The Thin White Line

3 06 2008

Rhino 1

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr De Mille.   (Matopos, Zimbabwe)

Scars are sexy.


They are virile emblems of athleticism or a testament to a life of death-defying derring-do….provided that they are accompanied by a suitably impressive explanation, of course. The key to a good scar is to breathlessly exclaim that the chunk missing from your eyebrow was caused by the butt of a revolver when you foiled a bank robbery…and not when you slipped on the wet bathroom floor and knocked yourself unconscious with your electric toothbrush.


Sometimes a complete lie is necessary to turn a scar into a badge of honour. Other times you need only stretch the truth or leave out a pertinent detail. And on some rare occasions, surprisingly enough, the truth itself is sufficient. Like the scar on my left kneecap that was obtained while stalking white rhinos in Zimbabwe.


The two rhino were grazing several hundred metres from the dirt track in Matopos National Park. They were close, but somewhat obscured by acacia bushes and long grass.


“Do you want to get a bit closer?” our guide asked from the driver’s seat of the open-backed 4WD.


We all said we did and were somewhat surprised when, instead of finding another track closer to the pair, he turned off the engine and opened the door. We looked at each other curiously.


“Well, come on.” he added, gesturing for us to climb down and join him.


We jumped out and the guide instructed us to gather round.


“Right,” he said. “These are white rhino, not as aggressive as black but they are still quite dangerous. Fortunately, their eyesight is very poor but they do have an excellent sense of smell. We’ll walk towards them in a wide arc to stay downwind. Watch me very closely and do exactly as I say.”


We stared with a mixture of incredulity and excitement as he set off into the bush. We looped away from the rhinos before curving back around. As we began to draw closer, the guide again called us towards him.


“You must do exactly what I say,” he reiterated in hushed tones. “Stay behind me at all times. If I crouch, you crouch. If I stop, you stop. If I crawl, you crawl. When we leave, move away from them backwards…and don’t make any noise.”


Despite the intense sun, some of our small group looked distinctly pale. A few chose to go no further and headed back to the vehicle. The rest of us continued forward. We followed the guide’s example and walked more slowly, then crouched. Finally, with the rhinos just metres away, we dropped to all-fours and started crawling towards them.


Rhinos are big. Everyone knows that, but until you are on your hands and knees, just a few metres away and viewing them at an upwards angle, you don’t realise just how big they really are. We’re talking compact car size. We stopped behind a scraggy acacia bush to provide a modicum of camouflage and watched, listened and smelled as the pair chomped on the vegetation.

Rhino 2


At one point the female’s ears pricked up and she stared in our direction. The guide hissed for us to freeze. The female snorted and shook her mighty head and took a step forward, before resuming her meal. The guide whispered that it was time to leave, and we began to crawl away backwards, all the while keeping a very close eye on the rhinos and preparing to run if they began to charge. At a safe distance, we stood and continued backwards before eventually standing upright and walking properly to the 4WD.


Our eyes were ablaze with excitement and smiles shone from ear to ear. None of us had expected an encounter like that, and apart from the occasional dose of terror, we’d loved every moment.


“What’s that on your leg?” someone asked me.


I glanced down and there, sticking out of my kneecap, was a long, razor sharp acacia thorn. I grabbed it and pulled, a trickle of blood eased down my shin and the thorn eventually came free. I had evidently knelt on it at some point during my crawl, but the adrenalin from the fear of being trampled by several tons of rhino had obviously masked the pain.


“That will leave a scar.” My companion added with a grave face and a shake of the head.


“Yes, I know.” I replied with a big smile.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008




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