Glass goes on a bush walk in South Africa

SETTING your phone alarm for 04.45 while on holiday feels like the act of a masochist and I blame a Dutch couple whom I’d met a day earlier. They told me I would not regret going on a morning bush walk  organised by the Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge and the canny looks they smilingly exchanged suggested they knew something that wasn’t being spelled out. Intrigued, I took the bait and set the alarm. After all, it was only a bush walk.

SOUTH AFRICA : Rhino trcakers (left to right) Nunu, Simanga and SifisoRhino trackers (left to right) Nunu, Simanga and Sifiso

The decision seemed insane when my phone’s normally dulcet tone wrenched me out of a deep sleep. But – knowing how warm the day would be – dressing took only minutes and I was walking in the dark towards the reception area before there was time to reconsider the whole idea.

I was in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in South Africa and the airport I’d flown into, 170 miles to the south, was King Shaka International – a reminder that this was Zululand, part of KwaZulu-Natal province. It takes only an hour to fly to Durban from Johannesburg and budget airlines keep fares gratifyingly low. Car hire from the airport is very affordable and driving from the airport to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park takes an effortless two and a half hours along the N2 highway.

SOUTH AFRICA : Rhino family mooching and grazing in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi ParkA rhino family mooching and grazing in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is situated in an elevated position inside Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and, once inside the Park, a series of twists and turns finally brings you to isolated high ground and the Lodge’s reception area. Lines of sight reveal only lush vegetation and hillsides; nowhere is there any indication of human habitation except the Lodge’s own buildings.

There was precious little sign of any kind of life at 5am but there were flasks of hot drinks and chunky biscuits. Five minutes later my guide, Nunu, turned up and surprised me with the news that I was the only one signed up for a bush walk that morning. A ten-minute short drive, he said, would bring us to the start point. It was still dark but a red glow was discernible on the horizon.

SOUTH AFRICA : The veranda at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge in ZululandThe veranda at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge in Zululand

The second shock of the morning came with the discovery that two men carrying high-powered rifles would accompany us. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is home to all of the big five so this includes the potentially dangerous Cape buffalo.  Safety was a priority; hence the guns.

Reassuringly, the armed men were relaxed about their assignment and it felt as if the weapons were there for appearance’s sake. Like Nunu, they were experienced trackers and all felt good as rosy dawn began to light up the horizon. Nunu climbed a tree to observe the lay of the land and then we set off in single file. On two occasions they indicated a need for silence: the ground was scrutinised  for tracks and they chatted about which direction to follow. Such moments proved anti-climatic; the only wildlife spotted was the burrow of a trapdoor spider which dutifully appeared when Nunu lifted the trapdoor and gently poked a stick into the hollow ground.

Resigning myself to a return to the start point, a sense of apprehension gradually became palpable. Silence was called for once again and this time I followed them gingerly as they stepped slowly towards a clearing. They stopped; I stopped. Nunu pointed ahead and then I glimpsed a large shape moving through the vegetation. Within seconds, the form of a white rhinoceros was unmistakeable present, a mere eight metres away.

SOUTH AFRICA : The entrance to a burrow dug and covered by a trapdoor spiderThe entrance to a burrow dug and covered by a trapdoor spider

The rhinoceros was female – weighing around 1,700 kg – and her offspring was close behind. Looking unbothered by our presence, they mooched and grazed but as if in slow motion. I was spellbound by their massive bodies and disproportionately short necks; disbelieving that they can travel at speeds up to 50km an hour.

SOUTH AFRICA : White rhinoceros and her offspringWhite rhinoceros and her offspring

Some 15 minutes of quality time were spent in their presence. After taking too many obligatory photos I realised it was more exciting to just watch them. On the way back to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge for breakfast, reflection brought terms like conservation and endangered species to mind and invested them with meanings never previously felt. These were very special animals – vegetarian, hurting no one – and the only predators bringing them to the brink of extinction were humans. Yet the mistaken level of knowledge that motivated this, the belief their horns possessed magical life-saving qualities, was akin to the notion that the sun went around Earth or the conviction that witches flew on broomsticks.

by Sean Sheehan

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