Trying Rhinos for Size
Dan Cockburn comes face to face with rhino in South Africa
Rhinos are big, really big. It’s a fact. Not one of those made-up Wikipedia facts, but one of those inescapable, haunting truths that has been permanently etched onto into the inside of my skull for my drifting consciousness to occasionally catch out of the corner of its eye and be reminded of. I mean really, very big. Massive. Huge.
I had joined our South African Walking Safari group half way through their trip round the north-eastern end of the ‘Rainbow Nation’. After introducing myself at our campsite in Kruger National Park (apparently it is larger than Wales, the standard measure of such things), we headed out for a night safari. It was here, driving through the lowland bush that we caught our first sighting of rhino. Benignly chewing grass (white rhinos are grazers, while the elusive black rhino is a browser which eats leaves and branches from bushes), they ignored us and their huge ambling bulk provided a mesmerising, prehistoric sight. Elephants are undoubtedly larger, but well, they look unique and are culturally ubiquitous enough to hold their own place in our time.
Rhinos are something different. Firstly, much to my disappointment as a child, I never saw any parading down the street decorated in brightly coloured bunting when a circus came to town. Secondly, extensive research on the Internet shows that they are an ancient crossbreed between an extinct giant cow and a triceratops. Don’t ask me which one was the father; Wikipedia doesn’t go into that kind of detail. Seriously though, they are the second heaviest land mammal (elephants of course, top the list) with recorded maxima around 3,600kg. Their protective skin can grow up to 5cm (2 inches) thick and horns of over a metre in length are not unheard of. If Mother Nature was to raise an army to beat back us human interlopers, these would be her tanks.
We left Kruger and went for a great day walk in the cool highlands of Swaziland and my next encounter with a rhino wasn’t until we reached Mkuzi Game Reserve, back in South Africa. This time the odds were evened, however, as we weren’t looking down on these huge beasts from an open top safari truck, but rather walking through the bush looking for them on their own level.
Our guide’s rhino-sense engaged and he told us to crouch and walk as quietly as we could. Rustling came from just beyond the low bushes - we all crouched lower. Creeping forward and a little to the right, I could feel my pulse rise in excitement. A twig snapped underfoot and the rustling stopped. There he was, standing 6 feet high at the shoulders, head up, staring at us with notoriously bad eyesight, his huge, sharp horn pointing threateningly at us. Now my heart rate really increased! I instinctively checked behind me for my escape route as a huge wave of unease swept through me. It felt like that anxious, chilly feeling of lack of control that can jump you when you look over a high precipice. Disappointingly for me, the rest of the group seemed completely at ease!
I managed to relax and enjoy the sighting and squeeze out a couple of photos. After a few seconds (yes, it felt like minutes!) he turned his huge, bulky frame and trotted away with remarkable grace and speed. We followed and tracked down a few more rhino, as well as giraffe, zebra and antelope, but nothing came close to that visceral, innate response upon seeing my first rhino on foot. As we waited for transport back to camp, I asked our guide if he had ever needed to fire the rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. “Many times” was his characteristically brief reply. Well, they are big animals. Really, very, very big.
Dan Cockburn, Exodus' Walking & Trekking Product Manager
More Holidays in South Africa
For more great trips to South Africa visit our South Africa page. You could try exploring the Cape Peninsula by bike on a circular route that includes the famous Stellenbosch wine-growing region or go on safari in the mighty Kruger National Park. Or how about a trip which takes in the best safari areas in neighbouring countries as well, such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia? Take a trip along the Garden Route and go to the best land-based whale watching area in the world at Hermanus. The choice is yours!