Standing head to head, each with one eye trained warily on our vehicle, the motionless pair of black rhino are the epitome of alertness in the split-second before the hulking duo bustle back into the sanctuary of the surrounding bush.
This would prove to be the first, but not the last such sighting of these critically endangered animals during a recent weekend’s stay at the White Elephant Safari Lodge in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
The relatively recent introduction of these magnificent animals to the area offers an ever-diminishing opportunity for visitors to view black rhino in their natural habitat, and forms part of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project – a partnership between the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
Back in 2006, landowners in the Pongola Game Reserve agreed to amalgamate their properties to create a large enough tract of land to meet the programme’s strict criteria, with Ezemvelo donating the rhinos that were then released into various parts of the reserve.
The conservation, protection and population expansion of these animals is priority, and many have been fitted with radio transmitters.
The presence of black rhino is a major trump card for White Elephant Safaris, which is situated within the Pongola reserve, but there are other attractions too.
Overlooking the expansive Jozini Dam, White Elephant offers both land and water-based activities and the self-catered Bush Camp is a hotspot for avid fishermen.
On the weekend of my stay, guests from the Bush Camp landed 45 tigerfish, the largest weighing 6.5kg, which supports Jozini’s growing reputation as the best tiger fishing destination in South Africa.
We opted for a sunset cruise on the Pongola river, where we were able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the various wildlife that ventured to the teeming water’s edge in the early evening.
With the majestic Lebombo Mountains towering in the background, we drifted mere metres away from snorting hippos and stealthy crocodiles, while on the nearby river banks, a pair of jousting reedbuck seemingly fought for our attention.
Another way to get close to the array of animals that frequent Jozini Dam is a guided canoe ride, which provides an opportunity to view a wide variety of birdlife.
There is rarely a dull moment at White Elephant. Their popular rhino and elephant tracking activity offers a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encounter these massive mammals on foot.
To assist in roughly determining their location, head ranger Adriaan Crous made use of a telemetry device that picks up the signal emitted by selected transmitters.
“This is how the process works,” Crous explained after taking an initial reading on the day he took us out. “We first pick up a signal and then move into the area it’s coming from, and once we’ve got a stronger signal, or possibly even a visual sighting, then we’ll carefully move in on foot.”
There are no guarantees in the bush, though, as we found out when the elephants managed to elude detection and it was considered too risky to pursue the notoriously short-tempered black rhino on foot after we had spotted a young male in thick undergrowth.
Yet not long after, we virtually “bumped” into a trio of black rhino.
Boasting nearly two decades of experience, Adriaan was a fascinating guide, offering interesting insights into the various habits and social structures of the diverse wildlife. However, he didn’t pretend to have all the answers and on one of our bush walks, we stumbled across pieces of perfectly cylindrical concrete slabs, which left us puzzling about the origins of these pillar-like structures.
There is plenty of history in the area. One of the most famous archaeological sites in Southern Africa can is located in a cave on the western face of the Lebombo Mountains. Both human and animal fossils were found when it was first excavated in 1934.
Pongola was also the first game reserve to be proclaimed in Africa towards the end of the 19th century, and since the mid 1950s, the Kohrs family have been a leading the fight to preserve and protect this 31 000ha conservation area.
In recent years, leopard have begun to re-emerge, while in 2002, four spotted hyenas were successfully re-introduced to the Pongola reserve.
Along with his parents, veterinary surgeon Dr Heinz Kohrs still lives in the original homestead on “Leeuwspoor”, where the establishment of White Elephant Safaris first took shape in 1999.
Now a five-star destination, the safari lodge offers eight luxurious and secluded two-sleeper tents, and many of the personal touches – such as the already-run foam bath that awaits you after the afternoon activity. Not that we weren’t tempted by the indulgent outdoor shower.
The main building is decorated in traditional African style, and is believed to be blessed by an angel after a family who leased the property in the late 1940’s insisted they had seen an angel on the front veranda.
Nowadays, the deep verandas that surround the main building serve as the scenic venue for breakfast, brunch and supper, with guests able to pre-order from an a la carte dinner menu before heading off on their afternoon activity.
A perfectly prepared fillet steak with green peppercorn sauce was the pick of my stay, although the tender oxtail came a close second.
Not far from the main building, White Elephant’s intriguing research centre can be found, where visitors are able to gain insight into the rhino and elephant research.
Pongola’s elephants were relocated to the reserve from the Kruger National Park in 1997, and a particularly unique activity called “elephanting” is run by passionate researcher, Heike who monitors the creatures for hours on end every day.
Many of the elephant bulls have been vasectomised as part of a project to manage the population growth as an alternative to culling. Heike’s research is focused on determining the long-term effects of this form of birth control on the elephant herd.
As affable Safari lodge manager John Nieuwoudt explained, it’s all about the “eco-experience”.
The research centre, he pointed out, sets White Elephant apart. “Everything is documented and made available because we want our guests to be actively involved.” - Saturday Star
IF YOU GO
How far from Johannesburg?: Roughly a five-hour drive.
For full details of costs and what’s included, go to http://www.whiteelephant.co.za/?rates
Important to remember: Gate entrance time at Pongola reserve is from 6am to 6pm.
Special recommendation: Black rhino tracking and “elephanting” activity.