By Fraser Gear
The loose rock and shale underfoot forced us to slow our approach to snails pace. Any sound made at this point would alert our quarry and send them hurtling away across the desert plains. With exaggerated care and pounding hearts we peered over the rocky outcrop. The two Black Rhino Diceros bicornis bicornis were just fifty metres from us but had no idea that they were being spied on from above. The steady breeze carried our scent away from them and our strict rule of silence meant that we were avoiding the rhino’s most important senses. Half an hour later the impressive pachyderms had decided to have a snooze and our excited group crept away. We left them in peace and undisturbed in the harsh environment that is home to the world’s only completely wild and growing population of Black Rhino.
No, this was not another activity on offer from a prohibitively expensive luxury lodge. In fact there were no lodges anywhere nearby. More accurately there was absolutely nothing nearby that even hinted to the presence of human beings on earth except the rough track that we had followed into the wilderness a few days before. This is the region of Cunene West, between the Skeleton Coast National Park and the dusty hamlet of Sesfontein in North Western Namibia. Nowhere else in Southern Africa have I ever experienced such an enormous sense of wildness, looked across such dramatic landscapes or been so dangerously thirsty.
My first visit to the region set off a string of subsequent trips to the area and eventually led to me guiding rhino tracking safaris in partnership with Sesfontein resident and rhino tracker extraordinaire, Archie Gawuseb. Having first heard of Archie in the book, Horn of Darkness, I had decided that, having a huge interest in rhino and a passion for tracking, Archie was a man that I had to meet.
I found Archie at his base-camp, Elephant Song and he agreed to join me on my quest to find desert black rhino. On our first morning we found fresh tracks and dung and I suddenly realised that we had a chance of coming face to face with the desert’s horniest creature. Gripped by uncontrollable excitement I watched as Archie placed his half-litre water container in his backpack, figured my water needs to be about five times his, grabbed my camera and started on the trail of what we had judged to be a young bull. The walking was like nothing I had ever experienced. The enormous vistas faded into hazy purple mountains. Hartman’s mountain Zebra raced away from us on narrow rocky paths. Ruppell’s Korhaan chortled in the still desert air. Ostrich and Oryx appeared bent and contorted in the heat haze across the plains. It was the tracking however that held me spellbound from start to finish. At times we raced across fine gravel plains, the tracks crisp and clear for us to follow. Then the trail would head onto higher ground and the substrate would turn to pure rock. It was only Archie’s great skill and knowledge of his quarry that kept us on track across the seemingly impossible tracking substrates. An estimated twenty-five kilometres later our perseverance paid off and we found ourselves sharing a lonely, red gravel plain with a lone bull desert black rhino.
We managed to spend an exhilarating hour with him before the camera shutter gave us away. It was an incredible illustration of the rhino’s super-developed hearing. In an instant the bull wheeled and stared, ears locked onto our position. Caught in the open we froze and contemplated the likely, thundering charge. The deafening silence of the standoff was finally shattered as the rhino bull raced away leaving a wake of rock in its path. My relieved laughter was only finally blunted when I realised that I had drunk most of my water while still facing a long walk back to the vehicle in the rising desert heat. The last few kilometres were hell, my thick dry tongue, staggering gate and spotty vision formed a valuable first lesson on surviving the desert. Never base your water requirements on hardened desert inhabitants. In fact I think that Archie returned with a full canister!