Saturday, September 13, 2014

Damaraland: Tracking the Elusive Black Rhino

We spent our final two days in Damaraland at the Grootberg Lodge.  The lodge is spectacularly situated on the edge of a large plateau, with views (and a precipitous drop) into the valley below.

The entrance to Grootberg is perched at the top of the Grootberg pass.  It was quite the accomplishment for our Nissan to make it to the top of the pass, but there was more!  Turning in at the sign for the lodge, we saw a steep dirt road winding up to the top of the plateau.  As we pondered whether this was a suitable road for the car, a man rushed out of a small hut waving frantically at us.  After a short discussion, we quickly realized that the road to the hotel was only for 4x4s and we needed to leave the Nissan at the foot of the hill.  Climbing to the top in one of the lodge’s Land Cruisers, it was clear that our SUV never would have made it.

Grootberg is owned by the =Khoadi-//Hoas Conservancy, which is comprised of members of the local community.  If you’re wondering what the unusual symbols in the conservancy’s name mean, they represent different clicks.  The local dialect is part of the family of languages that incorporates clicks and other sounds into its phonetics.

The conservancy encompasses a vast swath of land, not just the lodge.  On our drive to Grootberg, we had stopped the car to see a few friendly giraffes.  We were a bit surprised when a local pulled over to ask how we were enjoying the sight – he noted that he owned the giraffes.  We puzzled over this giraffe ownership for the rest of our drive, as they seemed to be wild.  However, this assertion was repeated to us as we were checking in – the receptionist noted that as a member of the conservancy, he was an owner of the lodge, the land, and the animals roaming through it.  We learned that the poaching and encroachment by farms had seriously depleted the animal populations in the area.  The conservancy has replenished the stocks of animals and created an environment for more animals to return to the area.  Since it’s a community venture, everyone feels that the animals are “theirs” and they take responsibility for them.  Click here to learn more!

Not surprisingly, one of the most heavily poached animals in the area was the black rhino.  One of Grootberg’s main activities is rhino tracking, which we were eager to experience.  We had seen white rhinos in Kruger and Hluhluwe, but no black rhinos, which are more widespread, but typically more elusive.  The conservancy reintroduced black rhinos to the area and there are now 13, each roaming the large territory on its own.  The conservancy members keep track of their resident rhinos and protect them from poachers. 

Like many things on our trip, the possibility of spotting a black rhino made it worth waking up before 5 am.  At least Namibian daylight savings means that the sun has been rising a bit later.  With no sign of the sunrise and the full moon lighting up the sky instead, we set off in an open-air Land Cruiser with three other couples. We were told that rhino tracking could be quite consuming, and might take all day.  We took a circuitous, winding route into the valley below us, bumping our way along the narrow track amidst thorn trees, and over dry riverbeds and large chunks of basalt.  As the sky gradually became lighter, we could see the lodge in the distance, perched on the edge of the plateau.   Although no rhinos were immediately sighted, we did find some extremely photogenic giraffes at the top of one of the passes.

Soon enough, our guides pointed out both rhino tracks and droppings.  Giorgio, also a rhino tracking expert, pointed out the signature circle that rhinos use to mark their territory.  Coming to a halt, one of the guides told us there was a rhino on the hill in the distance.  After spending a significant amount of time peering through our binoculars, we finally spotted it.  We are always amazed by the guides’ uncanny ability to spot animals at a distance without binoculars.  Rhinos, for example, tend to blend in with the rocks and black rhinos browse in areas with trees, which often block them from view.  Our version of "Where's Waldo" can be found below, try to find the rhino!

Along with our German traveling companions, we gathered around our guide for rhino tracking instructions.  We quickly came to the conclusion that Raymond, our guide from the Napi Trail in Kruger, would not approve of the proposed rhino tracking expedition.  For one thing, not a single guide was carrying a rifle just in case.  Furthermore, we did not receive an intense lecture insisting that we stay close together no matter what.  Finally, our group was quite large – four guides and 16 tourists.  Regardless of safety, we began to troop en masse toward the rhino. Rhinos have quite good hearing (but poor eyesight) and we must have sounded like a herd of elephants.  No one else got the memo that it’s better to be silent while on foot tracking big game. 

Nearing the rhino, the guides gestured for us to stop and get a better view.  Eventually, even the stragglers, for whom walking at a leisurely pace over a few rocks was too much of a workout, joined us.  We later learned that we were watching Elizabeth, one of the first two rhinos reintroduced to the area.  (The other is Hans Otto.)  Elizabeth was unimpressed with us and slowly traversed the steep hillside in the opposite direction.  We were happy that she did not decide to charge directly at us instead (like the rhinos in Kruger).

The guides told us that it usually takes several more hours on foot to find a rhino and we had been lucky to spot one from the car.  With our tracking complete, the guides took us on a game drive through a large swath of the conservancy.

We have just finished exploring Etosha National Park and are on our way east to Botswana via the Caprivi Strip.  More updates soon!


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