AT PHINDA, A PRIVATE CAME RESERVE IN THE NATAL BUSH, YOU CAN GET AS CLOSE TO THE ANIMALS AS YOU LIKE—SOMETIMES TOO CLOSE
I had a hunch that given the choice between shooting the black rhino and holding fire as the beast charged and tried to impale me, Joseph, our armed tracker, would not shoot the rhino. It was nothing personal. There are only 2,200 black rhinos left in the wild—and fewer than 70 at Joseph's place of employment, the Mkuzi Game Reserve in eastern South Africa—whereas there is an endless supply of U.S. tourists. I was the expendable asset. So I looked around for a tree to climb in case the underbrush exploded.
There was no tree to climb. We had tracked this rhino on foot to an almost impenetrable thicket where the tallest tree was little more than a brier—five feet high, spindly and covered with thorns. This was exactly the sort of place a black rhino retreats to when it feels threatened, and exactly the sort of place we'd been warned to avoid. Joseph, who speaks only Zulu and bears more than a passing resemblance to an out-of-shape Walter Payton, signaled for our unwieldy group of seven to take shelter anywhere we could find it. Cocking his .375 Magnum rifle with a distinctive ker-chuck, he started cautiously into the brush, from which, moments before, had come an unwelcoming guttural snort.
I knelt behind a gnarled Lebombo wattle, hoping to be made invisible by its four-inch trunk. Peter Hammond, a hulking Australian who happens to be my brother-in-law, had his eyes on the same spot. "No worries," he said, shouldering me aside with his best Crocodile Dundee cockeyed grin. "Plenty of room."
I decided Peter afforded better protection than the thorn tree, so I circled behind him. "That wattle will be a big help when the rhino runs right over it," I whispered. Black rhinos, bad-tempered animals that weigh about a ton, have keen senses of hearing and smell but terrible eyesight. We'd been told to lie still if one charged. "I'm going to be doing jumping jacks behind you," I told Peter.
It felt unnervingly as if we were the ones being hunted, and our senses had come alive in a way they never had while viewing game from our Land Rover. A claylike smell, reeking of decay, permeated the thicket. The breeze, barely discernible, was in our faces, for Joseph had been careful to keep us downwind of the rhino. I found myself continually scanning the grass for snakes. A staff member at the neighboring Phinda Resource Reserve, the private game park where we were staying, had been sprayed by a Mozambique spitting cobra in his bed the previous week. He survived, but he had to have several skin grafts on his shoulder. These incidents leave an impression on the paying guest. We'd already seen one baby cobra during that morning's walk, and with every rustle of wind I imagined I could hear things slithering through the grass: black mambas, gaboon vipers, cobras.
The light, rapid crunch of Joseph's retreating footsteps interrupted this pastoral reverie. He burst into the clearing and waved his free arm in a gesture that was unmistakable: He wanted us to get the hell out of there. Bruce Pitt, the 22-year-old ranger from Phinda who had organized this tracking expedition, had a brief talk with Joseph in Zulu. "Too dangerous," Bruce translated. "No trees."
The black rhino, a male, was just 50 yards away, and he was aware of our presence. Once aroused, black rhinos are very aggressive. If one charges, it is not for show. A rhino will chase its quarry up a tree, wielding its horn like a pitchfork. Stories abound of rangers being treed by black rhinos. Bruce recently had been forced to lie against the trunk of a tree for 40 minutes, ants crawling all over his face, after he'd helped his last guest ascend and then discovered there was no more room at the inn. The rhino was scurrying around, looking for them, and all Bruce could do was lie still and pray the animal didn't pick up his scent. One ranger friend of his, in a similar pickle, hadn't been so lucky; he was skewered and carried 50 yards on the rhino's horn before being tossed, still alive, into the bush.
So after tracking this particular rhino for more than an hour, following his trail through open savanna and beneath sprawling umbrella trees, past Ilala palms, under yellow-barked fever trees, around water holes and, finally, into this fearsome swatch of scrub, we were turning back without so much as a glimpse of the beast. "We'll try to find another one," Bruce said.