by Jessica Groenendijk
You rise at 5 a.m. This may be Africa but your breath plumes as you dress in bush colours, and you rub your hands to stave off the chill. There is no time for a hearty breakfast; you must settle for tea to warm your insides. As you cradle your cup, watching a scarlet glow deepen on the horizon, the rhino monitoring scout joins you.
“Mwashibukeni mukwai,” he greets you. Lewis is equipped with an AK47 and wears green overalls, a leather pouch on his hip, and heavy, black rubber boots. You glance at your own feet, inadequately shod in trainers. But those rubber boots of his will be unbearable later, when the sun glares white overhead. You shrug. To each their own.
This morning you need to locate Twashuka to see how she is coping after having been flown from South Africa and released in her new home. Rhino tracking conditions are best at dawn, when the air is breathless, fresh dung has not yet dried, and spoor is not blurred by the passage of other animals. Black rhinos often forage in the early hours, and it is easier to approach them while they are busy feeding.
“Tiyeni,” says Lewis, and you set off together into the dense miombo scrub. First you must find fresh rhino sign: their clover-leaf footprints, or a recently visited midden, or the moist ends of browsed twigs. As you walk, every bush is a menacing, shifting shadow. Buffalo and elephants can be lethal at close quarters and you can’t help doubting Lewis’s ability to protect you with his rifle. But the sky lightens as you push your legs through the tall, wet grass. Before long your shoes are sodden and your socks bunch uncomfortably, yet you feel only relief. The sun is your friend now.
Once on the trail of a rhino, the trick is not to lose it. After months of drought, the ground is hard and rocky. You must search for minutely shifted stones, or broken grass stems, or the scuff of a single toe in the dust. The tracking skills and concentration of the scout are critical. But today you’re fortunate. You find a recent footprint in the morning dew and congratulate yourself on spotting it before Lewis did.
The search is on. You stop often to listen to the sounds of the bush and use hand gestures to communicate. Some days you may be on the spoor of a rhino for three hours or more, the sign gradually becoming fresher. This is tracking at its most gripping. Today is such a day. The air stirs and Lewis fishes a small bag from his pouch, gently shuffling ashes into the breeze. It is crucial to stay upwind. He nods, satisfied.
Before long, you come across a midden. A moist ball of dung, when prodded with a finger, still feels warm to the touch. Lewis looks at you meaningfully. Its source is nearby. You tread with care, so as not to step on dry leaves or brittle twigs. Black rhinos have excellent hearing, and approaching on stockinged feet is sometimes best. But the thought of grass seeds corkscrewing into your shins puts you off this idea. A waxbill calls. You think longingly of the apple, cool and crisp, in your backpack.
Lewis stops dead. His raised hand urges you to listen. “Chipembele!” he whispers. Rhino. You hear a rhythmic crunching, and look up quickly. It’s Twashuka. You recognise her by the notches in her ears. She stands on a bank above you, chewing the elongated fruit of the kapok tree. Your view of her grey body, which would allow you to assess her condition, is obscured by thick vegetation. You inch closer. Grinding contentedly, she does not notice anything amiss until you are just a few metres away. Then she stops mid-chew, and peers down.
You freeze. You’ve heard rhinos have poor eyesight and you hope it’s true. Sweat trickles between your shoulder blades. They also have a keen sense of smell; the merest whiff of a human will cause a black rhino to flee or charge. And there is no chance of out-running a charging rhino. Your only options are to scramble up or behind a tree, or dodge sideways at the last second in the hope that it will thunder past.
Twashuka huffs twice, backs up out of sight, and you hear her scraping her feet, as though irritated at being disturbed. A brief rustling of leaf litter means she has moved off slightly, and you watch with trepidation as Lewis scales the steep, five-metre bank. You wish he could read your mind. No, that is NOT a good idea. Come back! Instead, he beckons. Not knowing why, you follow. An age later, you stand on top of the bank, next to the scout who leans casually against a tree, his face impassive. Twashuka is a mere fifteen metres away, with a mouthful of fruit. Looking at you. Her ears swivel. You are conscious to your core of your vulnerability; the sheer drop behind, the rhino in front, and your partner claiming the only climbable tree.
Twashuka takes two brisk paces towards you. You stop breathing and your heart flops in your chest. The entire world telescopes into this single scene, this single moment.
A low murmur from Lewis. “Don’t run.” You trust him implicitly, because you have no choice.
Your gut wrenches. Snorting explosively, she stops in her tracks when she’s just two metres away. Her vast, solid body fills your vision. You don’t move (you’re numb) and you watch, incredulous, as uncertainty overwhelms her. Then she wheels round and gallops into the scrub, the sound of her thudding feet fading into the distance.
Lewis looks at you. “She is healthy,” is all he says.
Your breath shudders and your knees tremble. You want to hit him. And then you laugh. Yes, Twashuka is fine and so are you.
About Jessica Groenendijk
Jessica Groenendijk is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She was born in Colombia and has lived in Burkina Faso, Zambia and Tanzania as well as Holland and the UK. Her influences as a writer come from these and other travels such as two years spent sailing the North Atlantic with her family when she was a child. Her work as a biologist has taken her from monitoring black rhinos in Africa, to studying giant otters in Peru’s verdant rainforests. She’s a voracious reader, adventurous traveller and amateur photographer of people, wildlife and landscapes. She’s also a wife and mother of two, and a big believer in connecting children and their families with nature.