Too Close to a Rhinoceros

Josephine Jones

© Copyright 2018 by Josephine Jones

Picture of a charging rhino.

Georgina had asked me, while we were sunbathing on the beach, if I would make a foursome, with Bob a friend of Frank's and herself for a weekend in a game park. It was soon after Frank and Georgina had met, at a hotel dance. He joked that he had picked her up. Then he had asked her out for a day trip. As a good friend, she replied that she had arranged to meet me, he suggested I went along and he would bring his friend. He and Frank were working as electricians in the Matchbox Company. The outing had gone very well. Frank was tall, dark and good looking but Bob was shorter than Georgina who was shorter than me. I was five foot five and a half.

As I looked at blood slides in work I kept having to keep thoughts of our impending trip out of my head. It was a losing battle. I had the opportunity to do what I was looking forward to doing. That was to visit an African game park and have the experience of seeing the exotic animals in the wild. I had already bought myself a small book, with the pictures and names of the animals in English and Afrikaans. Once 5 o'clock came I was ready to leave.

I hurried home along the beach promenade weaving my way through Africans. They walked merrily along, the men playing guitars and the women knitting. Midday they would sit or lie on the grass of the gardens and sleep. One girl in work said, “The Africans like to sleep stretched out on the pavements in the sun."

So I piped up, “I have not seen a single bench for blacks they are all marked blankes,” Afrikaans for whites, other races were niet blankes.

I quickly bathed, after cleaning the communal bath with my own Vim. As you never knew who had used the bath before you. I changed into a blouse and jeans, grabbed my over- night bag; ate dinner in the dining room. Then I was ready in the Hotel foyer to meet Georgina and get into Frank's awaiting car. Bob was already there.

The road was flat and smooth and we glided along. There were luxuriant, green sugar cane fields on either side. Then the sun set of yellow to orange to red filled the wide, open sky. Frank said, "African sunsets are the best in the whole wide world. None, that I saw when I travelled in Europe could rival this."

Bob was sitting next to me on the back seat, replied, "Well I've downed plenty of sundowners but I never see the sun set because I'm in some grotty bar. I'm really looking forward to this weekend. And to be in good company."

"Yes it's good to have nice female company, makes a change from all those drunken slobs we usually hang out with. There is so much to see in my wonderful country. It's a shame to spend it in a pub," said Frank

"You're right I only know the dock area of Durban and all the seedy joints," replied Bob in his melodious, Scottish voice.

We arrived at Empageni in the dark about 9.30 pm. It was approximately 100 miles North of Durban. Frank had reserved two rooms in the Imperial Hotel, one of two in the town. Georgie and I shared a comfortable room. After inspecting our room and emptying our bags we met up with the lads in the hotel bar. Frank and Bob's capacity for drink amazed me. As well as drinking vodka, made from Natal cane, at the bar, Bob had unloaded a crate, of beer bottles from the car, to take into their room. He was a little man but a big drinker. They never appeared drunk. In those days Georgina and I only drank soft drinks.
Georgie and I said our goodnights and headed off upstairs to bed.

We had all intended to get up early and miss breakfast but in the end decided to think of our stomachs first. The drive to the Game Reserve was through green, undulating ground with a few Marula trees not tall but their leafy branches form a wide umbrella giving shade to the animals. We passed native huts with straw roofs and mud walls. One barefooted African, riding a bicycle, stopped us for a match to light his cigarette, so Frank gave him a whole box. I imagine he got them free as he was working for the Match Box company. The poor man was as thin as a matchstick. He wore a faded red threadbare shirt.
I had expected the entrance to the reserve to be impressive but it was just a flimsy, wooden archway. Once inside we saw three donkeys, they just would not move off the road, until Bob got out and shooed them away. We called into the reception and paid 5 shillings a car for all of us to enter, even then it was cheap.We arrived at 11am, a little late for viewing, as it was hot, and animals like humans try and rest out of the sun. On the green lawn, at the camp reception, there was a tame Eland, a big, dark brown, buck that we stroked. The ranger told us that it was a spiral horned antelope had been bottle fed as he had been found as a kid, alone in the bush. Poachers must have shot his mother.

We drove for ages on rough, dirt road hot dry air came through the open car windows. It was the scent of Africa a mixture of plants and animals. Then we saw a herd of wart hogs, funny, dark, little animals that dash along with their tails held high some were babies.

"Oh, look," I shouted, " that looks like the neck of a giraffe, oh no, it's just a small trunk of a tree." Then luck was with us when we saw an actual giraffe as it lazily lifted up its long neck, with a small head with tiny horns, to feed from leaves on a young tree. It gave the impression of being a laid back gentle animal with a lazy movement in its fawn hide, with a pattern of dark splodges.

In the afternoon we hired a native guide for 5 shillings for 2 hours. Otherwise you were not allowed out of the car. He was smartly turned out in khaki shirt and shorts, and leather boots. We all wore sandals, not suitable for the bush. Frank was from Zululand so was able to speak to our guide in Zulu. He told us that this area of Hluhluwe - Umfolozi in Kwazulu-Natal Province used to be the hunting domain of the legendry Zulu King Shaka.

Many water holes and rivers had dried up .We looked into one and there was a movement in the murky water; lots of turtles or perhaps terrapins were swimming towards us, some tiny, others as big as garden tortoises at that time popular in Britain.

Our guide often looked down at the ground covered in dry grass looking for foot prints and spoor of different animals. He was able to show us a herd of grazing wildebeest. An animal, that has been around a million years. It has a heavy, brown front half marked with darker irregular stripes and has a horned long head. It is the size of a cow and belongs to the antelope family. It is also known as a gnu. Only familiar to me through one of Flanders and Swann song I'm a gnu. There were also Zebra grazing with them.

The walk was enjoyable but I was relieved when it was over. I did not like being so close to nature. I preferred to be at a distance from them preferably in a solid building or at least a vehicle. I could never have slept out, in a tent, in a game park. I was a bit like my sister-in-law who liked horses as long as they were the other side of the fence.
Then we drove on a good road through undulating scenery. We stopped in Mtubatuba in a comfortable hotel with a veranda where we enjoyed a sundowner as we watched the setting sun in the orange sky. We had a good steak dinner and an early night. It was tiring watching for animals to distinguish the imaginary from the real Frank owned the only pair of binoculars which we shared.

Sunday we arrived at the Reserve about No wasting time today. At the camp there had been a big notice. “ Beware of the Rhino.” We drove around gazing through the sparsely, wooded terrain. Chance would be a fine thing; we despaired of even seeing a Rhino. The reserve was known for its White or Square lipped Rhino, which, in those days, were rare. Now I believe the Black rhino is rare and there are more White Rhino thanks to the conservation work of the State run reserve. Then the game reserve had just sold a White Rhino to Whipsnade Zoo.

We drove slowly on the rough, stony tracks bordered by dry grass and a few thin trees.. Then at last we saw a rhino in front of us Georgina said, "Turn off the car engine so that it will come nearer." It continued towards us. Too near. We all wanted to move off; the car starter got stuck. Frank whispered, "I'm afraid we shall have to stay, as I dare not get out to lift the bonnet, in case the noise disturbs the animal." Next, it was passing along side our car. So we sat there holding our breath, still as statues. Bob at the back sitting next to me moved in closer as the Rhino was on his side of the car. We watched its massive, pre historic bulk move slowly alongside the car. Its eyes were tiny slits in a huge, long face, with two horns the lower one being the longest. I could see the insects on its loose, corrugated, grey hide. A bird had a free ride, as it fed on the insects, on its back. Then a cute little calf came trotting behind Mum. "Oh look," I exclaimed. Bob looked scared and put his finger in front of his mouth indicating for me to shut up. Then Mum crossed the road behind us and back into the bush and baby followed. We let out our breath.

Now we had to worry about getting the car started. Frank got out and opened the bonnet where the cranking handle was stored. Fortunately, he had the magic touch as he was able to turn the engine over by cranking it from outside the car. What a relief to move on. The small, old car was pale blue, now covered in brown dust.
"Why is it called a White Rhino when it is grey?" I asked.

Frank replied, "They say it is a corruption of the Afrkaans word weit, meaning wide referring to its jaw, not its colour. It has a wide jaw to enable it to pick up grass. The Black Rhino is also grey and eats tree branches and bushes it does not graze like the white rhino so has a smaller mouth."

Later we saw rhinos and calves they were part of a herd that came into view later. Like buses, once one comes several follow.There were two zebra at the side of the road and lots of beautiful delicate looking impalas belonging to the antelope family. They had glossy, reddish brown coats, a paler flank, and a white underbelly that showed, as they leapt in the air and danced through the countryside. While we were admiring the impala a small tribe of baboons were running along the road. One picked up a stone and threw it at the car. Fortunately, it missed but Frank put his foot on the accelerator before the rest followed suit.

Unfortunately we never saw elephants but for a short trip we had seen several animals including 13 White Rhinos for which Hluhluwe - Umfolozi Game Park was famous.

We had intended leaving at one o'clock but stayed until 5 p.m. returning to Durban about 9 p.m. We returned tired and filthy. Tired from sitting in a car that vibrated as it bumped along over rough tracks. We had strained our eyes to see animals that turned out to be tree stumps, rocks or clods of earth. Frank possessed the only pair of binoculars, that we all shared. We were filthy, from the dust, that penetrated everywhere in the car. The dust then stuck to our damp clothes that were pinned between us and the hot leather car seat. Our sandaled feet were also a dirty reddish orange. But it was a wonderful weekend just as I had imagined Africa.

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