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By Kasey Austin /

It is right around high noon with a merciless sun beating down out of a cloudless sky when our trackers stop their safari vehicles and jump out with their binoculars. Everyone in our vehicle is frantically scanning the surrounding hills, trying to figure out just what it is we are looking at. About a mile away, a Black Rhino lies sleeping under a shady tree about halfway up a red rocky hill, and we are going to try and get a closer look!

As our group follows our trackers across the barren landscape, I contemplate how lucky I am to be tracking a Black Rhino about an hour away from our base, Desert Rhino Camp in Namibia. So far, I’ve learned that Black Rhinos are a highly endangered species that were once on the brink of extinction due to poaching and the selling of their prized horns on the black market. Here on the Palmwag Concession, Black Rhinos are making a major comeback with the help of a few key players like the Save the Rhino Trust and Desert Rhino Camp. Unlike their cousins, the White Rhinos who are grazers and would never survive in this area due to a lack of grass; Black Rhinos thrive here because they are browsers who flourish with the numerous plants and bushes in the region. At this moment, we are walking across a hot, rocky wilderness to discover just what it is that makes a Black Rhino sighting so special.

As we huff and puff our way up the hill, it doesn’t take long before we realize we are directly in line with the Black Rhino we had seen from our vehicles about a mile back, only we can’t see him, as we are blind to his exact location over a small rise in the hill separating his shady tree from our scanning eyes. Our trackers huddle in a quiet meeting as the rest of our crew looks on in silence – we can’t make any noise now as Rhinos have a keen sense of hearing and smell (they do not see very well) and we are within about 200 feet of his location at this point. Our trackers kick dust into the air, trying to determine the direction of the wind. Currently, we have an advantage as we are downwind of the Rhino and he cannot smell us. Now the trick is figuring out how to get our eyes on this Rhino without compromising the group’s safety.

The trackers decide to leave our group in the capable hands of our guides and another tracker as they scout out how best to proceed for a viewing. As their footsteps grow quieter, our guides instruct us to move down into a slight depression in the hillside and sit low on the rocks. I assume this is because they do not want us to make any noise and sitting here will minimalize our moving around and talking.

We wait in silence with a burning hot sun beaming down on our backs. It’s so quiet and the perfect time to sit and reflect upon the situation we are currently in and what is going to happen next. All of a sudden, there is a pounding of heavy footsteps and the sound of our group’s collective intake of breath as we watch a Black Rhino emerge upon the horizon, running full speed in our direction. No one moves a muscle as we thrillingly watch the Rhino approach closer and closer to our exposed location, a bulldozer with no means of stopping, his head down, striking the rocky terrain with each heavy stride. I cannot breathe as I keep one keen eye on the approaching Black Rhino and one watchful eye on our guides as I wait to see if any safety instructions are given. For now, we are lying low as the Rhino pounds his way first toward us and then right past us within 15 feet. Without turning his head at all, he did not see our group sitting low on the rocks with his bad eyesight. His one goal was to find his way down the hill and off to a different part of his expansive territory. Whether or not we were there to observe, that Black Rhino wasn’t stopping for anything!

As soon as the Rhino passes over the hill just behind us, the entire group finally lets out that collective breath we’d been holding for 30 seconds and nervous laughter and storytelling from each person’s perspective fills the once silent air. Our trackers arrive moments later to tell us their version of the story. Both men had been quietly picking their way over to the Rhino’s napping spot and had found a position to crouch down in to observe the Rhino. Suddenly the wind changed direction, carrying their smell straight to the Rhino! Upon getting a whiff of human scent, the Black Rhino chose to immediately vacate the area, running towards our group. Having taken precautions, our guides had told us to lie low in the rocks just in case this happened and due to this smart thinking ahead of time, the Rhino had no idea we were even there. Wow, what a thrill!
As we made our way back to the safari vehicles, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were to see a Black Rhino so close in the wild. I began to picture Austin Adventure’s future guests of Desert Rhino Camp and what kind of experiences they might have. Every experience is different, but if it’s anything like mine, you’ll have a love and appreciation of the Black Rhino and all that Namibia has done to try to save such a fascinating species.

Off to more African adventures,

Kasey

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