were today was about two hours away, so we had to get a wriggle on.

“Have you left the camp yet?” asked the voice on the other render the radio.

“Just leaving now”, responded Bons as I stuffed a muffin in my mouth and gulped down the last of my tea. “What an adventure this is going to be”, I thought.

We did leave promptly after that and drove for two hours through the undulating terrain of Damaraland. It is very difficult to do justice in describing the scenery, it just blew my mind. If you are agoraphobic certainly do not come here, but if you are into your panoramic views, your contrasting colours, the sense of being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, being at one with nature, marvelling at the ever-changing views, enjoy the anticipation of wondering what is over the next horizon, and standing in the middle of nowhere knowing that you are the only person there for miles and miles around, then this is certainly the place for you. I absolutely revelled in it.

And then the radio sparked into life, they had spotted a rhino and her calf and if we got there quickly we would be able to see it. Bons floored the Land Rover and we bounced along the track and then came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere. I did a 360, looking around, I couldn’t see any rhino or any trackers for that matter.

“We will walk from here”, said Bons as he quickly got out of the Land Rover and hastily threw a few things into a small backpack – drinks, snacks, first aid kit and radio. I followed suit, put my day sack on, make sure I was smothered in sun cream, that I had my hat and sunglasses, and most important of all, my camera. And then we walked into the middle of nowhere. But with thing is, it felt really natural to me and the sense of being at peace as we walked away from the Land Rover was extraordinary. And then I couldn’t see the Land Rover any longer and we were in the middle of nowhere. It was the most amazing feeling of true freedom.

Eventually, on the horizon, I spotted the two trackers standing on a small escarpment looking into a river bed. After a fair bit more walking we joined the trackers who said they were waiting for the vehicle as it had their camera in it. One of the jobs of the trackers is to take notes of every rhino that is seen; its rough age, its distinguishing features on its ears, location and to take pictures. These two had been walking for miles and miles, tracking these two particular rhino, and they had to wait for the vehicle to catch up as they hadn’t got their camera with them. What surprised me the most was that they had no water and no food, nothing. I don’t know how they survived. I’d already drunk half a litre just walking from the vehicle.

The issue was the lack of the rhino camera. “I have a camera, would that help?” It did help.  We made a plan of how we could download the photos, this was deemed OK, and so we made a plan.

The plan was I was not to get charged by a rhino.  I liked that plan. I was given strict instructions to stay with Bons at all times, even if the trackers moved away from us. If the rhino did make any sudden movements, or looked in charging mode, the trackers would draw the rhino away from me, keeping me safe at all times. I was a bit concerned about this, what about everyone else? Why should I take precedence? But I certainly wasn’t going to argue with the wealth of expertise that were standing around me. Wild animals can be unpredictable, yet these men would be able to read them much better than I ever would.

Heart in mouth we moved into the river bed and there, lying in the riverbed, were two rhino, mother and calf.

We circumnavigated them, as quietly as possible, so that we could approach the rhino from a different angle which has plenty of cover. I was conscious of my job of being photographer so I had my camera at the ready. I did my best to tread quietly and to match my steps with Bons. We walked within 50m then 40 and at 30m my heart was racing and I was pretty sure that even the rhino would be able to hear me. Bons gestured to me to move forward and to take my photos.

Click. Ears twitched. Click, she got up, click, the youngster also got up and the mother snorted. The problem with SLR cameras is that they do make a little bit of noise. Unfortunately I had spooked the Rhino and they were very aware that we were there although they couldn’t see us. I raised my head above the parapet of the rocky outcrop and ran off a few more shots, greatly encouraged by both the trackers and Bons to take as many as possible They needed the photos for identification.

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And then the rhinos took off into the wilderness, I was amazed at how fast they moved.

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It was only a fleeting time that I had spent with the rhino but that sighting was well worth it all.

I suspect some people might be disappointed about the skittishness of the rhino, but personally I’m really pleased that they are very twitchy and had not become habituated to the presence of humans. This bodes well for the future of these Rhino, especially when they are in the safe hands of Save The Rhino Trust.

That evening I downloaded my photos onto the Trust’s computer, everyone was really pleased with the photos that I got. So I had done my part for conserving these rhinos, albeit a very, very small part indeed.

Read more about Save The Rhino Trust and all the good work that they do.

 

 

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