Monday, May 13, 2013

The rhino story, part 2: Okaukuejo waterhole in Etosha National park, Namibia

I began wildlife watching as a kid, and I learnt very early is that its a good idea to be inconspicuous. This is relatively easy to achieve in terms of sound and sight, sense we humans understand and use the most. Everyone around that water-hole was cloaked by the bright lights and it was quiet as a concert hall. But it is easy to be too human and forget that all animals do not perceive the world as we do. There are other senses that are much more important to other animals; smell for instance.

Our noses aren't great. Many other animals absolutely rely on them however, and rhinos, with their poor eyesight, do. An apt name then. While the old man's cigarette didn't bother any human even a yard away, the rhino at the water probably did smell it. Then it probably also smelled the sweaty mass of humanity congregated around that waterhole.

As it turned out, the rhino did not react to the cigarette. I cannot recall if it even so much as lifted its head. And then, the couple got bored and left. Not for them this slow unfolding of events where not much happens; an animals bends its head to the water and drinks and then looks up and waits. Most often it hopes nothing will happen. But rhinos, big as they are, are afraid of nothing. In their mind perhaps there is muteness, or the hope tha another rhino, the right sort, the other sex, will come along.

As it happened, that imputed wish came true. The slow monotony was punctuated by a new arrival. Two tentative shadows appeared at the edge of the darkness. A big weighty ponderous one around which flitted another smaller, impatient form. A mother and her calf had arrived. They made their way down to the water's edge and calmly started drinking.

I cannot, for the life of me, remember what the male was doing when the two arrived. My attention shifted completely and I forgot about the male. All I've managed to piece together comes from my images and a few key moments are missing. I know that he did not stay at the water's edge the whole time but I think he remained within view. In the end, the male and female drank from the water a few meters from each other while the calf comfortably milled around. Both unperturbed by the presence of the other animal.

Incidentally. since I've not mentioned it yet, these are all Black rhinoceroses.

Eventually, perhaps after her belly was full, she looked up and made eye contact with the male. She left the water's edge and silently ambled towards the male. The male did the same thing. They stood snout to snout, and snuffled, not loudly. All this while the baby flitted about, unafraid and completely at ease. In the photograph below, you can see that he has left his mother's side and has gone over behind the male, a sign that he feels entirely secure in this situation. They stood like that, snout to snout, nearly motionless, at least a few minutes.

This was a scene straight out of the first episode of the latest BBC series, Africa. They had filmed rhinos socialising extensively at a waterhole at night, for the first time ever. I had not expected to encounter anything quite like it, yet, here it was. I had imagined it was an extremely rare and unusual occurence which the Africa crew had worked very hard to capture. I had merely turned up at a waterhole in Etosha along with a sea of humanity, no particular effort required. And yet there it was, a mother and calf rhino quietly and unthreateningly interacting with a male.

All the reports I'd read of African safaris said that seeing a rhino was a rare occurence. We got lucky; so far we'd seen not one but three and had even been lucky enough to observe some interesting behaviour. That said right at that moment, we weren't on 'safari'. We were stationary, at a waterhole, waiting and watching. The thing about being on an African safari is that you're on the move too much. You're driven for hours and hours, between place A and place B.Once you're in place B, you're on a schedule. Not on your own schedule, but that of the fastest or slowest person along and of the trip itenarary itself. This is not great for the way I like to photograph, familiarising myself with an area, its animals, returning and working it for the best possible shots.

But the best thing about being on safari is also that you move about a lot. We covered much of Namibia in 10 days. Its a large country, with an extremely varied and beautiful landscape. We drove through Etosha's scrub forest and salt pans, we drove through flat featureless salt-flats as we approached the Skeleton coast, the coast itself, we dipped and rose through the sculptural Damarralands and the Nauklufts and not least of all, through the Sossusvlei in the desert. That sort of broad sweep requires time or if you don't have that, a safari, where someone else does the heavy lifting and you're along for the ride.

The next time I go to Africa, would I do this again? Perhaps, if someone would gaurantee that the night of the rhino's would happen again and I know no one can. So its an odd answer, that says roughly I had an evening that outweighed any misgivings I may have had about a certain mode of exploring a place. You may or may not have that evening but then you may or may not have my misgivings.

Back at the waterhole, the two rhino's were done interacting. The male broke off first and went back to the water's edge. The calf richochetted between mum and her friend merrily. They don't gambol, rhinos, bit this certainly was a bucolic scence.

This scene changed suddenly, as suddenly as rhino's can change. With the inertia of something like an air-craft carrier the until now comfortable mother left the waters edge. The calf followed, this once sticking to her side. Whatever had scared her, would startle the bejesus out of us as well.

More soon.

Copyright © Natasha Mhatre If you're reading this without attribution to me anywhere other than at my blog Talking Pictures, its probably being plagiarized.

PS: I had very specific reasons for doing this safari and I enjoyed it and do not mean to slag them off. They are perfect for some needs, but I do think they bear thinking about, especially since so many of them are so expensive and in the end so insular. More on that too...


Samira said...

Hate these cliff hangers! :-P

Hopefully, I'll be making some experiences of my own in the Amazon in September. :-)

Natasha Mhatre said...

:) You sort of know how it ended, no one died ;). PS: Have fun at IBAC. I'm so tempted to come join you.