Walking with rhino – too close for comfort

walking with rhino in Eswatini

“Anyone need a change of underwear?” It has been a serious heart stopping, nerve wracking and exhilarating moment. How close had those rhino really been?

Walking Women

I was leading a Walking Women holiday in Eswatini, the first one for this company, and we had already had a list of firsts for many, including myself. We had had three nights in Mlilwane. Here we had walked with zebra, seen a lot of birds including the near-threatened half-collared kingfisher, watched traditional dancing and been up execution rock. Next we transferred to Hlane where we had been on safari and seen lion saunter past our vehicle and elephant munching on grass only 20m away. We had also spied a spotted genet streak in front of the landrover as we drove back to camp in dark for our gins around the waterhole.

Rhino Drive in Hlane

But it was the rhino drive that I suspect everyone will remember. Some with awe, some with trepidation and all with incredulity. Johannes, our guide, had been with us for our other safaris so he knew that we were as interested in the birds and the trees as well as the animals. The safari started off with us spotting an African hoopoe and a red-faced mousebird to add to our ever growing and impressive bird list. We drove around Ndlovu waterhole. Ndlovu means elephant in siSwati, aptly named as we had seen elephant drinking there the previous day.

There were rhino there in the distance and we used our binoculars to get a good look at them.

Further on we spotted a couple more rhino lying in the mud behind the branches of a fallen knob thorn acacia. Johannes slowed the vehicle to get a better look and then pulled off the dirt road and parked in the shade. We managed to extricate ourselves from the safari vehicle and listened to Johannes’s brief.

Rhino walk in Hlane

“Walk quietly and in single file and watch me for directions. This means stop,” and he held his hand up in the uniform stop sign.

“This means danger and look to me for directions,” he closed his hand in a fist.

“This means come to me” and he beckoned, “and this means back off,” and he waved his hand away. All pretty obvious but in the heat of the moment it was good to have clarification.

“And we must walk very carefully, and very quietly. Watch where you put your feet so that you do not step on branches and crack them.” We collected cameras and binoculars and stood in line with myself at the back. I was the end marker and was there to check behind us in case another animal decided to join our procession.

We walked towards the sleeping rhino. As a group we have never been so quiet, ever! The nervous energy was palpable.

Slowly we crept towards the rhino, weaving between the Tambuti trees, mindful of where we were putting our feet. As we approached the rhino got up and looked towards us through the branches. At this point we were about 30m away and there were only a few dead tress between us and them. Not much but enough to give a good sense of invincibility, or maybe it was vulnerability. Either way the rhino started to walk towards us. We then realised that the second rhino was in fact two more and they had got up as well.

Johannes beckoned us quickly to get behind him and in the Tambuti thicket. A few nervous looking faces looked at me questioning. “Move on” I encouraged. I was at the back, in the open, so it was for my benefit as well as everyone else’s that we closed up as a group behind those spindly trees. There was a slight increase in my heart beat, which is rather an understatement.

watching rhino on foot
walking with white rhino
hiding from white rhino

The first rhino came out from behind the bush and was now about 20m away. “They are going to their midden to poop” whispered Johannes. I was counting our lucky stars that we were not in the direct line to said midden (or I might have pooped as well).

The rhino stopped and looked at us and we bunched together behind Johannes. Johannes was simply carrying a knob stick, the traditional implement for walking in the bush. No rifle, just a thick stick. He waved the stick in front of the rhino and this large mammal stopped and peered at us.

Rhino have poor eyesight but very good hearing. We held our breath and Johannes waved his stick at the rhino and the rhino simply moved on. I did wander if the stick possessed magical rhino deterrent properties. The rhino walked to the midden and we turned our attention to the other two rhino who also stopped and assessed us, from only 8m away, before lumbering on towards the midden.

A ‘crash’ of rhino seen on foot

There then ensued one of those magic tricks where you think that the last rabbit has come out of the hat but no, there are more than you expected. A staggering nine, a ‘crash’ of rhino walked past us and we watched in a heightened state of awe and nervousness. I have never been so close to so many rhino whilst on foot.

Johannes motioned for us to retreat away from the midden and despite watching our steps we hastily tip toed away pretty quickly to the relative safety of the safari vehicle.

“Well, I am glad I brought my binoculars with me”, quipped Jan. We all burst into nervous laughter, quiet nervous laughter as the rhino were still very near to us.

“Anyone need to change their underwear?” Asked Chris, and this was responded with more nervous sniggers and titters.

More Rhino Photos

“Want to take more photos?” Asked Johannes, and he was overwhelmed with a chorus of “yes pleases”. So off we set again, this time without binoculars and instead armed with iPads, cameras and phones for pictures. We did not get as close, only 30m this time. It was a pleasure to watch these rhinos munching on grass, undeterred by a load of women going “wow” at regular intervals.

We had regained our composure and all seemed pretty happy standing with these one and a half ton beasts nearby. It is amazing how used you can get to an experience, we were verging on nonchalant!

We stayed with the rhino for half an hour, watching them meander through the bush and following them on foot. It was an absolute privilege.

That memory will stay with all of us for ever. Nothing is going to beat that sighting of a serious ‘crash’ of rhino.

And my underwear may have needed a wash…

rhino watching on foot
Jenny Bowen

Author: Jenny Bowen

I live for travel, whether it is at home or abroad. It is a joy to explore new places, meet new people and to have an adventure. There are so many wonderful places to visit and such fascinating wildlife to see, you never know what is around the corner! Live life to the full and restore you soul.