Phinda Private Game Reserve’s commitment to conservation comes alive when you spend a morning rhino tracking with its experienced guides and trackers. Alone among the Big Five, rhino can be approached safely on foot, leading to memorable encounters with creatures that appear armour-plated, but are in fact alarmingly vulnerable to humans.
Acting on an insider tip, we went off-menu for our breakfast at Phinda Vlei Lodge, and each ordered a ranger’s omelette before we setting off on our morning of rhino tracking. We’re sworn to secrecy as to the ingredients, but suffice to say it set us up perfectly for our adventure.
We linked up with Piet and Johan, our guide and tracker team, in front of the lodge. We were dressed for the occasion in khaki, but Piet outdid us when it came to accessories: he was shouldering a heavy rifle. Having seen rifles on game drives before, we knew it was only for backup, and that our escorts’ years of experience would keep us safe.
It was deliciously cool after light rain overnight, and the vegetation looked fresh and green. Johan was delighted with the weather, as it meant that he’d be able to instantly tell which tracks were worth following.
The rhino we ultimately saw led us on a meandering route before we finally caught up with him, but this gave us plenty of time to enjoy the sense of freedom that comes from walking across a vast, wild space. We used all our senses to appreciate our surroundings: without the steady thrum of the game-drive vehicle, our ears, in particular, came into play.
Piet identified each mellifluous bird call, while Johan’s attention was focussed on the ground ahead. As he searched for a likely set of rhino tracks to follow, he would point out whether other creatures had passed by.
Just 20 minutes into our walk, we arrived at a midden, or rhino latrine. Male rhino especially are creatures of habit, and regularly deposit their dung in the same place to show who’s boss, and also to check who else is around. The rhino equivalent of Facebook, as Piet described it.
Johan found exactly what he was looking for: fresh tracks of a large black rhino bull. The bull had visited the midden early in the morning, defecated there and then scored the earth with his back feet as he piled up the dung. Beneath the not-unpleasant stables smell of the midden, we could detect a more pungent aroma. Rhino urine, it turned out, is an important scent marker.
We followed Johan closely, enthralled by how easily he could follow the spoor. On open, sandy ground the tracks were clear enough – but not where there was a lot of vegetation. Piet brought up the rear, and we noticed that Johan would skirt any patches of thick bush, before picking up the tracks again on the far side.
He showed us where a hyena – eternal optimist of the bushveld – had briefly followed the rhino, and then some scuffed-up sand where the rhino, irritated by the attention, had spun on its heels and confronted his follower, who had left at speed.
Our rhino (as we were already starting to think of him) had then enjoyed a good rub on a favourite scratching post – the stump of an old tree, worn smooth by the attentions of his ancestors. Usually this would be covered in dry mud, but the overnight rain had washed it clean.
A white rhino had also been there, and the difference in size between the two footprints was very noticeable. Piet told us that while the white rhino would spend his day contentedly grazing, the black rhino would be chewing on twigs and thorns, which explained the more irascible nature of the smaller species.
The tracks led us to a small waterhole, and then towards a large tree some few hundred metres away. Johan put his finger to his lips: these were now very fresh tracks. For the umpteenth time that morning, he took a pinch of ash from a pouch on his belt and threw it up into the air to test the wind direction.
We’d read that rhino are very short-sighted, but have acute hearing and smell. Johan led us in a wide arc toward the tree, pausing every few minutes to check the wind again. We used a termite mound for cover – peering round it, we saw our quarry seemingly snoozing in the shade, even though the morning was still cool.
His ears flicked around; peering through binoculars, Johan identified the rhino by his ear notches as one of the oldest bulls in Phinda Private Game Reserve.
Suddenly, in a puff of dust, the rhino was on its feet – and our hearts were in our mouths. Piet put a reassuring hand on my shoulder as the rhino peered myopically in our direction, then wheeled around and trotted off into a nearby thicket, his tiny tail curled comically up over his rump, like a piglet’s.
Johan’s laughter released the moment of tension, and we let the thrill of having tracked a wild rhino on foot wash over us.