Eve Levinson

© Copyright 2021 by Eve Levinson

Photo of three rhinos.

This 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.

Ian 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 worth.

We 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.

We 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 some trees.

It 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.

Watching 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.

As 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.

Ian 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.

But 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.

At 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 uncompromising whisper.

Don’t move.”

There 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.

In 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.

They 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.

The 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.

She was just curious, but at that close a distance, things can go wrong very quickly,” Ian offered some perspective to the group of naïve westerners.

After 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.

Traditionally, 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.

Eve Levinson is a PR Director in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to being an avid traveler, she is passionate about writing, animals, film, and photography.

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