WALK­ING WITH RHI­NOS

Tim Ker­nutt learns some vi­tal lessons on a trek through the South African bush

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - THE ICE FLOE TEST -

IF you see a black rhino charg­ing you, don’t run. Try to get be­hind a tree. This is not the kind of ad­vice one hears ev­ery­day. I am in Hluh­luweiM­folozi Park in KwaZulu-Na­tal, South Africa, swel­ter­ing in 40C heat, while lis­ten­ing to a re­searcher talk about a par­tic­u­larly en­dan­gered black rhino sub­species, Diceros bi­cor­nis mi­nor.

The 96,000ha re­serve, a nearly fourhour drive north of Dur­ban, is the old­est on the con­ti­nent (it was es­tab­lished in 1895) and one of South Africa’s largest. It is con­sid­ered to be one of the best game parks in Africa to view black and white rhi­nos in their nat­u­ral habi­tat.

I am ac­com­pa­ny­ing PhD stu­dent Roan Plotz of Melbourne who is brief­ing me be­fore our walk to track one of seven black rhi­nos that have had an elec­tronic chip im­planted in their horns. Plotz tells me the process of in­sert­ing th­ese elec­tronic chips is an in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of he­li­copters, seda­tives and drilling, which seems a far cry from the dusty science most of us are taught at school.

Black rhi­nos are far less docile than white rhi­nos. Plotz says it is as if they are aware of the dan­ger posed by hu­mans: af­ter all, the black rhino pop­u­la­tion has been re­duced to about 3100, al­though ex­perts fear it could be less.

Plotz so pas­sion­ately drills me on the per­ils of the African bush that I fear I may not make it out of the park alive. Any­thing that moves in the wilder­ness of Africa, seem­ingly, can harm hu­mans, from the ticks you have to flick off when walk­ing through long grass to deadly snakes such as black mam­bas. Then there are scor­pi­ons, spi­ders and the ob­vi­ously dan­ger­ous big beasts. There is even a tree, the tam­botie, which gives off poi­sonous fumes when burned.

The aim of the game is sur­vival. A cou­ple of nights of ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion in the African wilder­ness proves good prepa­ra­tion for my walk through the bush. The ba­sic hut in which I stay is part of a small camp area in the heart of the HiP; it does not have a perime­ter fence. The thought of the dan­ger­ous an­i­mals that could be roam­ing about at night re­stricts my noc­tur­nal walk­ing to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum. There is cer­tainly not much in­cen­tive for stargaz­ing in this neck of the African veldt.

While I am in the com­mu­nal kitchen area of the camp one night, bang­ing and crash­ing can be heard in bushes nearby. Flash­ing a torch, I soon make out the shape of a huge male ele­phant tak­ing a moon­lit stroll through camp. It pauses to feed off a plant di­rectly at the back of my hut. De­spite be­ing about 4m tall and prob­a­bly weigh­ing four tonnes, it could charge at great speed, park work­ers tell me. The foot­prints it leaves are five times larger than mine.

When I fi­nally ven­ture into the bush with Plotz on a hu­mid Mon­day morn­ing, I am as pre­pared as I am go­ing to be. It is March, the rainy sea­son is just com­ing to an end, and the grass is at least 1m tall.

‘‘ Watch out for the ticks . . . they can give you a nasty bite. And make sure you avoid stand­ing on a puff adder, that will send you home a lit­tle ear­lier than you would have hoped,’’ Plotz warns. It strikes me that my travel in­surer would have re­assessed its pre­mium if it had known I would be head­ing on foot into the African bush.

A ridicu­lous as­pect of such a walk in the wild is the au­to­matic weigh­ing-up of risks. Sud­denly those snakes that could in­flict a fa­tal bite seem less of a threat when com­pared with the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing skew­ered by a hippo or charged by a testos­terone-fu­elled male ele­phant.

It does make me feel more con­fi­dent that Plotz has by his side a guard, Bhom, who car­ries a .458-cal­i­bre ele­phant gun. Bhom lives in one of the lo­cal Zulu com­mu­ni­ties bor­der­ing the park and is a self-ti­tled cham­pion of the bhe­jane (black rhino).

I am as­sured he has been walk­ing through the South African bush for as long as I have been alive; how­ever, I am slightly per­turbed when Plotz ca­su­ally men­tions Bhom doesn’t have ‘‘ A-class hear­ing’’. I hope this is more to do with his age than overuse of his ri­fle.

Within five min­utes of set­ting off across the top of a ridge in the mid­dle of the park, we walk into one of the big five. Star­ing at us is a lone male buf­falo; thank­fully it runs off as soon as I stare at it, which gives me a mad sense of em­pow­er­ment not felt since mov­ing out of my par­ents’ house.

It is some­how amus­ing to dis­cover how dif­fi­cult it is to spot black rhi­nos. Plotz has said he knows where to find one, but af­ter three hours in sear­ing heat, there’s no sign of it.

With his track­ing de­vice wav­ing in the air above him, Plotz looks as if he has more chance of track­ing an uniden­ti­fied fly­ing ob­ject.

Sud­denly may­hem breaks out. Plotz shouts for me to jump up and into the near­est tree while he and Bhom creep for­ward. No more than 40m from where we have been stand­ing is a fe­male black rhino with a baby calf.

I gawk like a child for a good half hour; the mother is highly pro­tec­tive of the calf, which is likely to have weighed a whop­ping 40kg at birth. Plotz has told me ear­lier that fully grown black rhi­nos can charge at 45km/h. They will charge at any­thing they per­ceive as a threat.

I am well sat­is­fied by my first black rhino sight­ing and rather glad I amalive. My pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters with an­i­mals in HiP have paled, al­though I al­most tread on a rock python, Africa’s largest snake, on the walk back to camp. Plotz just laughs and says there’s no such thing as an av­er­age day in the African bush.

Check­list

Im­folozi of­fers a range of self-cater­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, from ron­davel cot­tages to tents. The best sea­son is from May to Oc­to­ber, when the weather is mild and dry and an­i­mals are eas­ier to spot as they ap­pear in open spa­ces look­ing for wa­ter. www.southafrica.net www.kzn­wildlife.com

Pic­ture: Tim Ker­nutt

Meet the lo­cals: A rare sight­ing of a black rhino and her calf in Africa’s old­est re­serve

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