sabi sabi ranger stories

when the unexpected happens

I was taking a couple of guests on a guided walk down to the Sabie River, to go and look for a hippo pod that is fairly relaxed and allows some fantastic photo opportunities, when I had one of the above mentioned moments.

After having climbed down the steep sides, we entered the riverbed, which is quite wide, and sandy as the river meanders along its course down to the Indian Ocean. This is not an ideal habitat to find game as the dense vegetation and steep sides make it difficult for animals to access the water and easy for predators to remain hidden. Therefore finding the footprints of a male white rhino was, to say the least, surprising. I do know that Rhino and Pangolin (scaly ant-eater) cannot swim due to the fact that their skeletal structure does not allow for their head to be raised much above the horizontal, making swimming very difficult - if not impossible. So I was a little wary as to the whereabouts of the rhino because if he was blocked by the water and could not get through he would surely come back the way he came and I did not see any tracks leading out of the riverbed.

I climbed a rock to survey my surroundings and could not see a rhino in any direction, so concluded that he must have walked either up or down the riverbed and left it at another access point. It just so happened that his tracks to the water were along the same hippo run that I was going to use to get down to the hippo pod and we followed them to the water’s edge and I saw that the tracks went into the water. Now I was really baffled as the river is deep enough to submerge a Rhino in some places and there was no shallow crossing to the other side. Anyway, we carried on along the bank and I noticed some Red-billed Oxpeckers fly up out of the reeds on the other side of the river and wanted to get a closer look to see if they came off the backs of some Cape Buffalo that frequent river systems in Africa. We would have a really good sighting, as the rocks on my side of the river were tall enough to see over the reeds across the river. As we climbed up the rocks I saw that the Oxpeckers were sitting on the back of the Rhino whose tracks ended at the water. This fascinated me as Rhino are not associated with rivers, they do not swim and I had never seen tracks of one on the Sabie before.

The next moment the wind changed direction and the bull Rhino caught our scent and spun around looking for the humans that had disturbed him. White rhino are not known to be overly aggressive although their temperament can change very quickly and they can get dangerous without too much provocation. I was already on top of some rocks and knew that Rhinos are heavy and clumsy, and this one was on the other side of the river. I was not too concerned. The Rhino bounced around a little and then took off towards the river exactly the same as a hippo would when in danger, and crashed into the Sabie River. He was completely submerged and with two big lunges was out of the river on my side. Now I was worried as this Rhino had apparently already showed me he learnt how to "swim" from the hippo - what was stopping him from showing me how he had learnt how to climb rocks from the Klipspringers? Luckily he had lost our scent and so after a few moments of charging around he ran off up the bank and disappeared into the bush.

This astonished my guests and I and one of my guests even managed to get a photo to prove it. After that for about two months I regularly found spoor of a male white Rhino at the river but I never saw him again and I have never heard of or read of this phenomenon either. It makes you think but then again anything is possible.

Stef Winterboer

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