Jack Southan braves an early alarm to spot the rare south central black rhinoceros
My alarm buzzes loudly on the table next to my bed, it’s 4.30am and a silky blackness fills the space around me. I roll over to push the snooze button, but as my brain begins to kick slowly back into action, I remember where I am and why I’m awake so early. I’m in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and dawn is simply the best time for tracking black rhinos through the bush.
I get out of bed, pull on a shirt and shorts, lace up my boots and put on my hat before stepping out of the hut into the cool of the early morning. I meet up with my two Zulu guides, Themba and Whlanhla, and grab a quick coffee while they discuss where we should start our search if we’re going to find these massive creatures before they disappear back into the impenetrable thorny bush during the hottest hours of the day.
After a few minutes’ deliberation, we climb into our open-top jeep and the engine rumbles into life. Bumping across the bone-dry, red-earth trails of Thanda Game Reserve, I start to see life waking up around us. A herd of wildebeest scatters into the trees in the darkness ahead of us, startled by the sudden appearance of an imposing metal animal on the road. Their eyes glint from amongst the leaves and low-hanging branches as we pass by, and they snort and kick the dirt in greeting.
Amazing creatures, I think to myself. But I’m not here for them, I’m here to find the rare south central African black rhinoceros. Poaching is still a massive problem here, and year by year the numbers of these animals decrease, so to get a glimpse of one up close would be unique beyond belief.
One of my guides picks up some faint tracks in the muddy ground, which lead down towards a watering hole ringed by fever thorn trees. They don’t tell me what they’re looking for, but as the sun breaks and a golden light begins to cover the green land, I see for myself. A huge male lion looks up at me, its bright yellow eyes gazing straight into mine.
It’s a distinctly primal feeling, staring down something able to kill you in an instant. I hold my breath and wait, but after a moment or two it turns its big head away and looks towards the bushes as a sleek, powerful lioness and a young cub come padding out from the thicket.
We sit and watch them for a short while before heading off-road into the deep grassland. We pick up the tracks after about 45 minutes — a scuffed hoof print and a crumpled tree — less than an hour old, and a line of squashed grass leads off down into the valley ahead of us. Bumping over the rutted, uneven ground we manoeuvre our way across the plains in the hope of catching up.
But after a half an hour the trail seems to run cold. I take out my binoculars and watch a herd of giraffe gallop graciously across an open patch of land half a mile or so away, and just as I begin to turn away, I see something through the lenses much closer to me. I turn the dials and the out-of-focus image becomes clear. In the swaying white grasses ahead of me some hundred or so meters away, I see two huge animals grazing quietly. Their long curving horns protruding from their heads in a way that’s so familiar. A female black rhino and her strong young calf…