It was just after dawn – light out, and prime time for African predators on the prowl. We’d gotten up early enough to capture this moment but far too early for a proper shower to start the day. With some trepidation, I followed my tour mates as we proceeded out on foot into the desert. A dull roar came from the distance, just after our off-road vehicle came to an sudden halt.
“Lions,” whispered our guide, Michael Haindongo, confirming my suspicion. “Don’t worry, they are still one, one and a half kilometers away,” he estimated. But Michael wasn’t concerned about wildcats; we were on a mission to find a far more elusive member of Africa’s Big Five – the black rhinoceros.
After decades of being illegally poached for their prized horns, only about 5,000 black rhinos are left in the world. Scarce across the continent, the largest free-roaming population can be found in Damaraland, a desert region of northwestern Namibia. They thrive here partly due to the efforts of the Save the Rhino Trust, a field-work organization dedicated to the protection of the species and their habitat in conjunction with local communities. Our tracking tour was hosted by SRT along with a local safari operator based out of Desert Rhino Camp, located in the Palmweg Concession, a 1,100-acre wilderness area.
For my visit (which I’d arranged through CW Safaris), I joined seven other tourists, along with our guide, Michael, and two rhino trackers from the SRT. The unit was purposefully small (similar to one I’d previously traveled with to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda). Small groups enhance intimacy with animals as well as security for guests. A big group encroaching on a black rhino’s personal space is not a good thing – these are creatures known for their extreme aggression, and they can charge at about 30 miles per hour.
Following rhino prints and a scattered trail of trees where the pachyderm had marked its territory with urine, our guides were able to track a solitary rhino on a hill about a mile away. Through the lenses of binoculars, the animal was merely a speck in the dusty landscape, but after a short hike, he wouldn’t be distant for long. Nor would we remain distant in his eyes — or, perhaps more accurately, his nose. Which is where that shower I didn’t take comes in.
“He can smell us,” Michael said assuredly, taking note of the slight breeze blowing in the rhino’s direction. To compensate for their poor vision, rhinos have a heightened sense of smell, which is why we had been instructed previously not to wear any strong fragrances. I wasn’t wearing any cologne – but nor was I smelling my sweetest. My heart began to beat faster. Just how much danger was I in? And which was worse, that the rhino could smell my body odor – or my fear?
We cautiously hiked closer and closer to the lone rhino on a hill that led down into a valley. We hiked to higher ground as we approached, which gave us the advantage – not only for taking photos, but also for safety – if the rhino decided to charge us, it would need to go uphill, giving us more time to react.
At about 50 yards away — the closest we were going to get — the rhino was in clear sight, peacefully eating a thorny bush with its hooked upper lip. I didn’t know whether or not it was going to react to the 10 smelly tourists nearby until the trackers looked at its markings and recognized it as a young male they’d nicknamed “Don’t Worry” for his calm demeanor amongst humans.
Though he remained calm, our time with Don’t Worry was short-lived; we had only about 45 minutes to take his mugshot and simply relish the rare moment until we were summoned to start heading back. “It’s not just ‘here today,’” Michael said prophetically as we started hiking back to the truck. “It’s ‘here forever.’”
In that moment, I too felt confident that the black rhinos’ future is a hopeful one. With Michael and SRT’s work, the species stands a chance at a survival. A peaceful, beautiful beast, Don’t Worry is the perfect ambassador for his kind. Whether he was unbothered by the scent of 10 un-bathed humans or was just too polite to act out is impossible to say, of course. But satisfied that Don’t Worry’s fate was safely secured for at least another day, I turned to my own immediate future, which had everything to do with taking a shower.