Tracking black rhino on foot

Pamushana | November 2019

There are few things as exhilarating as tracking black rhino on foot. There is something so primal about it! Walking through the bush, touching the earth, seeing the signs, hearing the sounds and scenting nature’s signature notes. This, truly, is the way to experience African wilderness at its best.

The Singita Pamushana guides are all fully licensed Zimbabwean Professional Guides with a wealth of experience spanning some 80 years combined. As a team, we all love to walk as much as possible. There is a sense of freedom to be able to get out and follow fresh tracks of wildlife or just to enjoy the bush and stretch your legs when you so desire.

I’m not sure I can do justice with my words, to describe what it’s like to be on foot with a colossal black rhino, but I will do my best… This is my account of a recent encounter we had:

It was early morning, the sun had just risen, and we boarded the pontoon to cross the Malilangwe Dam to our destined drop-off point to start the walk. The haunting cries of fish eagles in the background and the cool breeze on my face reminded me how good it felt to be alive! I don’t know what it is about the water but it has such a calming effect on one’s soul. Before long I docked the pontoon on the shoreline and we jumped off and waved goodbye to our tracker as he returned the pontoon back to the jetty. (I must mention that most of the time our trackers accompany us, but on this occasion I was tracking alone as I wanted to start the search across the dam and my tracker needed to take the pontoon back and drive the vehicle around to a predetermined location for us to meet up with him.)

I called for everyone’s attention to brief them on safety and the do’s and don’ts on the walk. Before starting, I took out my ash bottle to check the wind direction, and then we set off. The pace was slower than a general bush walk as I knew we were in black rhino country and was watching ahead of the group, listening carefully and searching for fresh tracks, in this case, of black rhino.

We stopped to look at and talk about a giraffe carcass. This giraffe was recently killed by the Northern Pride of lions. There were hyena tracks everywhere and my guests were amazed by the size of the giraffe skull and the thickness of the tail hairs. My explanation was interrupted by a sound that can be compared to snapping fresh carrots in half. I turned to my guests to inform them that this sound could only be the sound of a feeding black rhino. (Black rhinos have a prehensile lip so as the rhino feeds on small twigs and sticks, the lip twists the food into the mouth and it’s bitten off at a 45-degree angle. This also makes it very easy to identify where black rhino have been feeding.)

I cupped my ears towards the sound, which was around 100 metres away and, sure enough, it was the sound of a rhino feeding. We couldn’t see the rhino yet but I checked the wind again and explained to the guests that a rhino’s eyesight is not the greatest, but their sense of smell and hearing is extremely acute and they rely on picking up movement more than anything. This meant we needed to walk slowly and methodically, rolling our feet from heel to ball of foot, and not standing on anything that could give our position away.

I kept the walking party close together and worked us into a better position for the wind. On our way I climbed up a few rather large termite mounds to get an elevated position from where I was, hoping to spot the rhino’s location. I didn’t see a thing! Straight ahead of us, about 150 metres away, was the start of a rather large hill, so keeping the wind in our favour we did a circuit towards the hill. We came upon a huge game trail and it was evident from the tracks that the rhino we had heard had just recently walked down this trail.

We followed the trail towards the west and as we came around a bend, there the black rhino was in all his glory, feeding away from us. He was only 30 metres from us so I got the group to do some quick footwork to put them in a safer position. Black rhinos are tenacious and have a tendency to either run away from you, or run at you.

As guides, first prize is to be able to locate an animal and be able to watch it without it knowing we are there, and then leave it alone in the manner we found it. This was exactly what I was trying to orchestrate with our sighting. We backed off swiftly and started to climb the hill next to us. We eventually managed to get above the rhino after painstakingly taking our time to be as quiet as possible.

On viewing the rhino for the first time everyone was extremely excited. We all sat down for a bit to give everyone a break and as the rhino carried on feeding, we crept in closer. We got to an even more elevated position close to the feeding rhino and managed to sit with him for a good half hour! The rhino was oblivious to our presence, and then we backtracked and left him alone.

It’s so exhilarating and so special to be able to spend time with these animals. I delight in seeing the awe on my guests’ faces and enjoy their feeling of accomplishment and being at one with nature.