Aerial shot of two rhinos

Mofemedi reflections

Seeking the rhino

It's just after 5.00 in the morning; I'm on the top of a rugged mountain range set within a massive game reserve in the far north of the Limpopo Province of South Africa, gamely brandishing what looks like an ancient television aerial to the skies. At the same time, I am listening out intently for the elusive beeps that, if they are forthcoming, will alert us as to which direction to turn in search of the rhino we are seeking. Telemetry equipment does have a slightly Heath-Robinson feel to it, but the principle is simple and, up to a point, effective. Radio tracking allows you to pick up a signal from a transmitter (such as a radio collar or tag) to the receiver – the aerial. You punch in the assigned collar number of the animal you are trying to track, find a high point to maximise the terrain your circling arms can take in and hope the aerial can avoid static. It would be best if you also hoped the target animal isn't lying in a hole, behind a tree or in the shade of a boulder and that you haven't inadvertently punched in the number of a dolphin on some remote marine reserve by the coast or you really will be going on whatever the African equivalent is for a wild goose chase – and then wait for the signal that triggers the next direction of travel.

One of the best ways to conserve rhinos is to know where they are and be active on the properties at which they are located to deter poachers. Thus, one of the main activities of this rhino protection initiative is to go out and find the rhino every day, monitor their condition, note their habits and territories, and, over time, habituate them to this surveillance so that more accurate observations can be taken. I was fully prepared to come to the project and not see a rhino at all; they are rare and live a wild existence.

Although two of the rhinos on the property have been fitted with radio collars, they should be possible to locate; the rest are not. No sightings can be taken for granted. However, to my delight, during the four weeks I was at Mofemedi, I found that even in this short time, the animals appeared to become more tolerant of our presence, and the sightings improved. We became more adept at using the equipment and familiar with where to look.

The thrill of seeing these prehistoric creatures never diminished; if anything, it grew in intensity as I recognised individual animals and gained a more sophisticated understanding of their condition and behaviour. Early sightings might be a fleeting ghost-like rush of something resembling a massive grey sail galumphing through the undergrowth seen in the periphery of vision. There might be a sighting longer in duration but at a greater distance.

As the days and weeks passed, we had unique encounters. We watched two adult rhinos and a calf grazing by a waterhole, 35 minutes watching one solitary male from perhaps 30 metres away, or the day when our telemetry signals confused us. We almost landed on top of an adult female and her calf, hanging out with the dominant male on the property.

We were driving along a two-track adjacent to an internal fence when suddenly, the great horn of the bull was visible from behind a bush. I don't know who was more surprised, but he made a mock charge at us to make his feelings known – I say 'mock' because the account didn't follow through to impact, but it was an impressive show of displeasure. It was also a powerful illustration of how, despite the enormous size of these magnificent creatures, they can defy logic with their ability to be rendered invisible in the bush, even if only 2 or 3 metres away.

The rhinos are all great characters. One in particular put a smile on my face the day we came across him in the bush. He was on his own but full of bravado, stomping about, clearly very aware of us but not intimidated by our presence. He gave a great show of machismo and posturing, trotting across the road ahead of us with a great bluster of confidence… until two tiny birds flying from a tree startled him into abject panic, which sent him with a snort and a U-turn speeding off into the distance in a cloud of dust and disbelief!

Every sighting of the rhino was magnificent. However, a couple do stand out in my mind as especially remarkable and memorable. On the very first day, we headed out following the direction indicated by the telemetry until we reached a rocky outcrop. We then left the vehicle in favour of tracking on foot. (Despite what you might think, there is a strict policy of no off-road driving on the property; it destroys the terrain very quickly and displaces animals, too). We scrambled over boulders, moving as quickly and quietly as possible until we found a vantage point on the rocks that gave a panoramic view across a vast hidden hollow quaintly named the Rhino Garden.

The scene was innately beautiful but provided a hideaway for an adult female rhino and her somewhat flighty calf. We must have been 300 metres from them, probably more (although I'm not great at judging distance), and way above them, but you can see them mooching around through binoculars. The calf suckles briefly but is skittish. The mother is more chilled but attentive to her calf. We sit rigid and silent. Even so, a slight movement of a foot displaces a minute chip of rock, sending it bouncing down the rock face, and immediately, you can see the two react. Their hearing is fantastic. Their eyesight is appallingly bad, yet they seem to miss nothing; an almost silent camera click produces an instantaneous response with their big ears swivelling to locate the sound, head raised, and rhino ready to run. Even so, we could observe the two rhinos for a while; after a few minutes of holding our breath, they relaxed again and returned to grazing. It was a picture-perfect scene, and I found it quite moving. There is something about a young animal that is brim full of possibility.

Rhinos are endangered, and they may yet become extinct in my lifetime; the statistics on poaching are terrifying – 668 rhinos poached last year (2012) alone – this out of a total population for which estimates vary, but the higher guess is only 20,000. The gestation period for a rhino is around 16 months, and females are not sexually mature until about six years old but typically only have one calf every four years.

It is not a happy picture. Yet here and now, at this moment in time, I can enjoy the sight of a mother and calf, and there seems at least a glimmer of hope. The way the calf moves is charming; she looks to gambol despite her monumental proportions; she is very much alive and alert and ready to take on the world! We crept away, grinning from ear to ear; this project would be great!

One of our guide's skills was reading the bush and anticipating what direction animals might move in. Often, you will see a guide getting out of a vehicle and kicking up some dust. This is not out of frustration and boredom (well, it might be, but it serves another purpose, too) – they do so to establish wind direction. Just as rhinos make particular use of their hearing, they also have an acute sense of smell; when tracking rhinos, you need to make sure the wind is in your favour.

This morning, we'd seen a rhino moving towards a section of Mopani trees, a favourite spot for shade and a scratch. Our guide set off at quite a pace on foot, and we followed in single file. He gestured to a tree. I gulped a bit; I can't remember how many years have passed since I last climbed a tree, and even if I could, I would count it in decades. Nevertheless, I somehow scrambled up and wedged myself in a convenient spot where one of the bigger branches came out from the trunk. I'm not incredibly athletic, and the tree isn't that high, but even so, I make a mental note that I should try out unexpected things more often; who knew I could still climb a tree? Result! My fellow volunteer is perched on an adjacent branch. We peer out, unsure what to expect next.

Very quickly, we hear some tramping through the bushes. These animals may be sensitive to sound but are far from silent. They crash through the undergrowth with many snorts and huffs in their vocal repertoires! This rhino encounter is over instantly, but astonishingly, the rhino emerges from the bush and comes directly underneath our tree. I could have jumped on top of it had my senses temporarily deserted me. Indeed, it is within touching distance. The rhino immediately smells us pausing, then snorts and gallops off quickly. I snap a rather inadequate photo, but more importantly, I've experienced the moment. Being so close to a wild animal of that size, which is so vanishingly rare, was a real privilege and a joy. I didn't think anything else at Mofemedi could top that. Whilst no other rhino encounter was so close, other sightings matched this experience in different ways. Gaining a behavioural insight or just enjoying a longer, more chilled sighting can bring you closer to these remarkable animals, in a different sense, through understanding rather than proximity.

Rhinos are, of course, the show's stars here at Mofemedi. But they come with a whole habitat to explore. Mofemedi is based on an exquisitely beautiful property with expansive views, gold rock, red dust and green vegetation.

Here, I also enjoyed the company of the friendly neighbourhood Nyala, who hung around the camp in an optimistic vigil for any kitchen scraps. A hand-reared antelope that, though now released, remains bonded to people and seems to seek out human company. She was an excellent bin for veg peelings but had not read the field guide that presumably advised that pasta and bread are not a normal part of her diet.
There were the tree frogs that had learned to exploit the camp lanterns. At first, I thought they were trapped within them, but they chose to live there. No sooner are the lamps switched on than the frogs come out, the insects the light attracts providing them with easy pickings. The frogs, though, became prey themselves.

At camp, we saw an enormous boomslang snake about 1.5 metres long and green living in a tree at the centre. This is one of the three most deadly snakes in Africa (the other two being the Black Mamba and the Puff Adder), though fortunately, it is pretty timid, and to be bitten by one, you'd have to go out of your way to provoke it, all the same, it is impressive. We realise the thud we heard the night before would have been this snake launching itself from a tree to prey on the tree frogs on the ground below as they were making their way to the water of the small swimming pool at camp.

Presumably because of the growing drought (the rains are nearly three months late this year), a magnificent sable antelope has also visited this pool for a drink. It is pretty confident and comes in an afternoon when the other volunteer and I are quietly reading; it drinks at its leisure and then moves away.

By Lucy Marris