Black rhino whispering

Pamushana | April 2019

This was without a shadow of a doubt, one of my best wildlife experiences ever, and I’m going to share it with you from my own perspective, as I was all alone. I’d headed out to my favourite refuge on the reserve, Lojaan Dam. It’s a dam at the foot of a sandstone outcrop, and it holds an enchantment all its own. There’s a dam wall and the water in front of it had receded leaving a patchwork of dry cracked mud. I parked the vehicle behind a rocky area, took my heavy fixed 400 mm lens and camera, and a weighty sandbag, and climbed over the rocks and on to the dam wall.

My intention was to spend the late afternoon there, and see what came to drink. I set up my camera on the sandbag on top of the wall, and waited in wonderful silence on the terraced ledge just below. Already there were a couple of old buffalo bulls, and a chorus line of birds.

Hardly five minutes later a black rhino bull appeared from the south and made his way to the water to drink. He drank in a leisurely manner, with no idea I was there, mostly hidden by the wall. Then he finished drinking and came to graze on the bank to my right. After a while he began a peculiar behaviour known as flehmen. It’s when an animal curls back its upper lip and inhales, with the nostrils usually closed. It facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ located above the roof of the mouth.

He could smell an unusual scent and wanted to know what it was. He pinpointed me precisely, and walked directly at me using, it seemed, his two horns to line up his target. After this I can only describe it as one of life’s ‘magic moments’ that lasted about 20 minutes. I made myself visible by sitting on top of the wall and he came right up to me. I could no longer fit his head in the frame of the photo, so instead put the camera down and spoke softly to him about how wonderful I thought he was. He was calm and relaxed, and interested, and walked back and forth looking and listening, with his arum-lily-ears cupped towards me, and a piece of greenery in the corner of his mouth like a mafia boss with a cigar.

In time another black rhino appeared, drank, sniffed me out, and came to see what was so interesting. My bull started to give a few blustery charges towards me and I decided my ‘moment’ was up. I made myself big by standing on the wall, gently clapped my hands with an, “Okay, off you go big guy!” strong voice, and he turned tail and cantered off and away.

I picked up my heavy gear and walked along the top of the wall, back on to the rocks, and just as I got to in sight of my vehicle I heard the strangest thing – drumming. I thought to myself, “Who on earth is drumming out here in the middle of 130 000 acres of wilderness?”, and then it dawned on me, my adrenaline had finally kicked in and my heart was beating to the rhythm of Africa’s thundering drum!