Feast of the Rhinoceros

The bushes whipped back like storm lashings in a hurricane, the behemoth blasted by, a Jurassic Park throwback.   Blonde, one hundred thirty pounds (my wife not the beast) armed with little more than a kid’s toy versus three tons of solid attitude.   What are we doing?  There’s no experience in the world offering the same intensity for anything approaching the cost.  Here was my little 5’ 2” wife, armed with only a one shot dart gun, within fifteen feet of an extremely belligerent white rhino.  He sailed past, a grey battle cruiser coursing through an ocean of tan grass.   His head down, his horned head swaying from side to side, enraged, seeking to vent.

This isn’t the zoo, and this guy dwarfs his captive cousins.   Trust me, he is anything other than placid: his beady red rim eyes radiates murder as he searches for a victim.   Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa; what a change from the Limpopo bush most are familiar with, the crystal blue Indian Ocean in the distance, rolling hills of high grass in the foreground.   So different than any of our experiences in Africa.   The huge rhinoceroses seek the clefts and rifts, full of brush to lay up for the day.  Several trackers on horseback searched for half a day to find this monster. We can see him partially hidden in the distant brush.  Slow is the key, walking on the rims of your feet to muffle your steps.  The first half of the stalk was over an hour; a step, maybe two steps at a time.   Stop, pause – freeze, till the monster lowers his head again to graze.   Step, step – freeze – he looks up, his ears twitch, he lifts his nose to the air  - testing.   This is where you start praying.  Your halfway there still in open plain, a small raisin bush between you and the battle cruiser…. “please don’t let the wind shift”.   The wind, a hopeful ally during the summer, turns into a capricious winter mischief maker, letting you stalk up on your prey, then shifting at the last moment with malicious glee. Your quarry disappearing  in half a blink of an eye.  In this case, our prey,   three tons of muscle and horn, won’t disappear, he’ll come straight for us. Thirty minutes more,  fifteen yards closer…. Finally she works her way to the shade of the raisin bush.   The rhino just on the other side – a new problem, the fragile pneumatic dart gun won’t blast through the shrub, it has to be a completely clear shot.   Leann shifts ever so slowly to the right, freezes as the beast goes rigid, ears twitching, nose testing the air.   It clearly knows something is amiss… glaring through myopic beady eyes, he, again, cautiously lowers his head to graze, Leann slips the extra two feet over, now there’s an unobstructed shot between the branches.   He hears the grass crumpling underfoot and snaps alert, tenses for a charge,  the gun fires, the fluorescent orange dart slams into the beasts’ side.   He surges off, like an Abrams tank, out the chute and heading for Iraq.  It is amazing how fast these monsters can clip along.

 

Unfortunately, he keeps running; the muscle relaxant noticeably failing to kick in.  We watch him run miles across the plains until he’s a dot moving on the horizon.   We fear to follow lest he charge when we reach open ground.   Slamming into his tough hide obliquely, the needle of the dart crimps as it slants past it’s axis.   No slow juice for the big guy: now, highly irritated, more wary, and far more deadly.  Ratcheting up exponentially, the danger is now tangible.  We pass the time for an hour, letting him settle nervously back into his routine.  Following him in the far distance, the scouts on horseback continue tracking him.  Peter can still see him in the far distance (no  question, eyes like an eagle, that one – truly a natural born hunter); I can’t see him at all.

 

Waiting, of course, gives time for reflection. The trip has been marvelous so far, the house and our quarters luxurious.   On arriving we found aperitifs, chocolates, flowers on our bed, and a Tam Farms hunting cap, personally monogrammed with our names….  what a distinctive touch.  After the flight down and hour drive, it was a wonderful surprise.  Peter Tam, young for a professional hunter, gives every attention to detail.   We were able to relax before surging off on this new extreme adventure.

 

Back in the present, snapping alert,  we finally start to move, the beast surely is grazing by now.   We travel about ten miles via the twisting and turning contour of the land, searching.  He is more in the open this time,  and far more alert.   A mile away or so, we park the truck, and cautiously while bent over start stalking in.   At a hundred yards,  we stop, only Leann and Peter go forward.   On this stalk it’s only half a step at a time, they’re very exposed.   Slowly…more slowly…. stalking, now, takes far longer, two hours pass and they’re only thirty yards closer.   The rhino is snorting and still angry, constantly testing the wind, fidgeting, turning this way and that, as if the very wind is his enemy.  Closer,   I am sitting down with a powerful lens – 500 millimeters worth – the snap of the camera so loud that it reverberates across the plain even though they’re over 100 yards away.   Peter signals me to quit. Leann moves closer, millimeter by millimeter they scrunch ever so slowly down to the ground, then inching forward again.  They’re crawling now – excruciatingly slow.  It takes ages for them to cross the next 5 yards.  Leann slowly rises, from their angle the rhino is behind a ledge and some bushes.  I can see she is stiff and in pain from the long slow crawl.  Slowly, painfully she rises, slowly bringing the gun to her shoulder, stopping at each fraction of movement.  It’s a slow process, in my head I’m, screaming  “just shoot”!  The beast starts to move and Leann fires at 30 yards – the very limit of the air gun.   The dart slams within 5 inches of the last one, really incredible shooting.   He charges off, quarters his head side to side looking for someone to impale.   I’m snapping some great footage, twitch… twitch.. I realize in horror his ears have picked me up, and he’s coming my way.   “A bush… a bush…. you’re a bush… “ he stampedes by – I tell myself as I freeze, “you’re a bush… you’re a bush”.  I sense looking him straight in the eye would be the end.  I shy my eyes away, motionless, watching him loop around through peripheral vision.    He heads on past, close enough for worry.  I can tangibly smell  my fear, and the ground literally shakes as he gallops by.

 

He starts slowing down, the slow juice kicking in.    Peter in a profound display of bravery, walks toward  the slowed but still moving rhino, keeping us well back.   The rhino is prancing.  His muscles fighting the relaxant, lifting trunk like legs in a slow high step, trying to break free of the chemical.  His eyes are on Peter, death radiates from every quivering muscle.  The rhino wants to tear and rend, slowed by the juice, there’s no question regarding his intent if he can break free of his chemical bonds.   Peter, is worried for the rhino, if he falls now, it will be 6000 pounds crashing down on very sharp rocks.  Peter slaps the lethargic rhino’s horn, enraged, the beast struggles a few steps forward.  Peter grabs the horn, I’m thinking this is beyond crazy, and am dazed with amazement.  Thinking back to Peter loading the dart’s syringe – personally I would never trust a bottle of anything in Africa with my life.   Peter is absolutely fearless, the behemoth takes a few more steps past the sharp rocks and settles slowly to the ground, alert but temporarily immobilized.   It’s “hoorays” all around, the picture taking, the back slapping, then we administer the antidote.   I risk Peter’s anger staying longer than I should taking pictures as he wakes up and starts our way, groggy but extremely annoyed.

 

What a rush.  Back “home” (because that is how we think of it), at the veranda, we celebrate, beers passed around, chased by champagne.  What a high.    Leann shot well, and is on cloud nine – justifiably.  Her first big 5 taken – and more importantly taken extremely well.   Toasting, the champagne both crisp and cold, Irvin asks “How does it feel, how do you describe it”…  Leann paused, perplexed… “Unlike anything I have ever done…. So intense, an incredible rush…”  I’m thinking what a feeling to face the beast – certain death if things go amiss – with a toy in your hand…absolutely exhilarating.    We noticed a number of people we hadn’t seen before clustered around, sharing Leann’s triumph,  we were introduced to Peter’s grandparents.  Truly gracious wonderful people.   Also milling around were various neighbors and business associates… we’re going to have a party.    The sunset razors  across the hills in a flash fire of color; magentas, crimson’s and purple haze, as the wind picked up.  Night falls swiftly as it always does in Africa, a black velvet curtain dropping quickly across the sky.  The  torches around the garden lit,  logs in several large fire pits – the boma, fired up casting dancing shadows across the dusk.    Leann was asked to look at something and she disappeared around the corner, a sense of expectation in the air.

 

A brash storm of singing and drums breach the evenings calm.   The intensity of the rhino hunt in it’s own unique way is just beginning.   Leann’s palanquin is shouldered into the air and paraded out by six athletic Africans in native costumes.    Dancers, singers and drummers marched out, clapping, jumping, twisting in the air, while singing “The Rhino Sleeps Tonight” to the Disney melody.   What a tremendous event, everyone is  applauding.  Leann dazed, is swept along as the incredible day flows into an increasingly incredible night.  The guests, all invited in attendance to honor Leann, the huntress, applaud vigorously.   This wasn’t some cheap tourist entertainment, this was the real deal; friends, neighbors, and family all sharing in the celebration.   The Africans begin to dance and sing in honor of Leann’s accomplishment.   Five foot two, one hundred and thirty pounds,  taking down one of the most dangerous animals on earth, and certainly one of the largest.  The performance was dazzling, primitive, vibrant, and more than anything else stirring to the soul.  The drumbeat is intoxicating, although you don’t understand any of the Xhosa words,  the meaning, and its’ power washes through your body: surprisingly, you have an intuitive understanding of the theme.   Leann is mesmerized.   The adulation is real, unfeigned.  The singing goes on and on. Finally they pull Leann up to dance, and she is swept away with wild abandon to the joy of the Africans.     The evening is complete…. Except for dinner.

 

The evening repast is a friendly semi formal affair, more one of those intimate Thanksgiving dinners than a vacation meal,  amongst friends and family.  The meal was wonderful, a tapestry of luxurious dining.  A true feast, with the wonderful wines of South Africa slipping across our palate.  Game, venison, beef,  lamb all cross the table.   Unquestionably it isn’t a culinary orgy for light weights.   The wine flows, more congratulatory speeches.  Then Leann is presented a bottle of private vintage wine,  the label – her and her Rhino, now friends of the most unusual sort, for posterity (or at least till we drink the wine).

 

The fear of death,  the uncertainty of life, combined with the extreme intense emotions of doing something few would attempt, adrenaline pumping in each heart beat;  it’s a catalyst of life.  The joy of celebrations – old Africa – before it became modern, combined with the graciousness of modern nobility, among our new friends.   A feast and celebration to be remembered always – not withstanding the defining moments of today’s adventures.   The sheer,  razor edge bravery of Peter Tam, facing a rhino unarmed was unforgettable, an exceptional life memory etched into one’s mind like a great scene from a legendary John Wayne movie.   Leann’s hunt was an event of a lifetime crammed into the moment of a day.  Now months later the memories are as crisp and clear is if we hunted yesterday – on reflection perhaps not.  The memories, truly life altering, seem mere hours old.  Memories rich with all the sensations, emotions and elation of an accomplishment few have dared attempt.  Leann, my huntress, faced the beast and prevailed.

 

Tam Safaris

 

It started as a brief 3 day “add on” to the end of our trip, a chance to check out some new territory.  It morphed into much more.   Tam Farms is situated in the rolling grasslands of the Eastern Cape – God’s country.   It is a joy to watch the multitudinous springbuck frolicking in the grassy hills.   Tam Farms also boast having the difficult to find bontebuck, free roaming lions, elusive mountain rheebok as well as blesbuck (black, common, yellow), gargantuan gemsbok, wild ostrich, lechwe and of course white rhino.  His are some of the largest in private hands and he as close to twenty on his property, massive and impressive all.  Leann’s rhino scored an SCI 88,  in the gold.   Irvin Tam has devoted considerable resources to saving South Africa’s endangered species.  He has several hard to find exotics, particularly one of the few herds of Pere David Deer in Africa.   A hunter stays at Irvin’s home and dines with his family.   Henrietta, creates (cooks is far too plebian a word), an incredible table, feast after feast.  Wonderful sustenance, food and drink is available all the day long.    The quarters are beyond comfortable, and the entire experience well worth the trip down to the startling scenic Port Elizabeth.

This article is dedicated to Austin Sefton of Los Angeles an aspiring hunter, who one day will get to live his dream.

FINIS

Contact Information:   Peter Tam, Tam Safaris

Phone  27 48 881 1053   Cell  27 82 652 6610   tamfarms@intekom.co.za

5 High St.

Cradock

5880

Republic of South Africa

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