The eight pairs of eyes regarding me widened noticeably as I began my usual briefing: “You must remember you are riding in an area with potentially dangerous game…” Rocky, my trusty lead horse stamped his foot hard to emphasise the point. Patting him, I continued running through the situations we might encounter on our horse safari, describing the hand signals we used, as well as some vital points to remember – like never let go of your reins entirely, do not take photos unless told it is safe to do so, and so on. All of our safari groups got the same talk before heading off on their first ride into the game reserve, and this group, like most groups before them, nodded and said yes each time I asked if they understood everything I was saying. Having finished the formalities, we duly headed off on our ride.
After two days riding out from our home base, we headed off on our “Wilderness Safari” which was six days of riding and five nights at various camps on the reserve. I had a mixed bunch with me this time, multi-national…German, American, English, Italian…so we had some wonderful animated conversations around the dinner table at night, and invariably the conversation would turn to the potential sighting of the elusive Black Rhino. So far we had seen White Rhino, as well as a wide selection of the animals the reserve was home to, but the Black Rhino was considered the “Big” sighting. I reminded everyone that these animals are very secretive, and that although the area we were entering the following day did offer chances of a sighting, they were not to get their hopes up.
The conversation continued over breakfast, and so with high spirits we set off the following morning, crossing open plains and weaving our way through small patches of woodland, seeing kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and other plains game. All eyes were scanning left and right looking for whatever there was to see. As we were entering another small wooded area, a small snort and the snap of a twig just ahead of us alerted me to the fact that something was there. As Rocky and I watched, a Black Rhino broke cover a small distance ahead and to the right of us. I turned back to my guests with a smile, pointed to the hastily departing grey backside and said “Well, there goes your Black Rhino”. We watched as the rhino ran east as fast as possible. One of my German guests, Thorsten, was an avid photographer, and he was quite disappointed not to have got a picture of the rhino, but I told him we were very lucky to have seen it at all.
We continued north, through the woodland, with Rocky now on high alert. He was fully aware of the fact that it was a Black Rhino that had been nearby, and that he, as lead horse, was most likely to be in the most dangerous position should we have been charged by the rhino. In such a scenario, the command was to “GO BACK”, which meant turning your horse sharply (if they hadn’t already done so themselves) and galloping away for a short distance to get space between you and whatever was charging, thus putting the lead horse most at risk from a horn up the behind. Rocky, as a seasoned safari veteran, had so far escaped this indignity but was constantly aware of the possibility.
About fifteen minutes later, having crossed another open area, we entered a stand of small trees. Something made me look ahead to the right, at the same second as Rocky turned and pricked his ears into what I call “spotlight position”…meaning there is something of intense interest to look at. There, standing not 30 metres from us, was the black rhino. He had circled ahead of us and waited for us, where usually after getting a fright they run and put distance between themselves and whatever it was that scared them. The small trees obscured my view of his face. I could see his ears which were pointed at us, and his legs, but I could not see his expression or read his intention. Having already putting my hand up to halt the group, I quietly made a circling motion with my hand to signify that everyone should turn around and walk away as quickly as possible. I still had my eyes glued to what I could see of the rhino, until a small click behind me made me turn my head sharply, only to see Thorsten, camera in hand, readying himself to take another photo. Not only that, he had dropped his reins onto his horse’s neck, and was standing in his stirrups trying to aim his zoom-lens over the trees. In horror I tried to motion to him to grab his reins and put his camera down, when a loud snort drew my attention back to the still motionless rhino. In a split second, the rhino shook his head, gave a few more loud snorts, dropped his head…and charged!
I shouted “GO BACK!!” As Rocky spun on his heels, I saw Thorsten nearly lose his balance as his horse obediently obeyed my command. Luckily he stayed on as his mare turned sharply and broke into a gallop. The rest of the group was heading smartly into the open area when I shouted again for them to “STOP”. Having seen that Thorsten was out of immediate danger, I had turned back to the rhino only to see that he too had obeyed my command! He had broken into a run to come at us, but my yelled “GO BACK” had startled him and he twirled round as gracefully as a ballet dancer and ran back the way he had come. Thankfully, that was the last we saw of him on that safari.
Now the adrenaline was high, in both riders and horses, so as we continued, Rocky started to spook and shy at shadows, rocks and whatever else caught his fancy. He was really making a big deal of it, my brave lead horse with a sense of humour! Reaching the edge of a long sloping plain, I could feel him looking ahead to where there was a big pile of Thatching Grass lying next to the road. The reserve allowed people from the area to cut this long grass in the reserve to sell, as it is inedible and poses a fire risk if left uncut. The cutters were off further in the bush and had left the grass pile ready for collection. All the way down the plain, Rocky was goggling at the pile, making me urge him on as he pretended to be terrified. As we got closer, he suddenly shied violently to the left. George, who was riding behind me, laughed and asked what that was all about. I laughed too and replied “ Rocky thinks the pile of Thatching Grass is a rhino!”
There was dead silence from the back of the ride. Next moment, a curious American voice piped up, “Do Rhinos make their huts out of Thatching Grass?”