Africa / Spain

CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A BIG WHITE RHINO

White rhino edited

I have never been to Africa (excluding Morocco). I have never shot a wild animal (excepting a puma and a few birds, as a child – two other little stories there). I have never been so scared (excepting after my father died, and that was a different kind of scared). But here’s the story.

When I first came out to Southern Spain, back in the early 1970s, there used to be a sort of Safari Park near the village where my mother (and now I) lived. It was in fact a way-station for African animals on their way to European zoos.

Owned by a Japanese company, it was run by a wonderful larger-than-life Dane who had spent his life in Africa as a White Hunter. A big, strong man turned dark ocher by the sun and an outdoorsman’s life, he and his wife are some of the kindest people I have known. John is still going strong, well into his eighties, up the side of a mountain, growing Aloe Vera commercially. Before that, he bred parrots in a neighbouring village.

Back then, his useful African background allowed the owners to bring in practically the entire range of mammals from that continent over to Spain, but I don’t remember ever seeing an elephant. I do remember the great big White rhinos, though, back when extinction was not imminent.

A herd of six was headed by a monstrous thing that everyone was warned about because it had a terrible temper, particularly in the mating season. I don’t recall his name, but he must have had one. All John’s animals had names, even the flock of geese that guarded his house with much noise and ferocity. They were ‘The Shitfuck Ducks’.

The family, with their two beautiful tow-headed kids, was well known for their hospitality and loved to have people round. Shades of Africa, I imagine. The booze flowed freely, as did the food and, not being one to shun a gift, my visits were based on a firm friendship coupled with evenings that rambled on into nights of fascinating conversations and stories. Gift horses in the mouth sort of thing …

What I never imagined was that I would be staring into the mouth of a very large armour-plated rhinoceros at any stage of my life.

“Must do the rounds, old boy. Fancy a ride?” he said at dusk one evening. Having never been offered the chance of going out into the Spanish ‘bush’ with him, I accepted. This was a privilege indeed.

Citroën Mehari, c. 1971. One the most fun cars I have ever had. Mine was red.

Citroën Mehari, c. 1971. One the most fun cars I have ever had. Mine was red, John’s was zebra and had no roof at the time. His could outstare a rhino, mine never had to.

Climbing into his Citroën Méhari I remarked on the black-and-white zebra paintwork.

“Zebras are not really black and white, you know. More like light gray and dark gray. Dusty colours,” answered John.

Maybe I should have said ‘climbing onto‘ back there. The vehicle was not a Jeep or a Landrover, but a flimsy plastic affair with household piping for a framework that sat on a Dyane 6 chassis, using the same engine. Nothing robust about this thing, but it was sprung like a jack-in-the-box.

Off we set, picturesquely into the setting sun. I gripped a handle where the dashboard should probably have been – it kept me relatively inside the car, which had no doors and no roof. And no roll bar.

We headed West in this large estate, where apparently was the herd of ostriches, the first to be rounded up in the evenings. I was warned not to leave the car as the females had just laid their eggs and are, as a species, violently protective. I didn’t leave the vehicle, but John did.

He disappeared into the tall dry grass making a lot of noise.

Returning only a short while later, looking only a little disheveled, he mumbled, “Fucking birds.” Off we sped again, bouncing along the rough terrain.

Next were the rhinos, which had to be herded into their corral for the night. This, said John, we would do in the Mehari.

Having never seen a large male White Rhino outside a zoo, I must have been clutching that handle bar thing until my knuckles were bloodless white. My face may well have been the same colour.

“There they are!” he called through the wind. “Over there, look!”

Finally I saw them: six wild animals spread over some three hundred meters of short dry grass, on which they fed; each the size of a military Humvee, save for one, who looked more like a tank.

The Mehari veered sharply to the left. Having stood up to see the herd, I was almost flung out, but the sturdy handle bar didn’t give way. A sharp veer to the right and I was back in my seat.

John almost stood on the accelerator trying to make it to the herd’s right flank.” … scatter …” was the only word I made out over the screaming engine and the wind in my face. The rhino females began to run. Given their size and weight, they were fast.

The larger male kept on placidly munching at the grass below his chin. No rush.

John, steering wildly to miss the rabbit holes in the ground (“FUc… …’abbits.”), managed to outrun the furthest females and steered them towards the corral, which was several hundred meters towards the sunset. A female took over as leader.

They slowed down, walking clumsily along the dusty trail they had made. Every now and then, one or two of them would stop to pull at a clump of grass.

But the male, the tank, was nowhere to be seen.  John told me he couldn’t close the gate until the male was inside or the whole corral structure of closely staked logs, would come down in his fury. I believed him.

“Tell you what,” said John. “You stay here, in the car – DON’T get out! — and I’ll bring him in on foot. If any of the women (yes, he called them that) try to get out, stand up, wave your arms and blow the horn. But don’t get out!”

“Sure, okay,” I answered. The nonchalant smile on my face was rigid.

John went off into the tall grass while I sat there, alone in the Spanish ‘bush’ staring fiercely into a cloud of dust and insects lit from behind by the orange sun. Behind that and in the front of my mind was a herd of rhinoceros.

Stale mate for a while; my mouth was dry, my half-closed eyes watering with the strain. My hands hurt from gripping the handle bar.

Suddenly, out of the buzzing silence around me exploded the enormous male.

Now, I knew that rhinos don’t have a very efficient brake system and when charging, tend to just carry straight on, running over anything in its way. That was me.

It was all I could do to stay put. The temptation to jump and run was overwhelming. The thought of dying by rhino horn just didn’t occur.

Then it turned.

Just like that, as though this was what it did every day, which it did but I didn’t know it.

The Thing headed straight for the corral gates, where an eruption of heavier dust told of his weight and speed.

From left field, literally, came John. Dishevelled John. My friend. My saviour.

Panting, breathless, he lurched towards the car and leaned on the hood to steady himself, to catch his breath. “Fucking bastard!” he managed to gasp. “Ran me all over … the … bastard!”

At that moment, just as John was ready to go over to close the gates a few meters away, the Tank appeared ahead of another haze of dust. Headed our way.

Staring straight at us. Head down, in charge position, a front paw pawing the ground. Left and then the right, a little burst of sideways dust each time.

John straightened up and faced the monster. To my astonishment, he took three or four paces between the car and the tank.

The Tank, whose face was not easy to read, stopped pawing. John stopped at just the right distance for a sharp lifting of the rhino’s head to disembowel him. A short step forward and he would have been disemballed.

That is the image I have carried with me for over forty years: John, hands on hips, outstaring a gigantic White Rhino. Face to face.

An hour later that was only a very few minutes, the rhino snorted, blowing dust like smoke from his nostrils, shook his head and turned back towards his night quarters. John followed him and closed the gates.

© Alberto Bullrich 2015

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