Walk on the wild side
The next morning, darkness still clinging to the treetops, I stirred to the shrill calls of bush babies and the smell of fresh coffee, brought to my hut by a smiling lady in a shower cap. Drizzle poured out of the low clouds – perfect conditions for seeing game, Bongane announced ahead of our walking safari.
As with most walking safaris, we moved silently, pausing to acknowledge the smaller things: the intricate and ambitious spiders’ webs; the tiny scorpion holes; the mkhaya (knobthorn) trees, after which the reserve is named, and which have bumpy trunks as a defence against the elephants that like to rub against them.
We picked and tasted plants such as wild mint (a favourite snack of the black rhino) but left natal guarri well alone. “Swazi folklore says it brings conflict to those who take it home,” advised Bongane.
Then we saw them: deep in the mud, and filled with rainwater, were fresh rhino tracks. We followed the prints, Bongane’s eyes darting in every direction. In a clearing through some bushes we finally spotted our quarry: two white rhinos, the calf nudging for breakfast. Mum obliged before slumping to the ground and rolling in the mud. We inched closer, standing in full view, the rhinos just 15m away. The only thing missing was the David Attenborough commentary.
A little later, we stumbled into a sweeping plain dotted with large grey boulders. A sudden movement nearby took me by surprise – the ‘boulders’ had somehow developed large horns and short stumpy legs. The white rhinos clambered to their feet and slowly walked towards us.
Bongane snapped his fingers sharply: our cue to move. We backed off, retreating into the trees, and were still moving away briskly after several minutes. Looking over my shoulder, I realised why. The rhinos were hot on our heels, cantering almost silently, and with surprising speed.
We darted behind a large bush, my heart beating so loudly I was convinced Bongane could hear it. The rhinos stampeded past and into the thickets.
My thrilling walk on the wild side had revealed just how easily tracked and targeted these magnificent creatures are. Alarmingly so. And the battle is far from over. In fact it’s just beginning, says Mick Riney, son of Ted and the park’s head of conservation. “Poachers have adopted sophisticated means in recent years: night vision equipment, gun silencers, even chemical darting from helicopters,” he said. “Kruger is the epicentre of it and that’s only 200km away. As pressure builds there, poachers will look further afield but we’re ready for the challenge.”
I left Mkhaya with mixed feelings: admiration for what’s been achieved; hope tinged with anxiety for what lies ahead.