The previous day the safari had got off to a good start. I had been a bit worried about this safari - rain was forecasted even though it was still October and when the rain comes to Hwange the game scatters to the four winds and overnight the game viewing becomes a lot harder. Additionally, we had been outrageously lucky on the previous safari and I feared the pendulum had to swing back.
We bumped into another operator on the way in and he steered us on to a pride of lion at Mandavu Dam. One of the best things about the area we work in is that the operators, despite being strictly speaking in competition with one another, work closely together and help each other out when we can. Lions are always on the priority list with guests and to get a sighting so early took the pressure off a bit. Sunset at Masumo Dam was its usual kaleidoscope of elephants, buffalo and numerous antelope, but while we were there we were subjected to a brief shower of rain. It was obvious from the thunder and lightning to the north and east that those areas were being subjected to a more serious downpour.
The next day we set off early to make the most of a cool morning. I was headed to an area where we had found rhino on the previous safari. I was not very optimistic of finding them there as, in tandem with the decline of the rhino numbers, their home ranges have expanded exponentially. On the way there I decided to check out a spring where we have had good sightings in the past. Disembarking from the vehicle, we cautiously approached the spring and were rewarded by the sight of two large, heavily maned lions. I know these two and they are very wary of people on foot. Part of their territory extends into a hunting area and this probably explains their skittishness. Not everyone had seen them however, so we quickly followed them up the riverbank over which they had disappeared. Obert, my tracker, picked up their tracks but after only 50 meters suddenly veered off at right angles to their line of travel. When I asked him where the hell he was going, he replied, “Rhino tracks. Very fresh. It’s Forrest.”
If you will bear with me for a moment I will go into the history of this particular rhino. I know him exceptionally well. Actually, this is perhaps an oxymoron as to my knowledge I have never set eyes on him. We have followed him for a couple of hundred kilometers and every time he has eluded us. From the size of his tracks and the height he is capable of feeding at, I know he is a large bull. His feeding habits are unusual as well. Most black rhino will eat twigs and branches up to a centimeter thick. He eats branches twice as thick as this and they show up in his dung. He loves euphorbias. Euphorbia are those cactus look-alike succulents that contain a thick, white sap that is highly toxic to just about everything on earth – except black rhino. All black rhino eat them but I have noticed that they eat them only for brief periods, and then ignore them for long intervals. I suspect that they are eaten less for nutritional purposes than for an instinctive way of ridding themselves of internal parasites, since when they do go on a euphorbia feast their dung is particularly liquid. In the case of this rhino however, he seems to eat them like we eat popcorn. Unfortunately for us, these plants either grow on termite mounds or rocky, stony areas, which are not conducive to easy tracking. (As a side note, I have also noticed, that when the rhinos do go on a toxic feast and become aware of people tracking them, they tend to be even more irascible than ever and a charge is almost inevitable.)
I do know this rhino has relatively small horns, since I have seen their outline in the dust where he has slept. They are so small I suspect that at some previous time someone has shot a tranquilizer into his fat, grey arse and dehorned him – perhaps when this was being done by National Parks to try and curb the rhino poaching. The main thing I know about this rhino though is that he is a walker. He drinks in the early hours of the morning and then he takes off. The surviving rhino in this area all seem to have some quirk of behaviour that has enabled them to survive. The mother and calf that I found on the last safari feed into the wind, then when it gets hot they move across the wind for a while, then walk downwind for a kilometer or two before finally sleeping. They scent anyone following them and take off. The only reason I found them on the last safari was because the wind had shifted.
This bull’s survival tactic is nothing as subtle as this. He just walks and walks and walks some more. He walks well into the heat of the day, when any other self-respecting rhino would long ago be taking its midday siesta. Follow him and he takes you on a death march. He walks so far you eventually have to jack it in because you would never be able to get back to your vehicle before dark. I’ve tried all sorts of things, such as using a vehicle to leapfrog in front of him…failed. I also tried leaving a driver in the vehicle with a radio so I could reposition the car for a nearer pick up. The rhino walked so far we lost radio contact and by the time we got back into contact, decided we might as well just return to the vehicle. On the last safari we followed him for 15 km before the heat and lack of water forced us to give up.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I was also suffering from stabbing pains in between my shoulder blades, which I discovered were daggers being glared into my back by a recalcitrant guest. There had definitely been a whiff of mutiny in the air that day.
The rhino researchers call this rhino by a number, but we call him something more reflective of his character. Forrest Gump was that running fool that never knew when to stop. This rhino is a walking fool that doesn’t know when to stop so ‘Forrest Gump’ he became. I love this rhino but there have been times, usually around the first kilometer in the long, hot return journey after another fruitless search, where I have to admit, I have harboured some deep-seated resentment of him.
We know this rhino is Forrest because of a peculiarity in his track that I won’t divulge here in case this story gets into the wrong hands. The first thing to establish is how old the tracks are. They were definitely made after the rain yesterday, which stopped around 5 o’clock. We track him for a kilometer and find a dung midden. The dung is fairly scattered but feeling underneath there is the faintest bit of warmth. We estimate the age of the track between 2 and 3 hours. I radio up the vehicle and stock up with extra water – lack of water is not going to beat us today. Now the problem is being able to reposition the vehicle for pick up. I am great fan of Baldric in the ‘Black Adder’ series, so like Baldric I have come up with a ‘cunning plan’. I have lived in trepidation of the mobile phone coverage spreading its invasive tentacles into the National Parks and that time has almost arrived. Somehow or other my staff have discovered that if you climb a particular tree at the back of my camp and face south-south-east, you can get one bar of cell phone signal. Why this particular tree, when there are other taller trees around, I don’t know. Even stranger is how my staff discovered it. It remains one of those great, unsolved mysteries of life. My cunning plan is to radio my driver when radio coverage is about to go, send him back to camp where he will position himself up the tree. If needed I will then phone him on my satellite phone and he will drive to a pick up point.
We get back on the track and notice Forrest has used the same path to get to the spring. Finding another dung midden we realize it was from the ingoing trip, as his track is on top of it from his outgoing journey. The dung is not as scattered as the previous midden. Feeling underneath I detect some heat. Juggling distance and time from the spring and back, we re-estimate the age of the track as between 1-2 hours. Six kilometers into the follow up we notice the tracks of another rhino, which to our surprise, turns out to be the tracks of the mother and calf we found on the last safari. The fact that the two locations were 15 km apart shows just how big these rhino ranges have become. These tracks were also made after the rain but every time they were under a bush or tree there were drop splatters on them showing they were made a short time after the rain stopped. The tracks were over 12 hours old and not worth following.
For the next two hours we continued after the bull – losing, finding, losing, finding, rocks, stones, the odd euphorbia for a toxic pick-me-up, too much grass cover on the ground, sudden turns off the line of travel, circling around the occasional herd of elephant – it all made for pretty slow work. Then the tracks simply disappeared. For an hour we cast around making increasingly larger 360-degree circles around the point where we lost the spoor. We had just about given up when we heard a loud whistle from Obert indicating that he had found tracks. When we caught up with him, we checked the tracks and discovered that they had not been made by the bull, but by the mother and calf. They looked decidedly fresher than the ones we had seen earlier and on investigation found another dung midden that was not just warm but hot. We estimated less than 20 minutes old.
I was amused to see several of the guests doing a warmth test. The first time you do it on a safari, half the guests recoil in horror but by the end most of them are doing it. I once had a client from Sydney who wrote me a letter accusing me of ruining his life. He claimed that his family and friends had abandoned him because he couldn’t resist shoving his finger into every bit of dog shit he came across. I digress. Excited now, we followed the new tracks as we knew we had to be close. We found where they had laid up for a while and then Obert gave a click of disgust and informed us they were running. We carefully inspected the tracks and realized that the tracks hadn’t been made by the type of headlong, bush bashing, panic-driven escape that is normal when a rhino catches your scent. They had taken off at a brisk trot down a well-worn path and it looked like they had not smelt us but they had somehow been alerted. We had come up on them downwind so the only thing I could figure out was that Obert’s whistle had put them on guard. On the last safari the same thing had happened but it had been a low-flying plane that had alerted them.
The rhino ran for a couple hundred meters then, true to form, turned downwind. At that stage I decided to call it quits, as they were sure to smell us if we followed them and I didn’t want to spook them any further. Obert disagreed. Now Obert and I have a good working relationship – I tell him what to do and he does it. This is not as dictatorial as it sounds. He has worked for me for over 20 years and we have walked over 30 000 km together. When I come to a decision, he goes along with it because he agrees with me. Very occasionally he will suggest another course of action. When he does this, I will listen to him unless there is a very compelling reason not to and almost invariably it turns out his decision is the right one.
I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to continue the track as it just didn’t make sense but I agreed to give it another kilometer or two. Eight hundred meters or so later there was a loud snort, a crashing of bushes and the baby rhino came barreling out of undergrowth 50 meters in front, coming straight for us. I frantically looked around for the most viable escape routes. If the mother followed the calf, as it was almost sure to do, life was about to become a little too interesting.
Sure enough, the mother came thundering out of the bushes, caught up to the calf and shepherded it around. Doing her best imitation of a steam train, she went huffing and puffing off, fortunately in the opposite direction. Not much of a sighting, only one picture taken, but exhilarating nevertheless. I don’t know why we were able to get so close, as the wind was straight to them, but there it is. There was obviously something I had missed that Obert had picked up on. I asked him, as always, why he had decided to carry on. He, as always, tells me, “God told me to.” I, as always, suppressed the urge to give him a swift clap around the earhole and we returned in a buoyant mood. On the way I have to smile about how short a return walk is after a successful track, no matter how long it is, and what a long drag it is after an unsuccessful track, no matter how short it is.
After lunch and a siesta we took a walk around the back of Mandavu Dam. A short way into the walk we came across a drag mark. On investigation we discovered it had been made by a lion dragging a kudu. I thought it had been made by a large lioness and we took up the track. After a kilometer and a half, an exceptionally long drag for a lion, I realized it was heading for a thick clump of bush around a large, fallen Natal Mahogany. This particular tree is often used by lionesses to secret their cubs when they go out hunting. I couldn’t understand why she would take a carcass to where her cubs were and attract other predators by doing so, but we continued until we were a few hundred meters from the thicket. Not wanting to stick my head into the bush and risk an African facelift, we circled warily around to the other side, which is more open. Our caution paid off when we spotted a juvenile male lion lounging on his back under the fallen tree. Obviously he had just wanted to get his meal out of the sun and eat at his leisure in the shade.
Continuing on to the dam, we came across a lone yearling buffalo calf. There had been a female buffalo killed the day before and this was probably its orphaned offspring. The day before, we had literally seen hundreds of buffalo but this day we had not seen any. I’m almost ashamed to admit that this poor, orphaned little buffalo which, as I write, is probably an integral part of some lucky lion’s digestive tract, is the only one I saw to claim as a buffalo in the big five sightings of the day.
After a magnificent post-rain sunset at Mandavu Dam, we returned to camp hoping against hope for a leopard sighting but it was not to be. Not yet anyway. We have a resident leopard around camp and we hear him almost every night but he is very wary. There are three elephant-dug waterholes in the river below camp, but at this time of year they are dominated by elephants and the only time other animals get a chance to drink is in the wee hours of the morning when the elephants move off.
All evening I diligently checked the waterholes and after the fourth or fifth check, I decided on one last look before supper. There were elephants at the main two waterholes, but surprisingly, at the third waterhole there were two hyenas. We watched them for a while, until they finally moved off. As I was about to return to the dining tent, I flashed my headlamp down the river and caught a very brief flash of two green eyes. Not believing it was in anyway possible, and thinking it was probably just the hyena, I gathered everyone together anyway and led them along the riverbank to a position above the point where I judged the eyes to have been. Peering over the cliff I switched on the headlight and there below us, frozen for a long three seconds, was a magnificent tom staring up at us. Much jubilation.
I called up to the kitchen, “Leopard in the riverbed!” and the call came back, “Honey badger in the kitchen!” This honey badger and I are heading for a showdown. As time goes on he is becoming bolder and more brazen. He wrecks havoc in the kitchen on almost a nightly basis. He has become more and more aggressive – hissing and growling at you when you try to drive him off. Honey badgers are reputed to go straight for the groin if they feel threatened and tear off the testicles of their perceived threat. I don’t actually know how true this is and I have absolutely no desire to put it to the test. For this reason when I approach honey badgers, the Birkenhead Drill is adopted. The Birkenhead Drill is actually applied in sinking ships where it clearly states: ‘Women and Children First’. As there were no children we put the three women in front and safely tucked away behind them to boldly make our way to the kitchen and watch the badger strutting his stuff, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
A good day and by the way, Forrest, I had to shelve my cunning plan for the day but its still tucked away and I will get you…one day! All you have to do is stay safe.
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