email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOn Safari in Namibia's Rhino Land
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Earlier in the trip we had stalled our expedition for a day so the trackers could caravan into their village, Khowarib, for the funeral of Mannetjie’s uncle Josef, also a tracker for SRT, who died of tuberculosis, a complication of AIDS. (The HIV virus infects about 20 percent of Namibians.) The village was a bleak, dusty congregation of mud-walled huts, with one shop built of cinder blocks, around which the town’s young men gathered to drink cheap wine from the bottle. The trackers, with their company Land Rovers and pseudo-military uniforms in olive and khaki, commanded a certain respect in their hometown. For the final procession across the cemetery, the uniformed trackers carried the coffin. Before lowering their uncle into the dry ground, they asked me to take a picture of them.

Now, on the ninth day, when we had still not seen a rhino—or even a fresh rhino print—we took a layover day in the heart of Palmwag, where SRT runs commercial rhino-tracking expeditions. We loaded into Land Rovers and went driving. Five hours later we’d still not found a new track. It was getting hot. One of the vehicles got its third flat tire and would have to return to Palmwag Lodge for spares. We were becoming skeptical and frustrated. "I could be taking photos of naked girls in Cape Town right now," muttered the photographer. But then, as we sipped our tea in the shade, Dansiekie found a print.

We set out on foot after lunch, up a wide sandy wash. The wind blew in our faces—a good thing. Rhinos are nearly blind, but with acute senses of smell and hearing, they can detect intruders upwind and are then more inclined to charge first and ask questions later. Unlike its cousin, the white rhino, which congregates in groups and makes for easier viewing in Africa’s many game parks, the black rhino does not mix with other animals. (Both species are actually the same color: gray. "White rhino" is a misnomer from the Afrikaans word for "wide," which, once mistranslated by the British, led to the other species being called "black." Actually, the main physical difference is that the white rhino has a wide lower lip, useful for grazing grasses, while the black has a thin angular lip, better for browsing from tree limbs.)

We hurried a half hour through the desert. I was at a near run keeping up with Mannetjie, Dansiekie, and another camel team tracker, Gottlieb Tjitana, as they crisscrossed a riverbed, losing the track then finding it again. Suddenly Mannetjie ducked into a crouch and violently waved us behind the spiky limbs of a euphorbia bush.

There it was! Tucked into the shade of another euphorbia, 300 feet in front of us, were the massive haunches of a black rhino, asleep standing up, perfectly still. Mannetjie’s face broke into a grin, a glimmer of silver in his teeth.

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