“This is excellent!” says Craig Reiche, the young ranger. “Keep watching. I think something very interesting is about to happen.”
Our drive through Sabi Sabi in Greater Kruger’s Sabi Sand Reserve has brought us so close to a large male white rhino, we can see the hairs bristling on his ears. Nose down and legs pounding, he’s picked up a scent and is on the move.
Craig, my guide, drives me over to the wide patch of rhino dung we passed earlier. It’s the rhino equivalent of a Facebook page. The odours it contains keep passing rhinos in the loop as to who’s around, who’s in the mood to mate and, most importantly, who’s boss.
Rhinos of both genders and all ages share a dung midden, with the area’s dominant male leaving his dung right in the centre, scraping the pile with his hind feet to obliterate the scent of any rivals. It’s rare for casual visitors to the bush to witness this behaviour, but Craig reckons we might be in luck.
Sure enough, the rhino stomps towards the place we’re staking out. But instead of approaching the midden, he barrels straight past it and into the bush beyond. Craig, puzzled, restarts the engine and Zeblon Hlatswayo, the tracker, indicates the direction he thinks we should follow.
Our open-top Land Rover crunches off the track and into the sun-bleached grass, then powers through a thicket of slender trees. A crested barbet rattles from its perch as we pass. When we find the rhino again, in a clearing beyond the thicket, it’s clear there’s something even more interesting than a spot of strategic dung-kicking going on. Facing the male in a tight, defensive wall are four more rhinos — a female, two juveniles and a calf. The male is horn-to-horn with the female. But he’s clearly not welcome. The female is practically foaming at the mouth.
In a whisper, Craig summarises what’s happening. With a calf by her side, this female wants the male to know she has no intention of letting her guard down for long enough to mate, and her horn is every bit as sharp as his. Craig picks up the radio to deliver a coded update in low-volume bush Fanagalo, the hotchpotch language that the Sabi Sand’s English-speaking rangers and Shangaan trackers use.
“Since the poaching problem is so serious, we have to be really careful what we say over the radio when we see rhinos,” he tells us. “You never know who might be listening.” Meanwhile we watch, enthralled, as the face-off intensifies.
Suddenly, the female makes a noise I never knew a rhino could make. It’s an emphatic bark, like a cross between a Doberman and the MGM lion. In a hasty backward movement, the male recoils, as if shocked. Craig and Zeb exchange glances. They seem as impressed as me.
“It’s really unusual to see anything quite like that,” says Craig when he eventually restarts the vehicle.
This is wildlife-watching at its best, I think, exhilarated. Everyone who loves safari longs to feel truly wrapped up in the drama of life in the bush. You want to feel as if a scene from a wildlife documentary is unfolding before you, live and authentic, commentary and all.
But not all safaris are created equal. Pick badly and game drives can feel as mundane as suburban sightseeing tours, with brief, distant sightings of animals not doing very much, accompanied by rote-learned factoids from the guide. Even worse, you can find yourself stuck in a crowd of vehicles, engines roaring, jostling for the best angle and testing the animals’ tolerance to the limit.
You need deep pockets to safari in Sabi Sand, but those lucky enough to do so find themselves in a different world. In this mosaic of private reserves in northeast South Africa, strict codes are in place to limit the impact of each significant wildlife sighting. No more than three drivers at a time are permitted to approach rhinos, lions, leopards and cheetahs; vehicles typically carry six passengers or fewer and there’s more time to pause, switch off the engine and just watch.
Best of all, the Sabi Sand Reserve attracts guides who are at the top of their game. Highly trained in anticipating and interpreting animal behaviour, they’re quick to illuminate anything you might come across, whether it’s a pair of impalas grooming each other, a mongoose perched on a termite mound or a lilac-breasted roller doing aerobatics.
Each ranger-tracker duo works as closely as a pair of TV detectives, keeping tabs on interesting leads via radio. They know their patch intimately and are experts at taking you to the right place at the right time. If you enjoy the long game of tracking by luck and stealth, this might sound like cheating. But if you’d rather spend more time watching animals than searching for them, you can’t help but approve.
Save the rhino
Having arrived in Greater Kruger on South Africa’s World Rhino Day, I’m thrilled that within 24 hours, I’ve witnessed an extraordinary display of rhino bravado. South Africa is home to two species, black and white, and was once a stronghold of recovery, but international poaching syndicates are currently slaughtering well over 80 animals per month. Nouveau-riche Vietnamese and Chinese who covet horns as trophies or cling to the myth that powdered horn is a cure-all, are keeping the black market value of horn higher per kilo than gold.
Many poachers come from Mozambique, but South Africans are also involved, which breaks local conservationists’ hearts — especially when news emerges that another corrupt vet, national park or reserve employee has been sucked in.
“These people are supposed to care about wildlife. My only guess is that they think, ‘If I just take one, I’ll be set up for life’,” says Craig over dinner. “But then one leads to another.”
World Rhino Day is one of a string of initiatives which aim to stem the gruesome tide. International agreements have been mapped out and Chinese celebrities recruited as conservation ambassadors. Some advocate stamping out poaching by removing rhinos’ horns harmlessly under anaesthetic — like fingernails, they will regrow. But dehorning jeopardises natural behaviour patterns, doesn’t fully deter poachers and is unpalatable to some people. As Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project, puts it: “No one comes to South Africa to see the Big Four-and-a-half.”
Hern’s team came up with an experimental scheme to treat rhinos’ horns with a dye that’s harmless to rhinos, oxpeckers and vultures, but is toxic to human consumers and detectable by sniffer dogs and airport security scanners. Several reserves have trialled it. However, Save the Rhino is unconvinced that it’s an effective deterrent and at $1,000 (£630) per rhino for a treatment lasting just four years, the cost is high.
There’s also a powerful lobby in favour of legalising the trade in horn. This would suit South Africa’s rhino farmers and boost the coffers of the national parks, which have a sizeable stockpile of the stuff. But there’s minimal evidence that a sell-off would make poaching unprofitable. As respected conservationist Colin Bell recently remarked: “With the real cost of obtaining a rhino horn being merely the cost of a bullet and a hacksaw, there will always be too much of a price difference between the legal selling price of a rhino horn and the cost of poaching that horn.”
The latest plan on the table is to translocate 100 rhinos to relative safety in Botswana at a cost of $45,000 (£28,363) each.
But despite the gloom, South Africa remains the best country in the world to see these charismatic animals. Its parks and reserves are home to some 80% of the total population of around 25,000, with the majority found in Greater Kruger, the vast swathe of bush comprising the Sabi Sand and a clutch of other private reserves, plus Kruger National Park.
Visit Greater Kruger and your chances of a rhino encounter are high. You’ll also contribute to their preservation by your very presence. And as well as top-dollar lodges in the private areas, there are simple, low-cost rest camps within the national park. And true to the spirit of contemporary South Africa, Greater Kruger is a democratic destination: there are no fences separating the park and the reserves which adjoin it, so animals are free to roam and rhinos are as likely to choose a territory within range of a rondavel costing under £50 per night as a suite that will set you back £1,500. Book a budget safari in the park and you’ll see plenty of wildlife, albeit not necessarily at close quarters.
Off-road driving is not permitted in Kruger National Park, but whenever I’ve visited, I’ve spotted rhinos from verges and lookouts. Sometimes, I’ve seen them stepping out of the shade to lumber along the road. For an animal used to picking its way through the bush, open tarmac is a supremely comfortable alternative.
Yes, tarmac. In the wilderness. This sits uncomfortably with some people. Kruger National Park is larger than several African countries and those who live and work here tend to be supremely grateful for a road network that allows people and supplies to travel around at a practical pace, even in the rainy season.
But if your idea of an authentic bush experience involves leaving the tarmac behind for a few days, you’ll prefer the private reserves, where the tracks are as dusty as nature intended. That’s not to say the reserves are unfettered wild spaces. Sabi Sabi, one of the oldest reserves, was a cattle ranch long ago, and its habitat management team now closes redundant tracks and waterholes, and scatters overgrazed grasslands with thorny branches to deter herbivores for long enough to allow a healthy regrowth. It’s a strategy that has paid off.
“At Sabi Sabi we live and breathe the bush, so naturally we’re passionate about caring for it,” says safari manager André Van Zyl, who surveys the vast landscape with a gardener’s eye for detail. “When I started guiding here 20 years ago, a rhino sighting was an event. Now, every ranger sees rhinos several times a week.”
In a region dotted with A-list safari properties, Sabi Sabi was one of the first ever recipients of South Africa’s Fair Trade Tourism certification. Hilton and Jacqui Loon, its owners since 1979, were determined from the start to show as much commitment to staff welfare and community development as to environmental management. On its daily menu of activities, visiting a nearby village gets second-top billing with bushwalking, after the universal favourite, safari drives. The staff, most of whom come from the villages, help create a friendly atmosphere.
Tuned to the preferences of its luxury-loving clientele, Sabi Sabi’s four lodges are subtly eco-friendly, and treat each guest as a grown-up. If you turn off the aircon in your suite, for example, the staff won’t turn it back on; if you’re interested in water and waste management, they will gladly show you their recycling systems, which are hidden out of sight. Designed by a team coordinated by Jacqui, an artist, the properties are stunning. Best of the lot is Earth Lodge, a secret lair inspired by woodlands and caves, spiced up with a Bond-villain modernist chic.
And rhinos are by no means the Sabi Sand’s only draw. It’s a stronghold for the most elusive members of the Big Five — leopards. Staff study their movements in detail, carefully habituating each new cub through a time-proven system of sensitive, controlled sightings. The reward is a community of cats so at peace with vehicles, the rangers can rustle up sightings like magic, and take you astonishingly close.
In the warm, end-of-winter stillness of my first evening, a volley of barks bursts out from the branches of a jackalberry tree. It’s a vervet monkey, sounding the alarm. Looking down into the gully below, we see the silky form of a female leopard, padding through the darkness.
We encounter the same magnificent female again on another evening, when I’m out exploring with André. She’s focused on a herd of impala a few hundred metres away, and whenever our searchlight strays across them, she edges forward. “She’s far too clever, this one,” says André. “She’s learned to use vehicles to help her hunt.” Reluctantly, we back away.
On my final day, a tip-off from the team takes us to a patch of trees scorched by a recent bushfire. There, we discover a young leopard, still slightly fluffy around the haunches, her colours rich against the blackened earth. André hasn’t seen her for a while. “She’s turning into a very beautiful cat,” he says, as if there’s any other sort. A sound of crunching bones from a nearby weeping boer-bean tree indicates we’ve found her mother, too. First we see the remains of a bushbuck slung over a branch like a coat, and then the leopard, peering down with golden eyes.
The sun’s getting hot, but there’s time to clock up one more adventure. One of the rangers has located a cheetah, a rarity in Sabi Sabi, so we speed over. André spots a likely looking boulder and pulls up a short distance away. Right on cue, the cheetah emerges from the long grass and leaps easily onto the rock. He’s as magnificent as a gold medallist on a podium.
Greater Kruger is around 300 miles from Johannesburg. If driving, check aa.co.za and sanparks.org for announcements and forum reports about road conditions and roadworks, which can cause long delays.
Federal Air flies daily from Johannesburg to the Sabi Sabi airstrip.
Average flight time: 1h15m.
When to go
Greater Kruger is a year-round destination but the rainy season, from November to April, can bring downpours and floods. Average temperatures during the dry season hover around 28C.
Need to know
Currency: Rand (ZAR). £1 = R18.
Health: Anti-malarials are recommended in Greater Kruger. Vaccinations may be required. Check with your GP.
Visa: Not required for stays of up to 90 days for British citizens.
International dial code: 00 27.
Time zone: GMT+2.
How to do it
Jacada Travel can arrange a seven-day luxury safari with three nights at Grootbos Forest Lodge, two nights at Sabi Sabi Selati Camp and two nights at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge from £4,665 per person based on two sharing. Includes flights from Heathrow, domestic flights, transfers, full board and activities.
Pulse Africa can arrange a seven-day budget self-drive, self-catering safari in Kruger National Park from £955 per person based on two sharing. Includes return flights from Heathrow, car hire and basic national park accommodation.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)