Oh dear: Rudi has thrown another wobbly. This time his tantrum is directed at a folding canvas bush chair that he is booting across the African desert. "Why can’t one goddamn bastard of a thing ever work as simply as it could?" he howls to no one in particular. The rest of us scrape stew from our bowls and watch the Southern Cross hover in the starry chaos. We have walked 125 miles across Namibia in the past ten days. We’re used to this. We make sure Rudi is nowhere near his shotgun. Someone pries open a tin of guava halves and we eat dessert.
It was meant to be a simple walk. Rudi Loutit, an African of French and Scottish parentage, worked this desert as a park ranger and wildlife researcher for three decades—a tenure that began 15 years before Namibia’s independence in 1990. Along with his late wife, Blythe, he founded Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), and their work has helped stall the black rhinoceros’s free fall toward extinction, a fate that 20 years ago seemed all but certain. Now at age 64, with the rhino population stabilizing and the Namibian government on the verge of declaring a vast chunk of habitat a permanently protected park, Rudi—a sort of Ed Abbey, Jane Goodall, and Crocodile Dundee combo—got the idea to go for a hike.
He would cross 155 miles of proposed parkland, a region known as Kunene, and survey the culmination of his life’s work, from the big-game savanna bordering Etosha National Park to the rocky badlands where the black rhino dwells, across the world’s oldest desert, the Namib, to the blinding dunes and foggy cliffs of the Skeleton Coast on the Atlantic Ocean. Even by the standards of Namibia, Africa’s second least densely populated country, this is remote territory. Kunene is bigger than Virginia but has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants. The two-week route would see no towns, paved roads, power lines, or, with the exception of a handful of huts, human-built structures. Which is the way Rudi likes it.
Like the black rhino, Rudi is a solitary creature who prefers hot, desolate voids and resents the intrusion of others. He browses a spartan diet, pays little mind to fads or current events, and would be quite happy to spend his days sipping from water holes and napping away the afternoon heat in the shade of the poisonous euphorbia bushes. For this trek, Rudi envisioned a bare-bones crew of scientists and trackers to survey the wildlife and a team of six camels to carry the load. They would move light and swift.
But then it got complicated. Impressed by what Rudi has achieved on a shoestring budget, the world’s best funded conservation group, the Nature Conservancy, gave SRT $100,000, finally allowing Rudi to work in five-year plans instead of six-month scrambles. The Namib trek would serve to launch their partnership publicly.
What this meant for SRT was a shot at the big time, international acknowledgment of its success, and vindication of Rudi and Blythe’s decades of uncelebrated labor. But what this meant for Rudi’s walk was one headache after the next.
The Nature Conservancy’s scientists would be uploading blog posts and video clips for the group’s members and donors, an undertaking that required laptops, power sources, and a satellite modem. The crew bloated to include a reporter (that’s me), a photographer, and a documentary filmmaker. Suddenly there wasn’t room for all this gear on the camels—the team was shorthanded, since one of the beasts had been eaten by lions. The trek would have to be supported by vehicles, and the roster swelled again, with four drivers, two cooks, and two camp hands. And for the kicker, one of the Nature Conservancy’s billionaire board members, along with his wife and grandson, was crossing the Atlantic in a private jet to join the expedition’s final leg, adding another two Land Rovers and four staff to the entourage. Rudi’s walk in the desert was beginning to look like the siege of Rum Doodle.
And so tonight, ten days into the trek, on the eve of the arrival of the world’s 707th richest person, news came that the Land Rover commissioned to haul all manner of senseless luxury items like ice chests and dinner tables some five hours across the desert had dropped a drive shaft and been temporarily abandoned. Rudi responded to this news by absolutely losing it. I mean losing it—bellowing to the skies with a stream of epithets scatological, anatomical, and blasphemous that could not be printed in this or perhaps any magazine. And now the guys from the Nature Conservancy, the ones who’d bankrolled this expedition, were approaching the panicked realization that perhaps Rudi was not quite ready for polite company, that the prickly traits that made a great desert conservationist were not the same as—indeed, might be the opposite of—those required for glad-handing benefactors and charming the media. Like the ungrateful rhinoceros that would just as soon puncture the gut of the wildlife biologist who wanders into its lair, Rudi could really screw things up here. Shucks to your media, shucks to your acclaim, and shucks to your philanthropy: Rudi of the Rhinos might just prefer to flee into his desert and be left the hell alone.
Touchdown on the Savanna
My first glimpse of Namibia knocked the wind from my lungs. After 48 hours and six flights, hallucinating mildly from jet lag and malaria pills while the guy behind me busily tapped on his BlackBerry, I looked out the window of the charter plane as it dropped toward a dirt landing strip in the middle of nowhere and saw a big gray thing loping across the sand. It was sort of like seeing a celebrity on the street. Omigosh, that big gray thing loping across the sand looks just like an elephant! Wait, it is an elephant! Then a handful of smaller, brown things chased after it, and with my confidence swelling from my elephant sighting, I blurted out, correctly: "Lions!" Staggering onto the hot tarmac amid the screams of crickets, I steadied myself and deduced: I must be in Namibia now.
We had arrived at Hobatere Lodge on the western edge of Etosha National Park, and before the sun set I’d been shuttled out to the plains to see zebras, springbok, oryx, and warthogs. I realize that in the pantheon of adventure, viewing animals from a vehicle ranks fairly low, but I was rapt nonetheless. In fact, I suggest that if upon hearing a herd of zebras thundering across the land, their gamey musk floating on the breeze, if a person does not feel some deep stirring of wonder and religion, then he lacks a soul.
I might have been pleased to spend a few days beneath the thatched roofs of Hobatere, where at every turn a handsome African in olive kneesocks and a crisp khaki shirt presented a tray of icy orange soda and cold beer. It was like wilderness, with waiters. But that was not my purpose here, and in the morning, with the sound of hornbills banging against the hut windows, we laced our shoes and loaded the camels and got ready to walk.
The expedition had been co-planned by M. Sanjayan, the Nature Conservancy’s 41-year-old lead scientist, a biologist of Sri Lankan birth who now lives in Montana for the fly-fishing. The crew included two more scientists, three media, and two guides: Gary Booth, 47, a garrulous Englishman, and his Spanish girlfriend, Susana Higueras, 45. Rounding out the team were four rhino trackers, local Damara, whose native language popped and clicked with the exotic sounds of the Bushmen.
We set off across the savanna and immediately came upon a zebra skull. Frogs were hopping in the mossy wet gravel of the wash. Wild cucumber sprawled on the dirt and seed pods snapped underfoot. A lone jackal ducked into the knee grass. Rudi found a pile of elephant dung and said, "Ah, the old man’s been here." Everything was promising.
But the seeds of Rudi’s annoyance were sown early. The daily walks, estimated at a dozen miles, were hot dawn-to-dark marches and stretched upwards of 20. This might not have mattered, but we reporters and scientists, 20 or 30 years Rudi’s junior, turned out to be slow hikers. On the first night, a few clicks short of camp, one of the camels spooked and bolted into the night with the laptops and the modem. The big rains had carpeted these plains with belly-high grass whose seeds turned our legs into pincushions, and the abundance of water let the elephants and rhinos lie low in the hollows instead of congregating at the water holes where we could see them. Not that we had much energy for wildlife viewing. When on day two someone pointed out to me a pack of baboons perched on a band of granite, I gazed on through my binos but couldn’t convince the exhausted others even to break stride to have a look. The scientists had blisters and had performed little science. The photographer was bleeding from where his toenail used to be and complained that the light was too harsh. Susana had banged her knee and was hobbling with a stick, and Gary was blinded in one eye by hay fever. As for me, I had a bloody nose and a rash creeping up my calves and understood why backpacking has not gained a foothold in Africa. Everyone was hooked on ibuprofen and Claritin.
Except for Rudi. With a weather-beaten Gallic nose and the leathery face of a legionnaire, he was suited for this terrain. He emerged from his tent each morning at dawn, right as rain, his toothpick legs inserted sockless into calf-high canvas boots with wide tears along the gussets. No hat, no sunglasses, just a short-sleeve safari shirt and a shotgun on his shoulder loaded with four shells. "For the lions," he said. "One up front for noise, two with bird shot, and the fourth with ball bearings to stop him."
Rudi hiked with two military canteens in a canvas rucksack but rarely drank water, instead pouring it into a large, scuffed plastic dog bowl. "Tsotsi, boy, would you like to lighten my load?" he asked one of his parched Dalmatians that trotted at his side. "Drink some water, chap. I’d be most relieved."
As we waded hip-deep through the grass, dragonflies humming overhead and grasshoppers fluttering at our ankles, Rudi identified the plants in Latin, noting that it was too difficult to keep track of their common names in the three European languages—English, German, and Afrikaans—that are spoken in Namibia. We hiked to a creek that Rudi hadn’t seen flow in 19 years. The camels were stunned—it was the first time they’d experienced running water—and they knelt in the stream and attempted to roll over. Rudi held forth on a wide variety of topics, such as the problem with off-road car tourism in his beloved desert: "Southern Africans are naturally lazy bastards. We drive everywhere. We’re spoilt. Most come up here in their Land Rovers and think, It’s the old colony, and we’ll screw it once more for old times. The land gets used for 20 years, and then it’s buggered, and no one wants to come anymore."
Rudi’s short supply of tolerance for us quickly ran dry. On the third day, the cameraman got separated from the group after lunch, and when we all arrived at camp that night, he was not among us. "If he gets back he’ll have no dinner," Rudi announced. "And he can f— off to his tent." He stalked around the campfire barefoot in his field coat and shorts, cursing, sipping single malt from a plastic mug. It was getting dark. We were in lion country and a man was lost. A round of blame-laying ensued, and now Rudi exploded. "I make all the bloody decisions from here, and pity the f—er who steps out of line—I’ll blast him with the bloody shotgun!"
Gary and the trackers headed out in Land Rovers to search for the cameraman, and as the rest of the group sat around the fire, Rudi’s mood lightened. "The thing that really worries me is that we’ll have to hear Gary tell the story," he said, allowing a craggy smile, his eyes twinkling in the firelight, "and we’ll be up all night. When he comes back, Susana, why don’t you poke out his other eye?"
Into the Big-Game Grasslands
Just as the black rhino is a holdover from previous times—the Eocene epoch some 55 million years ago that heralded the ascent of modern mammals—so is Rudi an anachronism, belonging to the British colonial period of the early 1900s, in which sunburned, swashbuckling chaps roamed the African wilds for adventure. He complains about how pampered people have become, citing a volunteer who arrived from London and immediately demanded new linens on her bed, and email. "This is the bush," he told her. "We don’t have that stuff here." Our lunch rations consisted of sardines in tomato sauce, tins of Bully Beef (the corned beef that Brits ate in the trenches of Gallipoli), biscuits, and apples. On day six we crossed the grasslands through a string of green valleys teeming with oryx, zebras, springbok, and giraffes. We drank directly from pools and springs. No matter the day’s heat, Rudi had the chaps boil a kettle on a campfire and took his afternoon tea with two spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of canned condensed milk.
Indeed, Rudi’s life story could have been written by the author of boys’ adventure books. He was born on a ship off the coast of Africa at the height of World War II. His Scottish mother was fleeing France, where his French father had just been killed in combat. When the boat docked at Cape Town, Rudi became, by default, a citizen of South Africa, which was still a member of the British Commonwealth. To this day he says he knows nothing of his father or whether he has relatives in France. Of his parents’ marriage he says only, "He was a frog and the war came and screwed it all up."
Rudi grew up among the British on the southern cape as the character of the country was changing. In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party swept into power and began instituting apartheid, and in 1961 South African whites voted to become an independent republic. Rudi resented the Afrikaners and being forced to learn their language. After getting a degree in accounting and finishing his mandatory military service, he traveled to Europe. But holding a passport from what he called "the most hated nation on the planet," he wasn’t allowed to work abroad and couldn’t enter many countries. His application for British citizenship was denied. He returned home to South Africa hoping to support his aging mother. In the early 1970s he met his wife, Blythe, another British South African, and they moved to Angola, looking to settle in what was then a Portuguese colony. She was a free-spirited botanical artist, three years his senior, who’d grown up on a farm and longed for open spaces and wilderness. But when the Cuban-backed revolution erupted in 1975, most whites beat a hasty retreat from Angola, and Rudi and Blythe crossed the border into South-West Africa, now Namibia, which was then a remote territory of South Africa. Rudi joined the wildlife ministry as a ranger at Skeleton Coast Park, a career that would last 30 years.
It was then, and is now, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, a barren stretch of coastal desert hemmed in by constant fog on one side and sand dunes on the other. The Bushmen called it "The Land God Made in Anger," a place littered with the wrecks of ships lost in the fog, a hell for marooned sailors, who could walk for days without encountering shade, water, food, or people.
But Namibia’s uselessness for humans has proved the savior of its wildlife. It has been inhabited by various nomadic tribes for centuries, but due to its lack of water—there are no year-round rivers in the country’s interior—the settlements have remained small. Its brutal coasts deterred European settlers, and the first colony was not founded until the late 19th century by Germans. Realizing that this wasteland, more than twice the size of their home country, allowed only the most hardscrabble ranching, in 1907 they put a positive spin on it by creating an enormous national park from the savanna of Etosha to the Skeleton Coast. Encompassing 38,500 square miles, it was the world’s largest game reserve.
It turned out to be a perfect home for Rudi and Blythe. Rudi loved its wild emptiness. More than once he was stranded in the dunes when his vehicle broke down, and he tells of hiking all night, then sleeping away the midday heat lying facedown in the sand. Hundreds of miles from the government in Pretoria, rangers were left to their own devices—Rudi kept out the illegal dune buggies by blasting over their heads with an automatic rifle—and his relations with his Afrikaner superiors might be characterized as chilly.
"I didn’t give a shit who the government was," he told me. "Some pricks in parliament determined who we reported to. I could just do my best for the animals and habitat. That was my vocation."
A Detour Into Palmwag
Mannetjie needed a cigarette. The lead rhino tracker had not brought enough tobacco for two weeks. Now after eight days he had to ration. He walked out in front of the group with a .375 elephant gun slung over his shoulder, his bush dog, Lens, at his side, blazing a route for the camels and scouting for lions. We had crossed one of Kunene’s only highways, two lanes of graded gravel running south to north, and now we’d entered Palmwag, where the terrain dried out into a cobbled desert. The tall green grasses were replaced by ankle-high dead brush, and the towering mopane trees gave way to overgrown shrubs and the thorny fingers of the euphorbia bushes, where the rhinos nestled for afternoon shade.
Chief among Mannetjie’s tasks today was finding midday cover for 13 humans. Far in the distance he saw a green dot, either a euclea tree or a salvadora, and led us toward it. For an hour or so the dot got bigger, and Mannetjie walked over to inspect it. First thing was to send in Lens. Then Mannetjie circled the tree widely to see what other species were enjoying the scarce shade. As a final precaution he lobbed a few rocks into the thicket to scare up anything that was sleeping. Then, and only then, did he bring in the people and camels. His head ached for caffeine and nicotine, so he gathered deadwood for a fire for the teapot, and then pinched a precious bit of tobacco from his pouch, spread it into a square of torn newspaper, and rolled a smoke.
Mannetjie’s given name is Ludwig Ganaseb, but he is universally called by his Afrikaans nickname, which rhymes with "panicky" and translates as Little Man. At 44—five years shy of the age at which the average Namibian dies—he is the patriarch of the SRT trackers. He learned the skill from his father, who was a rhino poacher, and 16 years ago he was among the first trackers hired by Blythe and Rudi. The job then as now is straightforward: find rhinos. He follows their footprints, their scat, and the telltale broken branches and stomped grass. Over the years he has logged thousands of sightings, and for each that he successfully photographs, he gets a bonus. (Every rhino in the Kunene is named, and Mannetjie knows many by sight. He even recognizes some by a distinctive footprint—a cracked heel or a bent toe.) For each sighting, the crew marks the location with a GPS, records size, health, and ear shape on a pad of paper, and later enters the information in a database. The paperwork is left to the younger trackers who as boys went to school, because Mannetjie himself does not read or write, nor does he speak English.
Mannetjie and his crew—which includes his younger brother, Hans, 30, his nephew Dansiekie, 23, and another Damara named Abner Naseb, 25—are used to patrols of two weeks or longer. But this time Mannetjie underestimated his tobacco appetite. All these cameras in his face, questions from the reporters translated by his nephew, and still no rhinos. The big rains had allowed the rhinos, which can survive four days without drinking, to avoid regular water holes. Now with six more days to go, Mannetjie had not produced a single rhino and had nearly run out of cigarettes.
Mannetjie had seen his share of danger on the job. Once he was tossed by a rhino, then trampled by its calf. Another time he and Hans and Dansiekie were treed by a she-lion. "The others began to pray to Jesus to save us," he recalled, "but I told them to be quiet, or else maybe other lions would hear us." Telling the story through a translator, Mannetjie made sure I understood that the slender tree was doing just fine supporting his weight and Dansiekie’s, and it wasn’t until Hans—tubby, laconic, often the butt of good-natured kidding—began climbing that the tree sagged dangerously close to the lion and they had to flee. Luckily the cat sped after her cubs instead of them.
On this trip, rather than tracking rhinos, Mannetjie’s crew had been tracking a runaway camel and the lost cameraman, who they found two hours after dark, waving his flashlight atop a mountain. They also spent an afternoon fighting a wildfire, after someone accidentally ignited the brush grass while burning toilet paper. As they beat the fire with blankets and shirts, and doused it with water jugs, the situation looked hopeless. A hot wind whipped over the prairie, an endless sea of tinder. But somehow they smothered it before it burned out of control.
All that said, it’s a good job. The pay is better than the national average, and it includes a food ration not just for the trackers but for their families, as well as accident insurance and a pension. In the space of one generation, the Damara social structure has been pretty thoroughly upended, traditional agriculture replaced by a commodity economy, with the younger generation coveting cell phones and cars.
"Mannetjie’s the last of the generation that lived the old way, off the land," Rudi told me. "They had beautiful gardens, and now it’s completely shagged. And probably because some white bloke came in and told them, This is rubbish, you should grow tobacco as a cash crop. But what the hell are they going to spend money on out here? He should have been taken out back and shot, or had tobacco stuffed up his ass till it came out his ears."
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.
We wanted to go closer, and so Mannetjie directed us up to the next bush, ducking to stay hidden, like unarmed soldiers on an ambush, or maybe more like bumbling cartoon characters. Then up to the closest bush, a mere hundred feet from the beast. And now the wind died. The rhino turned and looked our way, and we hid behind the bush. In my binoculars I saw the drool dripping from its chin. We were perfectly still. It looked toward us, sensing our presence but unable to see us or be sure what we were.
This standoff lasted minutes. Finally a click of a camera shutter sounded, and the rhino pricked its ears. It took a few steps toward us. Dansiekie tapped our shoulders and motioned for a retreat. As we scuttled away, crouching low to stay out of the beast’s vision, I heard—or imagined I heard—the stomping of hooves, and suddenly I rose out of the crouch and found myself sprinting across the desert, my heart pounding, aware of a small voice in my head saying, Get this: You’re sprinting away from a rhino in the African desert. How cool is that? Finally in the relative safety of another euphorbia, I wheeled around and saw that I had not imagined the stomping hooves. Indeed, the rhino was running—but instead of chasing us he was angling away, the desert seeming to quake beneath the heavy thud of his feet, and off he went, fast, much faster than a human can run, off toward the horizon, dropping into a wash and out of sight.
Mannetjie had not stopped smiling. Now, finally, he produced a scrap of newspaper from his pocket and, emptying his tobacco pouch, rolled his last cigarette.
Across the Namib Desert
"I’ve seen them pivot on one foot like Rudolf Nureyev," Rudi told me. His eyes get wistful when he talks about rhinos, even the one who charged him, slashing toward his belly with its horn. By now we’d left Palmwag and climbed over an escarpment into the heart of the Namib. Beneath our feet were chips of red basalt gravel, all sand and vegetation long since scoured by the wind. We set out early in the morning across the grassless flats, more barren than any desert I’ve seen in the United States. Without any contours or cliffs for shade, without a single bush taller than my knee visible in any direction, I walked with the vague stirrings of panic in my gut, knowing that as the temperature reached the mid-90s, if a person got separated here and ran out of water, he’d be dead pretty quickly.
The Namib is the world’s only desert where in the past hundred years there have been no extinctions among big animals such as rhinos, elephants, and lions. But Rudi’s career as a park ranger coincided with one of the most cataclysmic rushes toward extinction of any species in history. In just over three decades, the population of black rhinos in Africa dropped more than 90 percent, from some 100,000 in 1960 to 2,410 in 1995. The main culprit was poaching. Rhino horns were fetching as much as $60,000 a kilo, sold usually to the Chinese for their supposed medicinal properties or to the Yemenis to be carved into ornate knife handles. In illustrating the difficulty of convincing locals to choose conservation over poaching, Rudi likes to point out that SRT’s annual budget is less than the price of five black market rhino horns. By the time Rudi and Blythe arrived in South-West Africa in the seventies, the number of black rhinos in Kunene had plunged from approximately 250 to 55.
As we crossed this shimmering expanse, low ridges receding in the far distance, we came across a pile of rhino dung. Then a set of tracks: massive three-toed dinosaur footprints like blocky stamps of a stone-carved fleur-de-lis. Mannetjie judged that the animal had passed through just hours before. In such a bleak spot it was hard to imagine anything living here. But an hour later Mannetjie and the photographer stumbled across the rhino napping against a salvadora tree, and when the rest of us caught up, they showed us photos of this unlikely desert survivor.
"I’m chuffed to see him so fit and healthy," Rudi said. "He’s probably just traveling through."
Kunene is now the only place in Africa where black rhinos do not live exclusively in a protected reserve. Over the years, the gigantic park that the Germans created was split into two—one inland at Etosha, and one on the Skeleton Coast. The land in between was parceled into various administrative entities and decommissioned as a game reserve. With a lack of oversight, it became prime hunting ground for rhino poachers.
In 1982, sensing that the South African government was uninterested or unable to combat poaching, Rudi and Blythe founded Save the Rhino Trust. With Rudi working full-time as a ranger, Blythe ran the show, and her gentle warmth endeared the group to funders, press, and community leaders. Their first mission was to stop the poaching, and they hired local Damara like Mannetjie’s father to serve as unofficial wardens. They immediately nabbed a handful of poachers, but their work was countered by political instability. Throughout the eighties, the rebel South-West Africa’s People’s Organization (SWAPO) was clamoring for freedom from South African apartheid and receiving arms from allies to the north in Angola. The South Africans halfheartedly responded by distributing guns to the Damara and Himba people, in hopes that they would fight a proxy war with the Angolans. But according to Rudi, these guns were instead used for shooting rhinos and other big game. As apartheid collapsed, the South African security forces began to withdraw, and poachers had a free-for-all. In 1989, 33 rhinos were killed in a three-month period.
When Namibia won its independence in 1990, Rudi discarded his South African passport and became a citizen of the place where he’d lived for 15 years. But independence brought new problems. Under apartheid the wildlife ministry, like most African bureaucracies, was staffed by whites; the new government sought to fill these posts with blacks, many of whom had less experience.
In the old days, tribal communities—which are similar to Indian reservations in the United States—were not allowed to have guns, and when they wanted meat, a warden would hunt for them. These hunters knew not to shoot the stallion of the zebra pack or the alpha female. These days, says Mannetjie, the hunting is done by local agencies that don’t follow these basic rules.
While many of Rudi’s colleagues quit or were forced out, he stayed on. But with the ministry in disarray, SRT had to pick up the slack. And it has been largely successful, witnessing no poaching since 1994. While black rhinos continue to decline in places, here in Kunene their numbers have increased from 55 to 160. In 2003 the total number in Africa had climbed to 3,600: roughly 1,200 in Namibia, 1,200 in South Africa, 500 in Zimbabwe, 450 in Kenya, and the rest scattered across Tanzania, Swaziland, and Botswana.
In 2004, when Rudi retired from the ministry ("They chuck you out when you’re 60"), it seemed that his work was largely finished. But then, the next year, two tragedies struck: His beloved wife died of cancer, and a 32-year-old British researcher, Mike Hearn, whom he’d groomed to take the reins of SRT, died in a surfing accident. Grieving, Rudi had to carry on more or less single-handedly, meeting operating costs with the help of Utah-based Round River Conservation Studies. He considered shutting down altogether.
But still there was work to be done. While it was true that rhinos had increased in Kunene, there was as yet no permanent protection of the habitat. It could be developed at any time. Which is why Rudi and many Namibians—including the country’s founding president, Sam Nujoma—want to reestablish the region as a park. It may seem odd in a country that is so freshly rid of its colonial yoke to be longing for a land-use policy adopted by the Europeans in 1907, but Rudi is quick to point out that Kunene People’s Park will be hat is, the local communities are creating it voluntarily, rather than having it forced upon them by the government. Ideally, the tribal communities will decrease the amount of cattle grazing and replace the lost income with low-impact tourism, such as the rhino-tracking safaris that SRT sponsors, thus providing jobs in an economically bleak part of the country.
So Rudi labors on, hoping to nudge his former bosses toward an official proclamation. The latest outrage? Buoyed by the recovery of the rhino in Etosha and Kunene, the ministry is considering selling five commercial rhino permits to hunters, with the proceeds funding further conservation. Rudi is apoplectic. "If the government is poaching, what message does that send to the poor buggers who’ve been told not to poach?" As for the revenue: "How can you tell the money goes to conservation? Maybe it goes to buy a Land Rover for some game warden and he does f— all with it except drive around the missus and go to the booze shop."
Finally, he’s getting some help. A few years back, a Nature Conservancy board member visited Rudi and wrote a check to cover his annual compensation of $25,000, freeing Rudi to work on the implementation of the park and other projects, instead of scrambling to pay his own salary. And now, of course, the Nature Conservancy is sponsoring this trek.
When I asked how he would cope with the media attention that would come with the newfound support, he mused for a moment. "I’ll have something made up in neon for my house," he said, then broke into a smile. "It’ll say: F— off and die." But before that day came, he would have to deal with the arrival in the desert of another board member, which is what caused Rudi on that star-filled night to be kicking a bush chair across the Namib, four days’ walk from the Atlantic Ocean.
A Dip in the Skeleton Coast
When the 707th richest man in the world finally arrived, it was well past dark. He was Roberto Hernández-Ramírez, a Mexican banker and philanthropist, and the vehicle bringing him and his family across the desert had gotten lost and was delayed. For the past ten nights we’d eaten bowls of porridge and stew around the campfire, but now we were to be served three-course dinners at a banquet table, perched atop a high point in the barren desert. The new arrangement was slow, and Rudi got tired of waiting. He cooked a pot of baked beans and Bully Beef on the fire and ate it sitting on the tailgate of his truck. By the time dinner was called, he was nestled under the stars in his bedroll with his three dogs, sipping the day’s final cup of hot tea.
The next day we dropped into a canyon dotted with greasewood, then emerged onto high flats from which we saw the dunes of the Skeleton Coast undulating in the west like a silver mirage. The desolation seemed to improve Rudi’s mood, and by lunch he was charming the Hernándezes, collecting tiny flowers and spinning yarns and telling jokes.
Turns out he’s something of a softy after all. He told me about the time when as a game ranger he was required to shoot an elephant that had trampled someone. "Afterward I went behind a tree and cried like a kid," he said. "It’s like shooting your grandfather." Another time he was knocked off his horse by a she-lion, cracked his skull, and had blood pouring over his eyes, and even then, facing off with the cat, he was unable to shoot it. "She hadn’t done anything to me."
It’s even possible that Rudi is mellowing with age. "When you live in Africa, you know you will never be rich, not in money," Rudi said, as we walked under the withering sun. "But we have a clean lifestyle. Everything we need. I have a small pension. My house is paid off. I have my health. And because of my Blythe’s work I have all these contacts in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s nice to know they care."
Once we reached the dunes, the ocean breeze cooled the air, and on the horizon the Skeleton Coast’s famous fog bank crested over sandy ridges. Splotches of rust rippled over the golden powder. Some dunes were too steep for the camels, and we wove an easier path over saddles.
For two weeks of sweating in the sun I’d been daydreaming about plunging into the ocean and lying on a beach, but the thick mist did not beckon. I suppose when I learned we’d be finishing in a national park, I was expecting the Yosemite Lodge. But here there was just a gravel road with sections washed out by the big rains and a lonely pump house with waterlines leading to the distant airstrip and fish camp. A rickety hand-painted sign forbidding vehicles from the beach flexed in the wind. "I made that sign," Rudi noted. "Must have been 1986." A small delegation met us on the beach, including the governor of Kunene, who, it turns out, once worked with Rudi on a conservation project.
Rudi had reached the sea, and the finale was somewhat underwhelming. A quick tumble in the chilly water was all we could stand. Just as we were dripping dry in the mist, the camels decided they’d had enough of the thundering waves and retreated in a stampede, backpacks dropping from their saddles as they ran.
Watching the Atlantic crash over the cobble shore, I wondered whether Rudi’s complaints—the ministry, the government, the problem with people today—were less about policy than about the dread all of us face that times are changing too quickly, that there is no longer a place for the likes of us. He told me once about one of the last things Blythe said to him before she died: "‘I can’t relate to this world anymore,’ she told me. Sometimes I feel that way too." For Rudi each rhino saved is not just a blow against that species’ extinction, it’s also one hard kick against his own mortality.
I thought of the moment a couple of days earlier in the most desolate stretch of the Namib, where we’d come across that lone rhino, trotting God knows where. Rudi had crouched on the pebbles and laid down his shotgun and drunk a sip of water. "But some-times you have to ask," he said, "Why does he live out here?" He stood up and slapped the dust from his hands. "Maybe it’s some horror in his past." And with that he shouldered his gun and continued across the desert.