Travel Story Rhino conservation and an adrenaline rush on an "interactive safari"

In South Africa, "'interactive safaris" allow tourists to help with rhino conservation. 

The adrenaline starts the night before. You’ve just arrived by small plane, and are enjoying a chilled welcome drink from the lodge’s upper deck, watching the wildebeest at the waterhole in front of the lodge. 

The sun is caressing the uppermost reaches of the low African tundra when you hear, before you can see, the helicopter approaching from the west, mosquito like, as it dances and flits before the setting sun. Your heartbeat increases because you know this is the start of an adventure like no other you’ve experienced — ever. 

The South African Government has no money for conservation so the only way it happens is through passionate South Africans and tourism. That’s where we come in.

We’re staying at a privately owned game camp in the greater Kruger area called Nzumba, comprising just six luxury thatched lodges. They offer a tour called an “interactive safari” which means we get to dart a rhino and place a transponder into the horn to assist in its conservation. 

It’s early to bed for a pre-dawn start to a day that promises so much. At 5am, there’s a quick nibble for breakfast and those lucky enough to get a seat on the chopper head towards the aircraft.

Those less fortunate left 90 minutes earlier and are still driving towards our destination. I’m in the front seat of the helicopter as I have the video camera and my wife Dianne is in the rear but asks where are the doors? Simple, there aren’t any: that’s how the vet darts the rhino. 

Flying low over the African landscape with giraffe galloping off in their awkward gait, the early morning light throws shadows that confuse and delight the eye. 

The colours are amazing. In a short space of time, we can see the Land Rovers ahead and the rest of our group of eight. We land and are introduced to the vet, rangers and assistants. 

Everyone is grateful for us sponsoring this event as they passionately explain how important animal conservation is to them. Without tourism, it simply wouldn’t exist. 

We are all given a job to do once the animal is considered safe. It’s a big thing and quite dangerous for the animal, and us. I am tasked with washing down the rhino to keep its temperature down, Dianne has to rub ointment into the eyes then cover them with a towel to keep the rhino calm. 

Others have to monitor breath count, place socks into the ears to muffle sound, assist in taking blood samples, drilling into the horn to place a transponder, it’s all very exciting. Next we are shown the rifle and dart and told how the dart and drug work then it’s all to our stations.

We move to the Land Rover and are seated in the open-topped vehicle; our hearts are beating out of our chests. The helicopter lifts off in a huge cloud of dust and we follow at a leisurely pace but in constant radio contact. 

Within minutes, they have spotted a suitable specimen and we’re off in hot pursuit, no leisurely pace now. 

We are bouncing around the Land Rover as we run over small shrubs and manoeuvre wildly to avoid larger ones. 

The chopper flies only metres above our heads and we are buffeted by the wind shear. 

Branches slap at our faces and we duck and weave to avoid as many as we can. Everyone is hanging on but grinning wildly. We’re living a real documentary, and we’re the stars, it feels surreal, it’s like a ride at the Royal Show. 

The chopper keeps weaving and darting overhead, throwing up clouds of dust and further reducing our visibility on the ground. The vet is literally hanging out of the door with rifle at the ready, it reminds me of a scene from Platoon.

We all want to see what’s ahead but it’s a challenge keeping away from the branches and trying to hang on. The chopper slows to a hover as it has darted its target and we finally break into a small clearing just below the pilot some 5m above us. 

The rhino is standing still as the drug begins to work, but with a young baby at her side. She starts weaving back and forth, bumping into trees and staggering as the drug takes effect. The emotion on us all is palpable, we all gasp in unison as she finally drops, taking out a small tree with her. 

Our ranger explains the baby is still very dangerous and must be herded away as it is more than capable of injuring any of us, or worse. One of the other Land Rovers eventually herds the youngster away as we leap out of the vehicle and catch up to the vets and rangers. 

She is massive, far larger than I could have imagined, and beautiful, in such a rugged, prehistoric manner that it takes you by surprise. Everyone is at their jobs. I am given a jerry can of water and begin washing her down, her skin smoother than I expected. The vets are taking blood samples, injecting antibiotics, drilling into the horn and inserting the transponder that will identify this animal for years. 

The vet starts surgically cutting huge chunks out of the ears which looks horrible but he explains it’s so they can identify this animal from the air as having already been darted and tagged, to avoid repeating the process unnecessarily. It makes sense. 

Within 15 minutes, all is done, we’ve taken photos and the antidote is injected and we’re all back on the vehicle before she wakes. Within seconds, she stirs, tries to stand and fails, tries again and stands for about 30 seconds, no doubt pondering her experience.

Slowly she walks away into the light bush and disappears instantly though we can hear the noise as she brushes past trees and the scrub. 

We all wonder how on earth she will find her baby but the chopper takes off and within three minutes advises us of their reunion, no doubt with one hell of a story to share. We are all quiet, the moment washing over us as we all recount this amazing experience.

We feel elated but sad, too, as we know how many of these magnificent animals are hunted by poachers and we fear for our “Sophie” (the name we christened her with). We hope and pray she will stay safe with her baby. 

Ten minutes later and we pull into a large clearing where the staff from the camp has set up trestle tables full of breakfast pastries, fruit kebabs and champagne, right in the middle of the bush. 

We laugh as we eat and drink, and recount our experiences, the adrenaline slowly being replaced by champagne but all agree on one point: this was the best travel experience we’ve ever had, and by a country mile. 

Fact File

‘Interactive safaris’ let tourists help with rhino conservation

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