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A South African Adventure: An Up-close Rhino Encounter

In that moment, I felt pure fear. I could feel his breath synching with mine, watched the subtle flicker of his ears. He should have charged, smashed me to piece with his horn, but instead he waited. I think he wanted to see how I would respond to him. I too watched closely, the unwavering gaze of his iron-red eyes, the steam from his heavy breath against the cold air of the night.

By: Maggie Donohoo + Save to a List

In the United States, we tend to think of Africa as a whole, without consideration for the diversity of countries and cultures within. So, when accepting a photojournalism internship my junior year of college in South Africa, I took it as the perfect opportunity to educate myself on another culture, the history of Africa and, once I returned, to share my experience with others.

The trip would take me to several areas of the country, both Eastern and Western Cape, with stops in Cape Town, Knysna, Mossel Bay and the Karoo. We would focus largely on humanitarian, community development, conservation and environmental stories, such as documenting a beached whale and the international success of a local rugby player. I would be assisting a professional photographer, working on several personal projects and doing freelance for various publications across the African continent.

The highlight of the internship would be a week spent on a private reserve in the Karoo, a semi-desert area that accounts for almost 40 percent of South Africa’s land surface. The area is rich in biodiversity and home to the ‘Big 5’, a term coined by big-game hunters to describe the most difficult-to-hunt mammals in South Africa including buffalo, elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos. While I have always been a fan of animals, land and sea, I had never before had the opportunity to interact with them on a personal level in their own space. I would have to take a crash course on my animal social skills: Stay Safe and Don't Die 101.

In all seriousness, it is an entirely different experience to enter a wild animal’s personal space with the intention of documenting them and witnessing their natural behavior, versus seeing them in a zoo. Zoo animals are far from natural, often bred in the facility or permanent residents due to injuries sustained in the wild. Without going into the debate of whether it’s right to interfere with or dictate the well-being of another species, it’s no secret that these animals have been conditioned to live around humans. On the other hand, animals on a South African game reserve are truly wild. It is your job, and your job alone, to protect yourself by being smart and respecting the wildlife.

I arrived in South Africa in late June, stopping first in Johannesburg before moving on to George. It was there that I would spend my first few weeks, educating myself on and adapting to the local culture. I ended up taking up residence in a local hostel in Mossel Bay called The Lavender House. It was a lovely little home with several bunks and inviting common areas both inside and out. Just down the street was the infamous Pinnacle Point Caves, a site containing the earliest evidence for the systematic exploitation of marine resources, the use of dyes in symboling and the use of heat treatment in the manufacture of stone tools. These discoveries combined have led to the theory that the Southeastern Cape Coast of South Africa was likely the point where modern behavior first emerged over 160,000 years ago. It was an incredible opportunity to be surrounded by so much history and to be able to emerge myself in the local culture, cuisine and environment.

After a few weeks in Mossel Bay, the other interns and I traveled to Graaff-Reinet by way of a small, lovingly named, ‘Janky’ van. The private reserve was invite-only, owned by a local family who had developed relations with my supervisor and would allow us to participate in game drives, animal feedings and documentation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Africa’s ‘Big 5,’ up close and personal. By this, I literally mean that we had rhinos roaming outside of our cabins, monkeys going through our suitcases and elephants sitting on our vehicles. We were taught to secure all doors during the daytime, be aware of our surroundings and keep a tree or bush between ourselves and the animals at all times. It’s no secret that wild Africa is perhaps one of the most incredible things anyone could experience, and I can say that hands-down it surpassed my every expectation.

About mid-week, one of the other interns and I decided to try our hands at astrophotography. Being in the middle of nowhere meant that other than our campfire, there was absolutely zero light pollution. The entire galaxy was visible to the human-eye, a stunning display that just had to be captured and shared with our friends and family back home. So, we requested to be dropped off in the middle of the night about 2 miles from base camp on a large stretch of desert land with little more than our cameras, tripods and headlamps. Little did we know, what awaited us was one of the scariest and most incredible moments of my entire life.

We had set our intervalometers to 45 minutes, a good amount of time to catch star trails and the vibrant display of light above us. After that, it was a waiting game. We couldn’t turn our headlamps on for fear of polluting the frame, so instead we found refuge near the base of a windmill. It was well into the winter season in South Africa and we kept our heads to our knees as we talked, preserving our warmth among the night’s cool breath and counting down the seconds until the shutter clicked close. All the while, the wild was calling. The creatures of the night sang a beautiful tune, orchestrated by the moon’s silver hand. We began to grow afraid of what was lurking close by, the danger that surrounded us, but we didn’t voice these feelings for fear of them coming true. Eventually we found ourselves holding our breaths, until suddenly we heard the shutter click close and we could instead focus on packing our things and returning to base camp.

We slung our packs over our shoulders and began to make our way across the vast desert. I had a general idea of which direction we should travel, and we moved at a brisk pace, eager to reclaim the safety of our cabin. About a quarter mile back to camp, however, I noticed a strange sound growing closer; a large figure stood in our path just ahead. The other intern stopped behind me as I slowly reached up to snap on my headlamp. The light came on suddenly and all at once, causing my eyes to react and create only more darkness. In the shadows, I saw the figure tense up, the ground shook and I desperately searched the void for the identity of the unknown beast. Once I knew, however, I couldn’t take it back. There, less than 10 feet away, stood a 3,000-pound, 6-foot tall adult male rhino and I had startled him in his slumber.

In that moment, I felt pure fear. I could feel his breath synching with mine, watched the subtle flicker of his ears. He should have charged, smashed me to piece with his horn, but instead he waited. I think he wanted to see how I would respond to him. I too watched closely, the unwavering gaze of his iron-red eyes, the steam from his heavy breath against the cold air of the night. We stayed that way for several moments, watching each other, until I took my chance, flickered off my light and gracefully retreated into the safety of the shadows with the other intern.

We inched along slowly. My brave and confident demeanor had been lost to the rhino and the once beautiful song of the night became wild and frightening. Perhaps you are thinking how silly I must have been to put myself in that situation in the first place. You’re not wrong. Looking back, I do believe I suffered from your classic case of ‘youth immortality.’ That is, I had this irrational belief that nothing could ever truly hurt me, that I was somehow exempt from the consequences that could result from a poor decision. Eventually, however, we all come to the realization that this is completely and utterly false hope and no one, at least not yet, is actually immortal.

At the pace we crawled, it took about an hour to make it back to base camp. I remember climbing into my lower bunk, curling my legs tight to my chest and tucking my head under the scratchy, woolen blanket. Outside, I could hear monkeys fighting, declaring war with one another. It was mother nature reminding me that she is all powerful and must be respected. It is hard to understand unless you’ve been in that kind of situation, that an experience so close to death could eventually be seen as beautiful. That night, an animal that can be unforgiving of strangers let me go and now it was my responsibility to share our story and protect it.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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