By Guy Marks
Financial Times (London)
April 28, 2001
It was early morning and soft dappled light filtered through the
canopy of acacia woodland. A white rhino moved between the shadows,
grazing on a thin carpet of lime green grass. Half a dozen cattle
egrets danced before the wide-mouthed mower, snatching insects.
They craned their necks and cautiously picked a meal from under
the rhino's nose and even from her face. They were chancing their
luck, but then, so was I.
I was moving slowly forward, crouching, ever closer. There was
hardly a sound and the merest breaking of a twig would have alerted
her to my presence. I would not have been welcome.
I crouched behind a tree and clicked off a couple of photos. With
the sound of my camera she looked up, but I froze and to her dim
eyes my form merged with the shadows and the acacia. She looked
down again and carried on with breakfast. I moved a little closer
and took another shot. Again she peered in my direction.
At 20 metres, Warwick, my guide, was getting nervous, but I was
getting ever more enthralled. I was spellbound by this incredibly
beautiful and peaceful sight, as the massive wrinkle-skinned animal
picked her way through the tender grass and moved in and out of
shafts of light.
I was lost in my own world. Nothing existed beyond the rhino, the
egrets and me. Then I ran out of film and jolted myself back to
earth. I backtracked to the Land Rover to re-stock and, with a single
clumsy move, knocked a metal camera case clattering to the floor.
I was far enough away not to be a threat which might have caused
a charge, but annoying enough for her to turn away and lope off
into the woods. My dawn rhino viewing was over, at least for the
The previous evening Gary, head of Ndumo Wilderness Camp, had assured
me that it was pretty easy to see rhinos on nearly every game drive.
But I became a little sceptical after the first false sighting.
Five of us, including Gary armed with a rifle for our protection,
had ventured out of the Land Rover to approach a rhino that he'd
All I could see was bushes, but I took his word for it. It was
a potentially dangerous situation and I just hoped that my guides
had it pinpointed. But they did not.
After a few minutes of peering, stalking and crouching nervously
in the long dry grass, Gary turned and asked: "Did anybody
see which way it went?" We hadn't. On further deliberation,
it turned out that no one had ever seen it in the first place. Gary,
with not a little ribbing from the rest of us, had to accept that
this rhinoceros was either a shape-shifter or had been a trick of
But as we drove back to camp we really did see a rhino, that is,
if you didn't happen to blink. Black rhinos live by the principles
of fight or flight. They will either charge you at first sight or,
as happened in this case, thunder off into the bush at full speed.
Ndumo Game Reserve is in Maputaland, an area of South Africa incorporating
the flood plains and coast of northern KwaZulu Natal, right on the
border of Mozambique. The reserve is best known as a bird-watching
destination, with about 60 per cent of South Africa's bird species
having been recorded there. But to me, it is far more than a twitcher's
It is a unique environment in a remote wilderness, with an extraordinary
mix of different habitats, ranging from open grassland and flooded
pans with permanent water, to bush and thick forest. It is precisely
because of this range of habitats that it attracts so many different
birds, but this also means that it is ideal for both black rhinos
and white rhinos. The black feed on leaves from shrubs, trees and
bushes while the white graze on grassland, more commonly out in
the open. It is unusual to find a park where both species are at
home. At Ndumo, there are 28 black rhinos and about 50 white, and
I had come to see them.
In spite of the false start, I was now very impressed, having glimpsed
the black in the evening and the white with her gathering of egrets
just after dawn. Over the next couple of days I discovered that
Gary's claims were right. There were rhinos on every drive. We had
them blocking the track in groups of four or five at a time. There
were family groups, mothers with calves, and small parties of males
wandering together through the woods.
Twice more I chanced my luck, leaving the safety of the Land Rover
in the hope of a close-up picture. In the long grass at 15 metres
we got as close as Warwick dared.
"We need to back off," he whispered in a worried tone,
"or they'll walk right over us." Sometimes ignorance is
bliss. I was happy with the knowledge that I had mentally marked
out a tree, to which I would run if things got nasty. But Warwick
knew that a charging rhino at that distance might outmatch my response
time, and he didn't want to have to use the rifle.
In the woods, we could get closer as the risks were not the same.
There was something captivating about being in the presence of these
extraordinary beasts. They look so strange with their elongated
faces stretching from the ground to the hump of their shoulders.
It was heart-stopping every time they looked up at my clicking
camera and peered at me through disproportionately small eyes past
the ill-placed horns on their noses. But when they looked down I
was lost again, caught in a scene with creatures left over from
a distant era.
I kept pushing to get closer and closer. At 10 metres Warwick declared
us close enough. I guess he judged it perfectly as, thankfully,
we never had to put our defences to the test.