Travel: Round the horn, up a gum tree

Namibia's black rhino population has fallen from 60,000 to 3,000 in three years. Paula Hardy gingerly follows a shy beastie

What should you do in the face of a charging rhino? It's a pertinent question if you're at the Ugab river in north-western Namibia. Safety measures when faced with an aggressive and temperamental wild animal at first seem straightforward enough, even though they appear to be a little on the scant side. Situations can be dealt with in one of three ways: you can leap behind any dense shrub or bush (if there is one); scramble up any suitable rocks; or if the worst comes to the worst and there is no cover in sight, you simply lie flat on the ground, put your hands on your head and pray.

That, at least, was the advice of the Save the Rhino monitoring programme. Established by Rudi and Blythe Loutit in 1980, Namibia's Save the Rhino Trust works in conjunction with the ministry of environment and tourism to protect the fragile river eco-system and the extraordinary wildlife it supports.

In doing this, however, they seek to resolve the conflict between human and animal needs and for this they look to the communities who live along the river itself. By establishing camps near existing settlements and by employing and training local trackers, they ensure that the proceeds from tourism benefit the local people. Tourists, on the other hand, gain from an unbelievable wealth of local knowledge about the river, the flora and fauna and, of course, the habits of the rhino.

As its name suggests the Trust itself is predominantly concerned with the elusive black rhino, a species that is now so endangered that the latest World Wildlife Fund statistics make depressing reading - numbers have been reduced from 60,000 to just 3,000 over the last three years.

Kitted out with day packs and the obligatory four litres of water, we set off with our two local trackers, Sonwezi and Matteus, in hot pursuit of Kali, a male rhino that had been spotted in the area the previous evening. So there we were, the trackers following the rhino and us following the trackers. On and on we went at a cracking pace following the almost dainty clover-shaped prints in the soft river sand.

Along the way we received an almost endless rundown of the evening's activities, "Here he stopped to eat. Here he lay down for a few hours. Here he relieved himself in rather copious quantities". By the end of the morning we appeared to know in minute detail every single bush and rock where he ate, slept and peed - it made the experience really rather homely, turning the apparently featureless landscape into a treasure trove of tasty eats and comfortable napping spots.

If you took time out from staring fixedly at the ground, you were not disappointed, and if you imagine the desert as a featureless waste then this is the place to prove you wrong. The effects of millions of years of erosion towered above us, layer upon layer of rock concertinaed into vertical formation above the alluvial plain. The earth's geological past written in the compact slate as the cliffs rolled and swirled towards the unforgiving blue arc of sky.

After five hours walking in the blazing heat I was beginning to despair of even catching a glimpse of the rhino, but as we took a much needed water break Songwezi came back and in a voice of suppressed excitement informed us that he was napping under some bushes a mere 800 metres away. We were lucky - some people can walk all day, distances up to 25km, and see neither hide nor hair of these unobliging creatures.

Everyone dropped back into single file following Songwezi and Matteus in absolute silence. At 200m from the bush in question Matteus broke off to find us a good vantage point - we waited with our hearts in our mouths. Creeping painfully around the bushes (rhinos have extremely good hearing), Matteus suddenly slipped on a rock (bad move) and the monotony of scrub suddenly gave way to a very stout and strong looking rhino.

My heart almost leapt right out of my body. Hurtling - as only so many tons of rhino can hurtle - out of the bushes towards us, his horn glinting like Cleopatra's needle in the afternoon sun, Kali finally made his presence felt. It was almost too much excitement for one day.

Songwezi's arm shot up and halted us in our tracks. Kali screeched to a standstill at the uncomfortably close distance of 50 metres. Confused and bad tempered at having been disturbed from his afternoon rest, he sniffed the air disconcertedly and we waited motionless in front of him, aware that at this distance he could not see us if we didn't move.

Looking about for any handy trees, rocks or bushes, I was alarmed to discover that this appeared to be one of those "worst possible" situations - no cover as far as the eye could see apart, that is, from the few bushes behind the very annoyed rhino in our path. As I debated whether I would really have the courage to throw myself on the ground in front of an enraged, charging rhino when all my best instincts instructed me to sprint in the opposite direction, Kali's hard-nosed stare got a little less intent and Songwezi instructed us to back up slowly out of the way.

Safely under the cover of bushes we were finally able to observe the iron-clad aggressor with somewhat more composure, although the feeling of exhilaration at coming face to face with such a prehistoric looking animal had hardly dissipated. I felt immensely privileged at having seen Kali at home - and on his terms rather than on my own.

Fact File

Getting to Namibia

The only airline with direct flights from the UK to Namibia is Air Namibia (0181-944 6181). You can also travel to the capital, Windhoek, on airlines such as Lufthansa and South African Airways, via Frankfurt and Johannesburg respectively.

Until shortly before Christmas, fares from discount agents are likely to be around pounds 500 return.

Rhino tracking

The Save the Rhino Trust, PO Box 224, Swakopmund, Namibia, is a non-government organisation concerned with the conservation of the black rhino as well as community development and awareness.

Paula Hardy visited Namibia as a volunteer with the British youth development charity, Raleigh International, 27 Parsons Green Lane, London SW6 4HZ (0171-371 8585, www.raleigh.org.uk).

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