Copyright 2021 by Eve Levinson
story was part of an incredible month trekking and camping across
eastern and southern Africa. We had been on multiple safaris, gone up
in a hot air balloon, rafted the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls,
yet meeting rhinos in Zimbabwe was truly unforgettable.
had stopped the jeep and was pointing at a scuff mark in the ground
that none of us would have noticed otherwise. He had grown up around
the dirt roads and alien landscapes of Matobo, though a heads up from
the anti-poaching squad had helped to send us in the general
direction of rhinos they had spotted nearby. Even the best guides
share their sightings so the tourists can get their money’s
grabbed some water out of our bags before climbing down from the
metal frames that had transformed our bench seats into vehicles. Then,
Ian gathered us together in the long grass for a quick safety
talk. We were on our way through the bush on foot with just a quick,
sun-baked lesson on how to avoid the unpleasant death of being
trampled by a thundering rhinoceros. The people in the back of the
group weren’t sure they’d heard him correctly—stay
low, stay calm, don’t run. Reassuring. As we set out, I chose
instead to focus on keeping up with Ian’s stork legs and
dodging the long, white thorns of the acacia plants we passed.
trekked well off the worn trail to reach the squad, and continued
with them toward the protected animals. The men held their defensive
guns at the ready, seeming to walk and chat casually, but always on
high alert to spring into action if needed. Abruptly, the four men
shared a nod of familiar farewell before the patrol left us to resume
their watch of the park. Soon, Ian slowed our pace. We could see a
trio of horned tanks up ahead looking for a cool place to nap around
was difficult to contain our excitement, but the time had come to
crouch. Twelve of us crept toward the rhinos, cameras up and
waddling like a flock of paparazzi ducks. The animals mostly ignored
the crowd, though the male kept his eye on us and his females, lest
something surprise him. Still, the thought was oddly tempting to
reach out and pet them, wondrous in their bulk and beauty, and so
close to where we waited. Thankfully, no one tested the male by
instigating a dangerous game of tag that featured his 30mph
change-of-mind about his guests.
the three of them so calm, seemingly unafraid of the people who had
just approached, was remarkable. With no natural enemies, it’s
been the poachers who put these mammoths on edge, targeting them for
their horns. There are those who want to harness their strength,
their virility, their energy, all by wiping them off the face of the
Earth. And here we simply crouched in awe of them, ten yards away
and hardly able to believe the scene before us.
a further precaution for our safety, Ian led us around to the far
side of where the rhinos stood, so they would have a better escape
route. A challenged animal is a dangerous animal, and all we wanted
were photo souvenirs.
reached for our cameras and sent us one by one to pose for a memento.
Picture after picture, our awkward movements failed to disturb the
scene. I crept into my shot, and snuck a couple quick glances at the
dozing behemoths behind me, while Ian snapped the shutter. It was
impossible not to beam at this perfect image.
while my five-foot frame easily crept just above the ground, one of
the members of our group stood about six foot five, and he had
white-blonde hair that glowed like a homing beacon. Oh, and he had a
prosthetic leg below the knee. Though he did his best to move as Ian
had instructed, there was no way he could avoid drawing the attention
of the rhinos. Nap time was over.
first, one of the females pointed her nose at the intruders, took a
couple of steps in our direction. But, her patience had waned, and
her pace quickly became more determined. She rumbled toward us,
creating a palpable energy shift in the group as each individual
instinctively tensed and prepared to run. Then came an
was nothing to consider, the words had come from Ian. All we could
do was stare down our impending steam rolling and be thankful her
long horns had been trimmed as a deterrent to poachers. She was
coming right at us and we were supposed to pretend to be rocks.
an instant, Ian unfolded from his crouch to his true height. He gave
a quick yell, clapped his hands emphatically, and made every effort
to appear as big as he could. Somehow, he startled the prehistoric
beast. She turned, but instead charged toward the other half of our
tour group, seated and watching nearby.
had no chance of getting up quickly, even if that had been the
correct response. My group had avoided destruction, yet it looked
like we were still about to witness something horrible. We held our
collective breath until their guide stood to make the same
declaration Ian had, dissuading her advance and protecting those in
his care. With a huff, she startled away from them too.
small crash of rhinos we had been ogling could tell this was no
longer a peaceful stopping place. They took full advantage of the
exit path we had only recently cleared and thundered off through the
vegetation toward the eroded stone landscape in the distance. We
were left stunned where we crouched.
was just curious, but at that close a distance, things can go wrong
very quickly,” Ian offered some perspective to the group of
the thrill of avoiding death, the two-dozen people in our group let
out a sigh of relief and a nervous laugh. It didn’t quite
matter whether the rhino had been bluffing, we were starting to feel
we’d been brave. Our flop sweat began to dry in the Zimbabwean
sun and our legs strengthened underneath us again as we retraced our
steps back to the Jeeps. Ian opened a cooler that had been stashed
in the back, and we toasted to our lives over chilled, syrupy sodas
in glass bottles.
Bantu kings in northern Zimbabwe led their tribe in a pembera,
a ceremony to determine which warrior was the most heroic. The king
would dance, mimicking an aggressive rhino in order to challenge the
other men who might try to exert their power. Yet, the name of the
ceremony itself means dancing jubilantly because you are free from
harm. We had seen those terrifying steps up-close, it was time for
our own pembera.
Levinson is a PR Director in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to being
an avid traveler, she is passionate about writing, animals, film, and
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher