by Sherelle Jacobs, The Telegraph, April 26, 2019
"Look how it has razored this off," my guide, Ian, whispered heatedly. He pointed to a twig that had been cut at a perfect 45-degree angle. The cleanness of the dissection stuck out proudly in the chaotic scribble of splintering foliage we were crawling through.
"A big animal has been browsing here," Ian continued, half-grinning with excitement, half-grimacy against the glare of the sun.
"You see this." He traced a line of dried mud going up the branch with forensic affection. "Rhinos often use their chest to push this bit down to get to the leafs at the top of the bush."
I was tracking black rhino at Phinda, a five-star private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal where several of the extraordinary creatures roam free. This experience at Phinda is so special because black rhino are a critically endangered species due to growing demand for rhino horn, particularly in Asia; this has caused the world's black rhino population to drop to under 6,000; humans who do get to see these rare animals in all their splendour are thus extremely privileged.
The tracking, which takes place on foot, isn't for the faint-hearted – participants are plonked in the middle of the savannah after all, albeit with the protection of armed and experienced rangers. But it’s worth the risk to banish that rumbling metal barrier between man and bush – the four-by-four.
We creeped on past the severed twig. Total silence was important and impossible. We cringed as the soles of our shoes cracked against the red, scorched ground, and thorns hissed against our shirts. The call of a solitary fish eagle – a drooping, lamenting yelp – only heightened the sense of suspense.
Ian stopped abruptly. He crouched to pick up soil with his hand. Then released. The particles did a whirling waltz in the direction of his torso, slightly dirtying his canvas shirt. He nodded his head. It was the answer he had been hoping for.
"As soon as the rhino smells us it’s all over," he said. "As long as the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, she shouldn’t catch our scent."
As we walked on, Ian constantly swished his head from side to side, visually scraping the surroundings for evidence of rhino. Occasionally he sniffed the air.
Tip-toeing along in with our dust-flecked shirts and bodies pumping with silent adrenaline felt like a world away from the cool luxuriousness of our living quarters at Phinda Mountain Lodge.
Think a traditional Zulu thatched hideaway hugging a steep hill charged with a supple breeze by day and swaddled in an aloe vera-infused mist by night. Yellow billed storks squeak like hinges above and inyala stalk nonchalantly through grounds. Inside, chandeliers made from strips of dark suede tumble from the ceiling; and public areas are decorated with Nguni fighting sticks and pots made from tightly weaved iLala palms.
My room had a roll-top bath and outdoor rain shower with views of the bush, as well as a private plunge pool perfect for sipping a G&T while squinting for elusive cheetahs in the savannah below.
Still, the thrills of life in a pampering five-star lodge paled in comparison with the buzz of actually being out in the savanna searching for rhino. Ian led us through blistering hot plains smattered with giraffes; we crossed streams trying not to disturb the dazzles of drinking zebras. Spookiest of all were our skulks through clots of forest, with mysterious rustlings and spiders' webs as elaborate as Michelangelo frescoes. More than an hour passed. I was beginning to reconcile myself with not spotting a black rhino at all. But then Ian suddenly stopped and smiled at the ground.
"Fresh rhino droppings!" he exclaimed. "They're warm. He hasn't gone far." Then we caught a glimpse of a scaly grey blob between two bushes. We crept towards it, hearts pumping. It partly turned towards us. We had the perfect view of its lip shaped like a drooping hook - an unmistakable trait of the rare black rhino. Time stood still. The rhino's wavy-spined body glistened dusty gold under the sun. Then it sped off leaving a trail of dust. "Ah, he probably smelled us because the direction of the breeze has changed," Ian sounded slightly stricken.
"Gone with the wind," I replied with a sigh.
Read the full review: &Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge
A four-hour rhino tracking experience costs ZAR 650 (£33) per person (for a maximum of six guests per group, not suitable for children under 16 years). Doubles at andBeyond Phinda Mountain Lodge from $543 (£409) per person per night, based on two guests sharing and including all meals and twice daily game drives.