Most people fly in to the Desert Rhino Camp, and no wonder.
The drive from Palmwag follows the line of the veterinary fence across rugged countryside that tests even a Land Rover’s suspension. A surprise hail storm was the first rite of passage with ice balls ripping into the passengers under the shade meant to protect them from the sun. Rain lashed the vehicle for an hour and every channel in the earth gushed water. As the storm eased and the sun set behind cloud-darkened hills, a line of four Hartman mountain zebras raced across the plain and a startled oryx watched our passage.
Over an hour into the journey we found the Uniab River in rare full flood, a raging torrent of brown water 25 metres wide. Wilderness Safaris driver Michael thought carefully before tackling it. The drive back to Palmwag would be in full darkness and all the rooms were full there.
A botched crossing would leave us with a very long walk to the camp. But driver and vehicle took the river in their stride, and half an hour after dark we were safely in the camp.
The Palmwag Concession is a pristine wilderness; a prime conservation area where black rhinos, desert-adapted lions, elephants and other wildlife have found sanctuary from the relentless growth of man’s domain. Only a few tourists follow the rough tracks through the concession area, and only the well heeled can afford to stay in the Desert Rhino Camp. The tents are luxurious, with king-sized beds, mounds of soft white towels, and piping hot showers. Outside the dining tent visitors are treated to drinks round the fire before enjoying a meal worthy of a good restaurant.
Before dinner guests are given a briefing by the guides. This is a protected area, which has to be respected. If you want to track rhinos you have to follow the rules and do as the experts say.
The trackers are from Save the Rhino Trust, which offers rhino tracking for tourists as a joint venture with Wilderness Safaris. The operation provides vital income for Save the Rhino, who use it to train trackers like Martin, Denzel and Daniel who lead the activity.
Martin and Denzel have been trackers for eight and seven years respectively, and they know their stuff. With four years experience Daniel is also highly experienced. We set off before dawn on a chilly morning after the rain storm, with two tourists in a following vehicle driven by Wilderness guide Raymond.
It’s a secret how many black rhino are in the concession, but the trackers know 17 of them by name, and others come in and out of the concession from neighbouring conservancies. Finding them is tricky. None have radio transmitters in their horns, so the trackers drive slowly along the rough tracks and rocky river beds keeping a sharp eye out for tracks.
The tall grass waves like vast fields of wheat in the morning sun. The wind that moves the grass makes rhino tracking difficult. Martin explains that the rhinos are active in the morning and evening, and like to find shade under trees when the sun is high. But when it is windy they seek cover earlier. The whole area has a pungent smell from shrubs known locally as ‘bush perfume’. But it’s another smell that Denzel picks up: a dead zebra.
Lying in the grass is the bloated corpse of a zebra, buzzing with flies. This was no predator kill. The trackers have found several dead zebras in the last few days, all killed by a virus resembling Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague or steppe murrain. It affects the lungs and Martin points out spots of blood on a stone, caused by the zebra sneezing.
The drive continues for hours. Herds of oryx and zebra are common, but there is no sign of rhino, so we stop for lunch.
The guide spreads a tablecloth and lays out dishes of rice, salad and a Malaysian speciality. The trackers take stock. They have traversed several valleys and found nothing. Spirits are down, because it looks unlikely we will see anything today. The tourists decide to drive back to the camp, which is still three hours away.
The trackers press on. They have a job of work to do and all of them love the bush. “Not like the city,” says Martin. “Everything is free. I like to sleep out at night and to hear the sounds of the animals.”
The night before, everybody heard lions from the camp. It is hot now, and a black-breasted snake eagle soars overhead in the cloudless sky. Suddenly Denzel shouts out. His own eagle eyes have spotted a faint mark in the hard, grey earth: a rhino track.
Without further ado Martin swings the car onto a hillside, leaving what he jokingly calls “the highway”. It doesn’t much matter whether you are on the track or not. Either way it’s a boulder-strewn route across the semi-desert. Then another shout from Denzel. “Can you see it,” he asks; and sure enough, 100 metres away in the direction he is pointing is a black rhino standing between two euphorbia bushes.
We jump out of the Land Rover and move at a swift trot across the rocks, keeping upwind of the rhino and stopping about 50 metres away.
“It’s Verity,” whispers Denzel, taking out his camera. Every sighting is photographed and a GPS position taken. Later, the sighting is confirmed against a flip chart with details of all the known rhinos in the area. Verity is 39 years old, has a home range of 450 sq. km, is missing a small piece of one ear, and she is pregnant.
That might seem surprising to humans, but other animals produce offspring almost until they die. Martin tells the sad tale of Diana, who still produced a calf despite being 40 years old and weak. After the birth she was unable to prevent a lion taking the calf, and Diana died soon afterwards.
With the rhino sighting, the day is considered a success, and the long drive back to base begins, taking the easiest tracks available. But there is another surprise in store. This time it is Daniel’s loud whisper; “Lions! Get the camera, quick,” he orders. It takes a while to change a lens and soon both lion cubs have disappeared into a clump of bushes by a river bed. We drive past slowly, looking back at the bushes. Nobody is afraid, but there is an air of tension in the vehicle.
Suddenly, Daniel again, “Look, there, can you see?” And sure enough a fully grown male emerges from the bushes and into plain view in the river bed. He watches us for a while, then vanishes.