I wrote this post as part of the #JustOneRhino travel bloggers campaign to support the Rhinos Without Borders initiative. The campaign is now over, the donation period has ended and travel prizes have been awarded. So I've removed those details from the bottom. You can still support the Rhinos Without Borders project directly.
It's been my immense privilege and pleasure to see both white and black rhinos in the wild in Africa. They are, to me, one of the most prehistoric-looking mammals on the planet. It's hard for me to call them "attractive," but rather, "fascinating." Utterly. Amazing creatures, and amazing survivalists.
Almost every day while I was volunteering taking census data in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa in 2010, I ran into a rhino, and usually more than one. All of my most heart-pounding adventures on foot were courtesy of rhinos. I think probably my fingerprints are still embedded in the skin of the ranger's forearm from the day when a black rhino charged a small group of zebra, who scattered, and then headed for the two of us. My ranger was, in the most literal sense, gripped by fear -- not because he was afraid but because wide-eyed, terrified me was gripping him so tightly. Clearly, we survived, but not before I lost about a pound in sweat.
Black rhinos are notoriously cranky and capricious. Though they are a bit smaller than white rhinos in body size, their ill temper can project them into more intimidating creatures. The difference between white and black rhinos has nothing to do with color, but mostly with body shape and eating habits. Black rhinos, such as the fellow below (in Etosha NP, Namibia) have a smaller, rounder head and a slightly prehensile upper lip; they are browsers, meaning they eat mostly leaves from low-growing bushes and trees. Their lip can grasp the branches so they can better strip the leaves.
White rhinos, on the other hand, are grazers ... they eat mostly grasses and have a longer head -- positively colossal -- with a very wide square upper lip ... I think of it kind of like a front loader, helping shovel in those short grasses off the ground. These are the guys I ran into most often while walking through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi NP (HiP) in South Africa. Rhinos taught me how difficult it can be to obey orders from a ranger who is telling you not to move when all your adrenaline-soaked body wants to do is run like hell. Because rhinos have poor eyesight, it's best to stand still and pretend to be a tree unless you can find an actual tree to climb. Let me just tell you, you really have to fight your impulses to stand there and stare down a snorting multi-ton creature with a three-foot horn pointed at you. But when you do ... oh my, what exhilaration.
HiP is responsible for bringing back the white rhino population from nearly beyond the "brink" of extinction -- like, the rhinos were circling the drain with one foot already in it. It was an astounding accomplishment and wrote such an optimistic chapter in the annals of wildlife conservation. But the face of conservation had to change ... Africa's national parks became battle grounds. I remember reading, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, about Richard Leaky taking what then seemed a bold and drastic stand: forming paramilitary troops within national parks in Kenya who could execute poachers on sight. Now this military approach is a mandate if we are to offer meaningful protection for Africa's wildlife, and especially for the rhino species.
Right around 2010, rhino poaching in South Africa began to increase exponentially. When Erik and I were in Kruger, we saw truckloads of armed men driving down the roads. Usually if you see armed men roaming around, they are armed to protect, defend or assault humans for the sake of humans, but here we realized it was to protect animals. When I was volunteering in HiP, at first I thought our rangers had rifles to protect them and us from dangerous wildlife, but no, in fact the primary purpose of their weapons is to engage poachers and "eliminate" them when they are directly threatening wildlife. Think these militaristic measures are excessive? Poachers are paid to kill humans who stand in their way -- it's kill or be killed. A friend of mine interviewed a ranger in Zimbabwe who recounts a harrowing day under gunfire while on the job. Watch the interview HERE.
This little fella below, whom I watched drink and splash in this water hole at sunset in Etosha National Park, Namibia ... yes, he, my friends, given the liberty to do so will grow into a magnificent beast. There aren't many instances in which I feel the word "beast" is the most appropriate description of an animal. But in the best possible way, I think it's awesome for a rhino. When you see a full-grown one trotting toward you, "beast" comes to mind with all the terror, awe and respect befitting such a title. But look at this little guy here ... still just a little lump of potential -- so precious, splish-splashing in the water, so sacred to nature and to evolution.
Do you know what their horns are made of? Keratin ... the same substance as fingernails. When rhinos are born, there's just a little patch of keratin from which a horn eventually sprouts and grows, and becomes lusted after by a voracious and ignorant market primarily in Asia ... it does not have medicinal or aphrodisiac powers, it's merely a wicked-giant fingernail. The only regrettable power the rhino horn has is to lay bare the worst in humanity, to flay us open and expose our mind-erasing, morality-erasing susceptibility to greed -- the greed of kingpins who hire the local poachers and sell the product -- and our failure to properly address the issues that nourish poverty, so that men are motivated to do anything to feed their family, putting their own lives at risk and decimating their own natural heritage.
I remember Erik and I driving around Kruger NP talking for hours brainstorming ideas on how to protect the rhinos, simply out of emotion for these creatures. The poaching situation is more complicated than it might seem. There is the demand, the supply, the bosses, the poverty-stricken locals, the high-tech poaching rings versus cash-strapped national parks, corruption. And then ... reading The Last Rhinos by Lawrence Anthony illustrates another dimension: the bureaucracy, which would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. And so now we are faced with only options of extreme measures to protect these creatures.
This is where the #JustOneRhino campaign comes in, which I'm pleased to support -- an initiative within the travel blogging community to help raise money to relocate rhinos from South Africa, the epicenter of the rhino poaching epidemic, to a secret location in Botswana, currently a low-poaching zone. The Rhinos Without Borders project seeks ultimately to relocate 100 rhinos, in order to provide them safety and boost the rhino population in Botswana, but the cost for each relocation is about $45,000 ... a daunting financial challenge. So the travel blogging community has banded together under the banner of Travelers Building Change to promote the Rhinos Without Borders initiative -- for several months, a different travel blogger each day is writing a post on their website about rhinos and this project. Read an interview with the project founders, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, at Green Global Travel.
If you have enjoyed seeing my pictures of rhinos from my travels, I respectfully suggest making a donation. Honestly -- this isn't an overstated doomsday sentence -- the opportunity to share such photos with you in the future is genuinely endangered and may not exist anymore before I retire from traveling. Rhinos aren't the only endangered species in Africa (and Africa is not the only continent with endangered species), and we can't all donate to every worthy conservation cause. I wish I could, but I don't have the resources and I'm sure you don't either. So we pick and choose and hope that the combined efforts of caring global citizens will ultimately help all of these worthy organizations and initiatives. This happens to be one I'm supporting and one I committed to sharing with others in partnership with Travelers Building Change. Now that the TBC campaign has ended, you can still support Rhinos Without Borders directly.
This rhino's got her eye on YOU! :) She was one of the rescued animals who made the UWEC (Uganda Wildlife Education Center) her home while I volunteered there. A magnificent white rhino. The last census report I heard on the northern white rhino, a subspecies native to Uganda and DRC, put the population at five -- the number of fingers you have on one hand. That's it. We failed to protect them. Hopefully we can redeem ourselves in southern Africa.
The donors to the Travelers Building Change travel prize giveaway were those generous companies listed below.
And now let's chase each other! I love how the guy on the left is about to slide out in the turn, all four legs angled out. There's a lot at stake, as the champion impala males will take control over a whole harem of ewes, usually somewhere between 15 and 30.
The ladies, of course, are far more sensible and have a drink together at the watering hole ... harem mates, I suppose.
In this case, the fella on the right looks at a bit of a disadvantage with only a single full-size horn -- the second horn is just kind of a stump. I don't know if it broke off or was a birth defect.
One morning we spied these adorable lions cubs playing next to a water hole ... pouncing on one another and tussling. First time I've ever seen this in the wild, so it was quite exciting ... unfortunately, at the very edge of my camera lens's ability to capture (these are hugely cropped in), but it was brilliant just to watch them, photos aside.
A masterful pounce .....
And a masterful paw in the eye .....
Most of the action in Etosha is at the water holes. My first night in the park, I was enthralled to find several bull elephants sparring with one another. They weren't very serious about it, just sort of testing each other out. But it was fun to watch their interaction. I'm not sure how to gauge their age except by their body size as the elephants in northern Namibia have much smaller tusks than those in East Africa. But other elephants were quite a bit larger than these fellows, so I'm presuming they were on the younger side.
Fascinating to watch the interaction of their trunks .....
Here a couple youngsters are rough-housing in a boggy marsh. One definitely has the upper hand on the other one! I completely botched the photo opportunity -- not focused and especially the exposure was radically off ... it's a little less distracting viewed in black and white. And the little tykes are so cute in any case.
All these instances mentioned so far were in fun or only preparing for more serious confrontations, or ended without injury. But ultimately, the animals play for keeps. This poor black rhino had really taken a beating. Sad to say, the other side of him looked almost worse. He couldn't put weight on his one back leg. On the encouraging side, we saw him on several consecutive days, so he was hanging in there. But I wouldn't call his plight optimistic. By the end, he was looking pretty worn down, even a little emaciated. Our guide said his most likely fate was that lions would get him, sensing a relatively easy take-down. It was sad, but of course we all know that's the way nature works. It's humbling, in a way, to watch it play out on these vast plains in such an ancient drama.
But to end on a little happier note, here are two white rhinos sparring at a game reserve outside Windhoek. They almost ran into the safari vehicle, they were so close, not paying any attention to us as they squared off against one another.
Hope you enjoyed a little peek at some of the African animal's world of encounters and interactions. One particularly amusing interaction I saw, perhaps the most amusing as well as startling, was at a water hole in Etosha where two black rhinos were posturing with one another. They'd been at it for awhile and suddenly a very large bull elephant who had been hanging out at the water hole sucked up a trunk full of water and sprayed it directly at the rhinos! It was as if he just reached the end of his tolerance watching them bully one another, and just said, "Hey guys, cut it out!" The ploy, in fact, worked.
Content warning: If for some freaky reason you can’t handle or don’t appreciate indigenous nudity, then this post is not for you.
One of Earth’s most glorious and ancient geologic creations is the diamond. Before plants had even crept their roots up onto the dry land outside the salty womb of the Pre-Cambrian era, the mantle of our molten planet was already crushing minerals in the middle of its stable continental plates with terrifically immense pressure and heat, forming the most perfect of crystals – diamonds. (Usually they make their way nearer to the surface via tubes formed during periods of deep volcanic activity.) That most beautiful of stones has been held and cradled in the Earth for so very long, before she ever even dreamed up the wild notion of humanity.
The indigenous people who eventually staked their lives on top of these gems, as if all forms of ancientness must be cradled in the same space, are the San people of southern Africa – perhaps the oldest ancestral tribe on the planet. A study of African genetic diversity indicated the San to be one of the five populations with the highest levels … meaning they are among the oldest surviving people on our planet – the seed, the tiny seed that much of African population and culture grew their roots from and spread. Imagine a 70,000-year old tree, it’s height and girth and root system, and one tribe nestled, still alive, in the middle. Where the planet’s oldest gems lie, so do humanity’s – a cultural gem which has withstood the pressure of time like few others.
A sign pointed down some sandy tracks directing visitors to “the reception area.” We pulled up to a large tree, parked and waited as per the instructions nailed to the tree. The tree was, in fact, the reception desk for the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. (like all living museums, it’s a place for this tribe to preserve their ancient traditions and share them with visitors) Surprisingly quickly, a guide/translator came to the car and took our “order” from the list of options available for tourists, which was nailed to the reception tree … we could choose to see craft and tool-making, or singing and dancing, or a full day witnessing many different activities, etc., there were 5 or 6 options. We arrived late in the afternoon and had only a couple hours, so we chose to see craft and tool-making. We were pointed down a sandy path through some dry, scrubby bushes, and soon we came into a clearing.
Here women sat making jewelry and purses (which are for sale in a sort of outdoor gallery near the reception tree), made from natural materials such as seeds and stones, stitched with twine ... really lovely and high-quality creations. The first woman below could hardly be a better model for one of her necklaces.
Men were preparing materials for traditional tool making. Dressed in traditional loincloths, the men’s bodies were tall, slim, taught and impossibly lithe. The San are traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, and have lived with little modification to their traditional ways until the last century. The hunters used poison arrows to shoot their prey, following it sometimes for miles while the poison worked into its system and the animal finally collapsed. The men at the living museum made a bow and arrows from scratch right there on the spot for us. I was amazed at how little time it took to construct them, and then we got a demonstration and were allowed to try shooting an arrow if we wished. Knowing without question what a spectacular failure I would be, I suppose I should have tried it purely for the amusement of the San, but I was timid, and refrained.
The San are keepers of humanity's most ancient knowledge ... they can still recreate the most sacred of our discoveries, those that transformed us, elevated us and led us to transcend. They maintain the roots of culture. Some of the most ancient thoughts have been thought there -- the most ancient words spoken and listened to, growing into many eventual languages. These people are like the crocodiles … incredible survivalists from whom other cultures have gone on to evolve, but they were so perfect that they stayed, the kernel, largely unchanged for so long. They were efficient, proficient, champions of cultural evolution. I said in my first thoughts on Namibia (in my post, "Size") that the curtain of time feels thin here, the past profoundly tangible. But on further reflection, maybe that quiet feeling of the profound isn’t because the curtain is thin, rather, in fact, the issue is that it’s so thick -- there’s just so much that has happened in this space where the same core of humans have lived for tens of thousands of years, all of it has stacked up until you just can’t help but walk through some of it. Existence here doesn’t have the light weight and texture of air; instead it’s like wading through water. Below, men start a fire by hand with a stick and kindling.
Other authors have spoken of transcendental experiences, witnessing the past literally before their eyes, for example Tom Brown Jr. of Native Americans in The Tracker and James Stephenson of another ancestral African tribe, the Hadza, in The Language of the Land. They claim there are special sacred places where you can sit still and the ancestors will appear ... not to communicate with you, but they are simply kind of like ghosts, going about their activities doing what they did in the past and you can sit in silent witness. They say it's like pulling back a curtain in these places, but maybe it’s just that time is not an arrow that has moved forward, as we often imagine, but perhaps it's more like a series of slides -- each second is a slide and you can insert yourself at any point in the slide show. Maybe some spaces on earth are more accessible for sitting further back in the show, maybe where the space is so thick with human history.
The beauty of a diamond is its complex refraction. One ray of light hits it, and the light refracts into many beams directed back out into the world. The San children who roamed around in the clearing seemed so carefree and infectiously joyous. It was as if the sunlight pierced the men and women in the clearing all the way through to the ancestor spirits of that long ago mother tribe, refracted and came back through the wide eyes and shining smiles of the children, projecting that deep history up and forward through their plump little bodies. Growing up in the living museum gives them the opportunity to carry the ancestral traditions and spirits in their hearts and keep them alive for the whole world to hold.
This photo below happens to be my favorite of all the photos I took at the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum. I love the expression on the face of the kid on the left (click on pic to see larger) and the way the children are accented in the lighting.
I mentioned in the previous post that even the moon was remarkable in the vast country of Namibia, that it seemed so close to Earth we could drive right into it, as it rose, for a picnic. And so here we are. You probably didn’t know that scrubby little trees grow on the moon and that parts of it are red.
Nah, I’m just kidding. We were really on an alien planet. Well, OK, it just looks like one, anyway … a wonderfully strange and surreal landscape inside Sossusvlei National Park. Because I was on a fixed safari, I didn’t do a whole lot of research into where we were going, it’s not like I could make any decisions about my itinerary. So when I was told we were going to see the Dead Vlei, I was intrigued but didn’t know what to expect. Any place with “dead” in the title is going to appeal to my curiosity. More so than someplace with “vivacious” or “joyful” in the title. Perhaps I’m just a generally morbid person … death and darkness have a special tunnel into my little soul. The Dead Vlei, however, is anything but dark.
We’d spent the early morning among the graceful red Sossusvlei dunes. Did I mention they were red?? I’ll show you more in an upcoming post. We were told the best approach to the Dead Vlei was to climb up a particular dune and slide down into it. The view from the dune top was interesting if not wholly compelling to me.
But down, down into the vlei I romped. I sank into the sand up to my knees with each step, creating little avalanches. It would have been way too messy to log roll and deal with being suffused with sand (as was my true desire to do), so I settled for running as fast as I could. Given as how with each step I post-holed up to my knees, I wasn’t exactly The Flash, but it was fun to go as fast as my little ol’ body would take me into this renowned place of death.
The Dead Vlei is a white clay pan in the middle of the dunes. Vlei is an Afrikaans word for a flat area, kind of like a valley. The dead things in this vlei are trees. Once there was water for their roots to drink, but now it’s so dry in the vlei the trees have not only died, they can’t even decompose … there isn't enough moisture to support the organisms that break down the flora to recycle and rebirth it into new life. The trees are bereft of life, sap, leaves, but not of skeleton – their dry bones have remained here for hundreds of years.
Once on the bottom inside the Vlei of the Dead, it was an eerie world. I thought how strange it would be to have been lost wandering the desert one dark and moonless night and finally stumble into this hard, flat area where it was easy to lie down. You sleep. And you wake up in this stark land of tree bones. You’re in a ghost town, but the wooden structures are the raw trees rather than processed timber nailed together. Abandoned, the desiccated trunks and limbs stand testament to those heady days of life – a raucous age when things grew, and therefore each day was unpredictable … the dawn never knew which limbs would grow that day, by how much, or in what shape.
I try to imagine standing there when the last leaf fell, fluttering poignantly to the ground, unaware that its journey was more poetic than most, heralding a new age of sterility with its gentle repose upon the ground, lying solitary as if the green days were just a geologic dream. Then the breeze solemnly carried it away on its shoulders like the coffin in a funeral.
One of my favorite Annie Dillard lines is, “The sea is a cup of death.” So much biologic drama that results in battles and dead organisms. The Dead Vlei is a plate of death. But unlike the ocean, a writer of complex nail-biting plot, the earth down here is a more literary and pensive writer – introspective, a student of detail, exploring the slow heartbreak of being abandoned by time, as the energy and motion that are its expression gradually grow cold and distant, and finally leave like a faithless lover.
I wonder what events those trees have stood sentinel over through the centuries. But actually, upon further consideration, since they dried out, the place hasn’t exactly been a social hub for nature. The tourists, and there were plenty, are likely the things of most interest. For example, me. :)
We traveled north from the hills of the red desert. Through more desert, miles upon miles of tan sand in small undulating dunes like wavelets of sand.
Eventually the land gains topography again. Nearing the Angolan border, rocky hills spring up from the plains. It is an ancient land, purple, red and weathered. Green begins to leak into the landscape in scrubby brush and acacia trees. The vegetation has been splattered across the landscape like droplets of paint, or planted as in a new garden, where the gardener has spaced the bushes with the expectation they will grow to fill in the empty stretches. The Kunene River runs through the dark dirt and sparse vegetation like a line of saliva in a parched and yawning land. Flanking it, a dense and verdant carpet covers the valley floor … so many trees, like a migrating flock of birds landing for the night.
After crossing so much arid desert land, Epupa Falls erupts from the landscape as if a great vein has been punctured beneath the surface. Water spills and tumbles and roars and sprays, spread so widely across a shelf of land, it seems like it could be fatal … maybe it’s the femoral artery and will bleed out, leaving the surface to shrivel and desiccate like a mummy, another vlei of death.
We got up before dawn to watch the sun create a new day behind the falls.
It did a splendid job, but with my little amateur camera and feeble amateur skills, shooting into the sun without a tripod or particularly wide angle lens, I couldn’t capture the morning water’s silk. Nonetheless, no moment spent at a waterfall is ever wasted … these geologic sculptures are liberators of the soul, the tumbling of life’s essence, the freefall of the little molecules most crucial to our existence.
And here next to the glorious falls, the tree trunks are carved with names of people, tourists and locals, who meet their inglorious demise via the most ancient creatures of the river … the crocodiles.
And here are some creatures neatly reflected in the Kunene River: (1) A portly pig belonging to a local villager, probably of the Himba tribe.
(2) A rather unkempt Shara belonging to nobody in particular, nowhere in particular. A wandering soul … some tell me they think I am lost – a lost soul. But look … here I am, right here!
Africa is a huge continent. The United States could fit inside a fraction of it; the Sahara Desert alone is the size of the U.S., and below it unfolds the enormous territory of Sub-Saharan Africa – the iconic Africa of elephants and lions, gorillas and chimpanzees, and the roots of human evolution.
My third trip to Sub-Saharan Africa I spent in Namibia … once part of the country of South Africa, now its own large and desolate country; I read somewhere it’s the second-least populated on the planet (after Mongolia). Much of it lies flat and nearly barren, other areas are covered in deep red sand dunes and desiccated like an earthen mummy, and I can't remember now if I ever saw clouds in the sky or not.
Even the moon seemed disproportionately large. One time when we were driving toward it, the entire horizon was a moon; it seemed as though we were going to drive right into it – we’d be eating lunch in a crater. Turns out parts of Namibia in fact conjure the word "moonscape" in one’s mind. (see my post on the dead vlei ...)
Watching the sun set there is like watching it set on the ocean – you can watch the sun be swallowed by the horizon, like a snake swallowing a rat. During the day if you stare at the sun you can’t depict its movement, it’s like watching a starfish cross the ocean floor. But when it contacts a perfectly flat horizon, you feel you are seeing the inner workings of the universe, like the gears of a watch have been exposed. Do you know what 950 miles per hour looks like? It looks like a sunset in Namibia. It’s weird to think it’s our planet spinning – nay, whirling like a dervish – that pulls the sun down. (Roughly 950 mph was calculated with the approximate median latitude of Namibia)
But there are the sizable oases, patches and hills and terraces of green when the water table rises closer to the surface, where wildlife finds refuge and humans have lived for a vast stretch of time. A crowded waterhole, a San bushman …..
Namibia feels to me like a sacred place, a place that compels one to contemplate size in relative terms along both axes of dimension – space and time. You know that peculiar feeling you get at the back of your neck when you are on the edge of something profound … that’s how I often felt. Humans and animals have co-existed throughout Africa since the advent of humanity, so there is nothing unique about Namibia in that regard. But somehow in this particular shared space, this shared length of time, the curtain is thin – the past doesn’t fall into a void behind you but waivers all around you. As much as your body penetrates the space in which you stand and move, time penetrates your body as though it is the corporeal entity moving through the space of your body.
In the wide open spaces of Etosha National Park I found a contradiction in feelings of size. Sometimes the landscape dwarfed the animals and painted a portrait of aloneness – somewhat sad, somewhat heroic.
Other times the large mammals loomed –magnified by the lack of other landscape features for context. Where I saw them in Uganda and South Africa, they typically shared their space with the topography of trees and bushes in close proximity. But in much of Etosha there was just flat land, sometimes all the way to the horizon, or only a tree or two to break it up. In the other countries, elephants could suddenly pop out of the bushes, or even suddenly disappear into them, but in Etosha they often materialized slowly, perhaps a cloud of dust foretelling their arrival as they mosey closer.
This slow “materialization” was a fun feature in Etosha. It must be even more pronounced on the great savannas in Kenya and Tanzania, but I (sadly) haven’t been there to witness it. So in other places I’ve been, the animals emerge from the thickets fully sized, fully formed, but here they start as a mystery and evolve slowly from a spot on the horizon, growing larger and larger. Sometimes the dot grows until it is towering above you.
But sometimes the dot grows only as big as a sweet little rhino – a youngster playing in a waterhole at sunset.
And sometimes a dot in a sand dune that you have to squint your eyes to see it wiggling and wonder at first if it is really moving closer to you, climbing uphill, turns out to be a child of poison in the sterile pile of sand.
And among this all, the modest size of humans. Technically, we can measure up to some of the antelope species, to jackals, lion cubs, a number of birds. But mostly, such tiny creatures we are in the African theater … entering the world to fit in the mere footprint of an elephant.
But our tiny little feet grow. They grew long ago to walk vast distances driven by need or by curiosity, we’ll never really know. They walked, so to speak, all the way to where I live in Colorado. It feels good to fly back to that ancient birthing ground of species large and small, returning like a boomerang thrown long, long ago, to bask in the sun and bathe in the moon, my long brown hair fluttering in the breeze behind me.