Experience the primaeval thrill of getting close to game on foot – a sensation that’s heightened by the creatures in question being critically endangered black rhinos in Kenya. The Sera Community Conservancy is the only place here where you can go rhino tracking, and help conserve them at the same time.
We drove across the dry lugga riverbed in front of Saruni Rhino lodge at dawn, heading into the rising sun. Our guide Sambara, in his Samburu warrior finery, added a burst of colour, while behind us sat a Sera Community Conservancy ranger named Robert – a man equipped with a ready smile and a secret weapon.
Robert’s sophisticated GPS tracker could pick up signals from the transmitters fitted to the rhino (an essential precaution against poachers, even somewhere as remote as this). Although state of the art, the antenna resembled a TV aerial and we joked that we could always watch National Geographic if our mission was unsuccessful.
Periodically Sambara would stop, and the Robert would climb up the frame of the game viewer and slowly turn full circle. Sambara explained that he was listening for the tell-tale squawk of a black rhino – not that they squawk themselves, but their transmitters would if we came within range.
With a flurry of wingbeats, what looked like a cloud of smoke passed over us – a flock of sandgrouse heading back to their nests, with precious water soaked up by their chest feathers.
Next, a combination of lowing and singing caught Sambara’s attention, and he steered us towards the sounds. And so it happened that the first horned animals we saw were a herd of sinewy Samburu cattle, jostling for position at one of the wells. Sambara and the ranger clearly knew the herders well, and they exchanged friendly greetings. We were learning a lot about how humans and wildlife could cohabit in conservancies – a model that was proving particularly successful in northern Kenya.
I snapped some of my best images of the trip as the first golden rays of the sun shone through the dust stirred up by the hooves of the cattle, and we left with the happy chatter of the herdboys ringing in our ears.
We were barely out of earshot when Robert gestured to Sambara to pull over. The movement of the vehicle startled a lone bull reticulated giraffe, and we watched the muscles beneath his brick-wall-patterned skin ripple as he cantered away. Pointing straight ahead, Robert was smiling broadly as he turned up the volume on the GPS tracker. We clearly heard the transmitter – the game was afoot!
Not long after that, we were, too. We’d come within just a few hundred metres of a black rhino before detecting the signal – Sambara explained that this was probably because the rhino had been lying down, which reduced the range.
As we descended from the vehicle, we felt our pulses quicken. We were finally getting the chance to get dust on our safari boots! A pair of gerenuk, balanced on their hind legs, watched us set off. They were browsing on the leaves that other antelope couldn’t reach, but their curiosity made them sway precariously.
Sambara checked that we were downwind (rhino compensate for their relatively poor vision with acute smell and hearing) and we proceeded in single file, the plastic flowers on his headdress bobbing with each step.
Pausing by a tree stump, Sambara brushed off some of the dried mud (which was at my chest height) and showed us how smooth the wood had been worn by rhino rubbing against it. Although the black rhino had only been introduced here a few months ago, they were already reverting to type – a sure sign that they were settling in.
Robert double-checked the direction, and from his whispered urgency, we knew we were getting close. We threaded our way through the spindly thorn bushes, eyes peeled and breath bated. Sambara held up a commanding hand, then pointed.
Exactly as predicted, the rhino was lying down, one foreleg folded beneath her and the other propping up her bulk. Through my binoculars, I could see the small puff of dust each time she exhaled. As we crouched, enthralled, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – the wind had changed direction, and was now blowing towards the rhino.
In a flash, she was on her feet, turning this way and that as she sought our scent. In side profile, she seemed unusually rotund, even for a rhino – Sambara told us afterwards that she was almost certainly pregnant, and that the first rhino calf to be born in this part of Kenya in decades was on its way!
One final turn, and she trotted away with a curious, mincing gait and her tail curled up like a piglet’s. We felt immensely privileged to have shared these moments, and grateful that the Sera rhino had a seemingly bright future.
Later, relaxing in our cool Saruni Rhino banda, we reflected on our morning’s rhino tracking. While we’d been focused on the critically endangered black rhino, we’d essentially experienced Kenya in microcosm – a wonderfully educational experience.