It’s odd how something as enormous as a two ton white rhino can sneak up on you unnoticed. We were so engrossed by the lion - a hunky male with a glorious mane prowling ahead of us during a bush walk - that the rhino simply appeared out of nowhere.
The lion could cover the ground between us in just four seconds, but he’s fat and happy after gorging on a wildebeest and we aren’t posing a threat, our guide Morné Hamlyn of Thanda Safari tells us.
Then the rhino emerges from the bushes, heading straight for us as a rapid trot. We gasp, swear, and tremble in awe and fear, as Morné yells at our tracker to lead us into the thicket. We’re frozen for a moment, transfixed by the surreal sight of a mighty beast that could mow us down like skittles getting closer by the mili-second.
We start to back away as Morné springs into action, striding forward confidently and loudly smacking his hand against the butt of his rifle, yelling and stomping like a man enraged. He looks a little like a lion himself, with his ginger beard and sizeable stature, and the startled rhino turns away. Then he remembers the real lion and decides our direction is safer.
Now Morné is acting as mad as hell, yelling, slapping and gesticulating as this tank of a rhino keeps coming, only 12m away and moving with the deadly inevitability of a bowling ball right on target. As we rapidly pace away backwards I wonder which of us will be hit first. Bizarrely, the thought strikes me that if I die, nobody will know the password on my phone to call my friends and let them know what happened.
At the last moment Morné’s unrelenting ferocity finally spooks the rhino, and it turns sharply and thunders off across the plain. But the adrenaline rush isn’t over. The bemused lion has swaggered over to investigate the commotion, and when I glance over my shoulder I see it stalking us. “Don’t worry about what’s behind you,” Morné growls as he falls in at the back.
We set a cracking pace through tall grass, with pounding hearts, dry mouths and sweaty palms. We ignore the snags of thorns and the stumbles over rough ground, focused only on putting distance between us, the lion and the rhino. Eventually we stop and look at each other with wide eyes, and laugh with sheer relief.
Bush walks are normally sedate affairs to admire the plants, trees and insects, and Morné later describes this as one of his top five most memorable experiences in 18 years. The encounter reminds us that wildlife is called wild for a reason, and leaves us tingling with a renewed appreciation for life and even more in awe of the animals we usually only admire from the elevated safety of a vehicle.
Thanda Safari is a Big Five private game reserve in KwaZulu Natal with a huge focus on conservation. While our first encounter with a rhino was unexpected, the next morning we go tracking rhinos deliberately with the Rhino Monitoring team that Thanda set up to support its Anti-Poaching Unit. After examining tracks in the dusty earth and watching rhino-riding oxpecker birds darting above a thicket, rhino monitor Daniel MacDonald leads us in to gaze at four slumbering giants. We watch for a few moments then back away, Daniel recording which rhino we've checked up on, and us grateful that we haven’t disturbed them.
Thanda is six hours from Johannesburg down the N2 and really encourages guests to get involved with conservation and interact with three neighbouring Zulu communities.
It’s owned by businessman Dan Olofsson, Sweden’s largest private investor in South Africa, and he realises that visitors want to learn more about the culture they are visiting. Not only foreign visitors either, since 40% discount for SADC residents makes it more affordable for locals too.
Guests can pay to join the conservation team for a day to help with tasks like game counts and fence checking, or accompany the rhino monitors and perhaps watch an ear-notching and dehorning experience. Daniel isn’t a great fan of de-honing, but adjacent reserves have done it and Thanda doesn’t want its rhinos to be any more of a target for poachers than they already are.
It’s probably the only reserve in the country with a resident photographer, and guests can join Christian Sperka in his specially adapted Land Rover with on-board Wi-Fi and a kneeling space for lower angle photography, or book a free 90-minute photography lesson.
You can also visit a Zulu community where most of the camp’s employees are drawn from and meet the sangoma and her family.
Often the villagers come up to the camp to sing and dance for the guests. These cultural displays sometimes feel awfully twee, but one night as we dine in the bush, young villagers perform the most exhilarating tribal dancing I’ve ever seen.
The drums beat faster as each man shows off his dancing skills, and sand flies into my lap as they stomp the ground, looking in dire danger of scorching their fluffy leg decorations as they leap and roll close to the blazing bonfire.
Accommodation includes the Tented Camp, where 15 canvas structures boasting wooden floors and posh bathrooms have nothing to do with actually camping. They’re well spaced out too, so you’re living in you own private bush bubble. After two days there we move to the Safari Lodge, which boasts nine enormous suites plus a spa with a sauna and outdoor Jacuzzi.
Hedonism envelops me here, and I skip a game drive for the pleasure of enjoying my private heated plunge pool. Besides, no game drive is ever going to beat my close encounter with a lion and rhino anyway.
For details, see www.thandasafari.co.za The camp will be offering some special rates for South Africans once the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted.