The fire softly crackled in front of me, occasionally throwing bright orange sparks into the air when the breeze caught it. I felt the warmth on my face as I stared up into the night sky, a busy canvas of extraordinary bright dots flickered above me and trails of shooting stars painted long glowing brush strokes. I focused my gaze back down to our camp, bodies cocooned in their sleeping bags surrounded the one side, and the game ranger on the other side was in a deep sleep underneath a large Mopani tree. I looked around into the blackness of the night, the fire blinding what little night vision I had and as I flicked my torch on for my 10-minute perimeter check, I saw them. Two pairs of yellow eyes lit up in the bush in front of me, their silhouettes looked slightly hunched over, roughly up to my waist in height and they were edging slowly closer. I felt my heartbeat accelerate as I got up from the fire and picked up a stone from the pile that we had collected before dark. The adrenaline was pulsing through my veins as I rushed over to the ranger and tapped his shoulder stirring him from his deep sleep, explaining the current situation. He got up, scanned the area with his torch and threw a rock just in front of the eyes. “What is it?” I whimpered, trying to sound as brave as I could. “Nothing to worry about.” He replied, his voice calm and steady. “It’s just the hyenas looking for the source of the smell of the meat that we cooked for dinner earlier. They won’t come in as long as you keep watch, I’ll stay up with you for the rest of your night duty.” It was day three of our five-day trek through Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park, otherwise known as the White Rhino Trail. I had jumped at the opportunity to embark on this adventure through the bush with five of my friends, no cellphone signal and of course the opportunity to be on foot within the wilderness. We had already altered our route due to a herd of elephants who proceeded to block our path. I had a situation during a previous night duty where a pack of hyenas chased a giraffe into our camp and I had also learned how to track spoor, identifying bird calls and star constellations. On day four, I woke up with light drops of drizzle caressing my face, echoing as they bounced against the fabric of my sleeping bag. The comforting smell of coffee was already permeating from the direction of the fire and despite the clouds above us, the rising sun was burning bright red as it reflected off the dusty African earth. After a cup of coffee so strong that it could kickstart a Boeing, we packed up our things and hoisted our heavily laden bags onto our backs. All the while, we were surrounded with sounds of grunts, moans, and yelps, yet off we went on our last full day of trekking through the open bush. Despite the gloomy weather, our spirits were high as the soft chatter of our group rose up above the trees. Lost in my own thoughts after a few hours of hiking, my daydream came to an abrupt halt when the lead ranger barked in hushed tones. “Stop!” He raised a firm hand and I peered out in front of the single file line ahead. That’s when I realized that we had almost blindly walked straight into a large female white rhino. And she appeared to not be in a mood for company. We took several silent steps backward, crouching beneath bushes and hiding behind trees. Yet despite our efforts, we were still visible thanks to our messy hair rising above the short shrubs and our large backpacks clumsily poking out from the sides of the trees. The rhino took a few steps towards the ranger, who was waving his arms around like a madman, trying to scare her off. Somehow, eventually, it worked. She turned away and walked off in the opposite direction. Later that afternoon, after setting up camp on a hilltop overlooking the entire valley below, we headed down to the shallow banks of the river below for a ‘bath’. We relished in the cool waters which provided us with refuge from the setting yet harsh sun and as we lay in the shallows on our backs staring up at the sky and listening to the birds chirping their evening songs, the ranger whispered to us to be silent. To our right a little further down the river, the very same female rhino was making her way in our direction for her evening drink. Despite her aggressive behavior earlier in the day, it seemed as though she was wanting to make peace as she calmly slurped up the water, or at least that’s what I imagined. I noticed that her thick hide bore battle scars and her soft eyes fixed on us. We lay in the waters next to her admiring her strength, her beauty, and her gentle demeanor. It was a moment shared between human and animal that would not be forgotten. As the setting sun bid farewell to another day in Africa, we sat at the edge of the cliff and watched the sky turn from orange to pink. The chirping of the birds had come to an end and the night songs of the insects had come to life, while the fire crackled in the background and my thoughts drifted away with the setting sun and the rising stars.
Join Nicole Eddy on a journey that's anything but tame as she hikes into the African bush.