Traveler – Gretchen Healey
I had the chance to go black rhino trekking with Ultimate Safaris on our pre-INDABA FAM this year. We were based at //Huab Under Canvas camp, which is situated in in a core area for desert-adapted black rhino in the 1,800+ sq kilometer //Huab Conservancy. The real benefit of trekking in //Huab is that it is totally exclusive. I trekked a few years back from the Grootberg area, and while it was a good experience, there were quite a few people along for the activity. At //Huab, because the camp and the area are exclusive use, you trek only with your travel companions, the team from the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) and the local community Rhino Rangers. SRT is an NGO that has been has been instrumental in the preservation of the desert-adapted black rhino. Having barely survived in many parts of Africa during the ’80s and ’90s, the black rhino population of Namibia has increased substantially since the formation of SRT.
With Ultimate Safaris partnering with the //Huab Conservancy to create a landmark agreement to operate //Huab Under Canvas, the community-owned Conservancy has seen many benefits. In addition to a fee paid to the Conservancy for every guest that chooses to go rhino trekking, Ultimate funds the salaries and running costs of the Rhino Rangers team, helping to protect not just the local rhino population, but all of the wildlife in the area. Additionally, the presence of the camp and regular groups of guests reduces the likelihood of poachers entering the area at all.
Namibia is home to the larger of two subspecies of black rhinoceros. The country has the only population that remains in the wild – unfenced and outside reserves. Their preferred habitat is mountainous escarpment, but they follow ephemeral rivers into the northern Namib as well, especially when conditions are favorable after rains. They are the only black rhinoceros that are recognized as a “desert group”. Like desert-adapted elephant, they cover great distances – walking and feeding at night, then resting during the day.
Even in May the Namibian sun quickly becomes fierce, so our group slathered ourselves in sunscreen and donned hats, then set off in our vehicle to meet the SRT Rhino Rangers in the vicinity of where they had spent the morning using their unique skills to follow rhino tracks until the animals were located. We had a short, 15-minute hike through desert vegetation to meet the ranger team, and from there we walked perhaps 5 more minutes to the viewing spot to observe the rhino.
We were lucky enough to see two desert-adapted rhino – a mother and her sub-adult calf. We needed to be quiet regardless, but the group was speechless at the opportunity to be so close to one of the world’s highly endangered species. It is humbling to be in the presence of a 2,500 lb animal that seems almost prehistoric, and to do so on foot is even more awe-inspiring.
We had approached the rhino from downwind, however the pair were clearly aware of our presence and were acting very cautiously. Their poor eyesight didn’t allow them to see us, but their acute senses of hearing and smell likely alerted them to our approach. They graciously kept their heads turned toward us while we were viewing them and snapping photos. SRT follows strict regulations on distance from and time spent with the rhinos, ensuring they are disturbed as little as possible.
Our time was up all too quickly, and after hiking for several minutes to put distance between us and the rhinos, our group excitedly compared notes on the experience. It was thrilling to say the least!
There was one last surprise in store for us. En route back to camp, our guide Alpha made an unexpected stop. Ultimate Safaris had set up one of their special ‘Trail Treats’ for us – an ice cream stand in the middle of the desert! Cones, scoops, sprinkles and more, it was an uber-refreshing treat after a sweaty morning of rhino trekking!
Ultimate’s rhino trekking at //Huab is open to all ages, so it’s great for families. Do keep in mind that paths are rocky, temperatures are high and sometimes the hikes can be long, so it’s not for every child or grandparent, but those that choose to do it will be well rewarded!