Have you ever felt the need to go looking for rhinos? In the wild? On foot?
Neither did I.
But now I am telling you, if you ever get the chance, do it! Before it’s too late…
This tour started the night before we actually saw the rhinos. Our guide came for a quick briefing at our lovely campsite near Bulawayo. He didn’t really have time to stay long, so he made himself comfortable and started pontificating about the dire situation of rhinos these days. With a plate of delicious shepherd’s pie steaming in my lap and our tent sitting on real fresh soft green grass for the first time in weeks, I lose track of what he is trying to make us believe. I figured we’d hear it all again the next day, so for once, I don’t join in the debate and just remember at what time we’ll need to be ready.
And so it started. One of the best experiences so far and one I had not expected.
First we visit a very tiny visitor’s centre. Here again we are talked at about rhinos being poached. We learn that if things continue the way they are, rhinos will go extinct in three years or less. Just three years to turn the tide on poachers shooting rhinos for their horns. Just three years to stop people killing animals just to get their hands on a substance that is basically the same as your nail. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, we are still not able to get our act together as humanity and protect our planet and all its inhabitants, but there you have it.
Although the issue is pressing and terrible to even think about, the guide has a way of talking that simply rubs me the wrong way. Not really listening to questions and repeating his one or two points over and over again. So when he finally stops hammering on about the same tiny part of the issue and get into our trucks, I am happy to see we will be walking around with another guide. This man seems more open to questions. More open to discussing all sides of the story and calmly explaining why he believes the side his colleague insists is the ONLY WAY TO SAVE THE RHINOS, is actually the only way we can save the rhinos. Even if it’s only in the short term and the solution poses difficulties in the long term.
After that rather depressing start, it’s time to start trekking the rhinos. And as if to proof the guide who told us there are so few left it might take a while to spot them wrong, we see a two rhinos just crossing the road ahead of us. We are beyond excited because something about these animals makes you love them the moment you meet them.
Our excitement will have to be contained for a bit, because the other group gets to go closer to them first, so as not to spook them. But we are royally rewarded. While the other group backtrack to higher ground to see if they can spot more rhinos, we get to spend a little time watching the two rhinos. And then we get a call. There are three more rhinos close by.
We slowly make our way over and spot them. We are so close to them! SO INCREDIBLY CLOSE. So close, we start to whisper. I take two steps away from the group and crouch down, trying to get a better shot. A friend stands next to me and I step just to the other side of her. And she to me and I to her. And I am getting such perfect shots. If only the rhino would open his eyes.
And then he gets up and turns his massive head to me. My body freezes. I want to take this picture. I want to run. I want to look at our guide for guidance and I want to keep looking at the rhino that is clearly trying to tell me to get the fuck out of his territory. So this is how wildlife photographers get killed. This is why you listen when your guide tells you to stick to the group. I’ve learned my lesson, but what do I do now?
I take the shot. And look at the guide. “What do I do?” I squeak. I sit, that’s what I do. I sit and as the guide soothingly talks to the rhino, I start to talk to the rhino. “It’s ok. I’m sorry. I’ll just stay here. It’s ok”. The rhino pushes a tree around, turns his massive back on us and slumps down. Happy he’s shown us who’s boss.
I am in awe. As scary and stupid as that was, that was amazing. I simply sit down, and keep looking at the rhinos and snapping pictures until the other group come barging in following the guide I am beginning to really dislike. The just keep getting closer to the rhinos until they get spooked, stand up and depart.
Apparently, rhino watching is over.
The afternoon is spent climbing big rocks to see beautiful cave paintings and enjoying the nature around us (and tuning out the guide who keeps on talking). And I am happy to do so. Our surroundings are amazing. The ground is orange and rocky and dry, but somehow there is greenery everywhere. And because of the overcast sky, the sunset is the most beautiful one yet. Vibrant pink, orange and red and so quick that you’d miss it if you blinked.
I sit on a big rock, enjoying the view. I sit on a big rock slowing down for the first time in weeks. Maybe even months, maybe even years. Worries about life choices, the future and the past simply drop away and all I am left with is the incredible beauty of this country. A beauty that I was lucky enough to see. A beauty that is more than the sum of its parts. More than just seeing rhinos or a great sunset. A beauty that you can only find on the road.