Tracking the Ancients

They’ve walked the Earth for 50 million years but rhinos now face extinction. Keri Harvey joins a tracking expedition in Namibia, willing to do what it takes to find a desert black rhino in the wild.

Words: Keri Harvey

Pictures: Keri Harvey and Brian Schaefer

www.keri-harvey.com

rh12Today we’re deep in Damaraland and the surrounding table-top mountains are dusted with warm morning sunshine. The plateaux give the area a smooth, serene appearance, yet the valleys at their feet are rugged and boulder-strewn. This is perfect black rhino country, arid and sun-drenched, tucked deep into the belly of Namibia in the far north-west, so remote and parched that few venture here.

It’s just after sunrise when we climb into the Land Cruiser with driver Mesag Saal, accompanied by two eagle-eyed trackers. Nicholas Naobeb, a local Damara, is tracking up front. Lazarus Mbahee, a Herero with an eye for minute detail, sits at the back of the vehicle and has slightly more time to observe the surrounds. There’s virtually no visible soil here, and no tracks as such among the red, wildly-tumbled basalt boulders. And the only way to track a rhino here is by sensing what the trackers call ‘disturbance’.

The trackers’ eyes are fixed downwards as we slowly navigate the boulders and towering walls of rock. We’re not yet on foot because we have no idea where the rhinos are. There are just a handful of them in the area and they’re as elusive as mist in the morning sun.

The vehicle has been bumping and grinding through the valley for an hour, its passengers silent, and Mesag can no longer contain himself. “You’re from the Cape,” he says. “What do you think of our collection of Table Mountains?”

We’re encircled by seemingly endless table-topped mountains, most much bigger than iconic Table Mountain.

“They’re beautiful,” I reply with a smile.

“I just have no idea what all the fuss is about your mountain in Cape Town,” Mesag continues. “Just look around you.” He’s absolutely right. Any comparison is ludicrous.

rh3Then Lazarus mutters something from the rear of the vehicle and Mesag stops the Land Cruiser. “He says a rhino passed by here not long ago,” Mesag translates, cranking the steering wheel over hard. “He has seen one rhino print in the sand and has read the rocks to see that the rhino is most likely headed in this direction.”

By now another hour has passed as a blip.

The sun is heating up the terrain very quickly, even though it’s still early in the day. There’s no shelter from it and no breeze in the valley. Even so, the two trackers have barely lifted their head in three hours and it’s difficult for them to explain exactly what they’re looking for, except ‘disturbance’. They say they’re on a rhino’s trail and although no spoor has been seen again, we believe them.

To punctuate the journey, we stop briefly for coffee and sandwiches and then continue for a few more hours. Suddenly, tracker Nicholas tells Mesag to stop. They know a rhino is nearby and now we need to follow on foot. Importantly, we need to stay downwind so the rhino doesn’t get whiff of us.

“They can’t see very well at all,” explains Mesag, “but they hear and smell better than you can believe. So if a rhino charges you, just stand dead still and throw a stone away from you.” He smiles, looking for a response from us. “It will turn and follow the sound of the rock.” Good advice maybe, although I can’t imagine it ever being followed.

On wobbly legs tenderised by the rugged morning drive, I join the group walking in single file behind Lazarus and Mesag. Tracker Nicholas keeps a general watch from the rear. We three rhino lovers – Namibian Brian, German Silke, and South African me – are in the middle, willing to do what it takes to see a desert black rhino in its habitat.

We quickly find it requires energy and sure-footedness as we head uphill and over endless loose boulders in the heat of the day. “The trackers say the rhino is just over this hill,” says Mesag reassuringly, “so it shouldn’t be more than about another kilometre.” Not far really, but for the inhospitable terrain.

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Cresting the first hill, eyes burning from sweat, we stop for a collective breather. Suddenly, and magnificently, there stands a black rhino, a male, on the next hill, resting in the scant shade of a mopane tree. So far he hasn’t heard or smelt us, and we’d like to keep it that way. We continue in single file, carefully watching our footing, moving quietly downhill and up the slope again, like a human snake.

We stop just 40 metres from him. He’s facing us but still can’t see us, and we crouch and watch intently, in awe. It’s inconceivable that a creature so ancient, unique, harmless and magnificent is being erased from our planet. Poached relentlessly for their horns, which some Asians believe have curative powers, the existence of rhinos is at the mercy of human ignorance, greed and insanity.

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For 20 minutes there is barely a blink from anyone, and the rhino stares back curiously. We can see him clearly, although for him we’re a fuzzy shape he can’t quite fathom. Then he turns his head away and the trance is broken as the massive animal takes a few steps, then stops to look back in our direction. He’s relaxed, but he knows we’re there. So before we stress him in any way, we retreat quietly in single file.

We retrace our steps to the vehicle and climb aboard in silence, and it’s obvious that the enormity of the threat to this magnificent species weighs on us all.

On we drive, and a gap in the hills reveals that the rhino has joined another two on a distant stony hillside, so he won’t be alone for the night. En route back to Grootberg Lodge, built high on the Grootberg Plateau to overlook the magnificent table tops, we see rare lone desert elephant, majestic gemsbok and playful zebra in the Klip River Valley, but somehow none has the impact of seeing a black rhino eye-to-eye, on foot.

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Suddenly travelling for nine hours across inhospitable terrain to spend 20 minutes in the presence of one of these endangered creatures just makes so much sense.

Namibia’s Desert Rhino

  • The region’s black rhino have adapted to living in the desert, mostly in the Kunene Region, also called Damaraland and Kaokoland. This area is in the arid north-west of the country, about 570km from Windhoek.
  • These rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) are of the same subspecies found in South Africa, but are slightly larger in appearance.
  • They are believed to be the largest free-ranging black rhino population in the world, and are the only group of rhinos that has survived on communal land without any conservation status at all.
  • Because of food scarcity, these rhinos have massive home ranges of 500-600 km².
  • They can also browse on plants with high, soluble tannin levels, as well as on Euphorbia damarana, which is highly toxic to humans and its milky sap can cause blindness.
  • Rhinos generally need to drink water daily, but the desert rhinos have adapted to be able to drink water every third or fourth night.
  • They have impressive mountaineering skills and are able to climb out of valleys onto high mountain ledges to catch the cooler breezes.
  • Most likely due to the extremely arid conditions in which they live, they have no visible parasites.
  • Desert rhino are usually solitary but have been noted in groups, although bulls seldom fight.
  • Namibia’s desert-adapted black rhino population is one of few that is stable in Africa, and relatively few have been lost to poachers to date.

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For more information

rh6Rhino Tracking from Grootberg Lodge

  • Just 23km from Palmwag or 90km from Kamanjab, Grootberg Lodge with its 16 rock and thatch chalets, clings to the rim of the Grootberg Plateau. Views are panoramic over the surrounding table-top mountains, as well as down into the Klip River Valley.
  • Surrounded by a 12 000 hectare conservancy, set aside by the Khoadi/Hoas community for the express purpose of conservation and tourism, Grootberg Lodge represents a landmark in Namibia’s tourism industry. It is the first middle-market lodge in the country that is 100 per cent-owned by the community. The European Union funded the project, through the Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s Development Programme, while the private sector has provided staff training and management skills. Guides are all local and well trained.
  • Namibia Tracks & Trails – tour operator for tailormade trips with superb guides +264 64 416821, [email protected]

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