Heart of a Ranger
With indemnity documents signed (and this never far from my mind), we set out on foot, into the bush of the Timbavati. Our intention to find and film the rhino in their natural habitat and to capture and experience first-hand, the day in a life of an anti-poaching unit, game ranger.
The two rangers, Anton and Orlat moved like ghosts through the undergrowth, treading as lightly as my frame would allow, I was as noisy as a bull elephant crashing through the undergrowth. The reserve is not a quiet place, it reverberates with the sound of life, burring insects, chattering birds and animal calls, my crashing about was spectacularly loud.
The air and heat are oppressive, as I crossed the dry river bed and clambered up the embankment through the thick brush up to the other side; I emptily promised myself I’d work on my fitness.
Our first rhino sighting was both magnificent and terrifying, you’d think for such a massive creature it would lumber along, not so! We stepped into a clearing and there was the rhino, a young male just a few meters away – the rangers indicated we must stand still and be quiet… the rhino was prancing about, clearly agitated, he had either heard or smelt us and was trying to locate us, they have dreadful eyesight but a keen sense of smell and excellent hearing. Never have I seen such a nimble, agile creature for all that bulk and I nervously thought that if he did figure out where we were and charge, the chances of getting away unscathed were horribly, horribly slim, he was unbelievably quick on its feet. Eventually he turned tail and bolted off into the thicket, much to my relief.
We continued and after what felt like several (thousand) kilometres, we came across a particularly thick bit of brush, Anton pointed to it, indicating that it was their camp; I peered into the dense undergrowth and… saw nothing. I thought they were having me on until he stepped forward and moved some of the brush aside – wow, talk about camouflage (or the untrained eye) but I could not believe that there was their camp!
For the rangers, remaining concealed is imperative, a poacher is familiar with the bush – he’s acclimatised and acutely aware of his surroundings… the rangers need adapt accordingly. Their shift lasts for two weeks at a time, no light, cell phone, radio, talking in muted tones, one meal a day, prepared only when the thermals are right so the scent of food won’t carry and trekking through hundreds of kilometres of bush with no sustenance other than a litre of water carried on their backs, even this, Orlat explained to me, needs to be used sparingly in case they get on the trail of a poacher, which may result in days of tracking, there’s no getting back to base camp for water, they must make do.
They take turns sleeping, listening for anything untoward or worse, for the dreaded sound of gunshots. Here too, they are at a distinct disadvantage, they must abide by the gun laws of this country, but for a poacher no gun law applies. The rangers need be sharp and sure-footed, or it literally will be the death of them.
In an effort to truly experience what dedication this calling takes, we decided (against all sanity) to embark on a night walk through the bush… If I thought the rangers were ghosts before, they now simply vanished into the darkness! Crashing about in the pitch black, we now sounded like a very large herd of panicked buffalo… easy pickings for anything lurking in the dark! There was no moon and for what seemed like hours of blind torture, tripping and stumbling over whatever lay in my path, my eyes began to adjust (my feet I feared, never would)… I could begin make out the shapes of the brush, eventually even the individual twigs on the branches. When I looked up into the night sky, all thoughts of my bashed ankles, stubbed feet and scratched arms dissipated, ah the wonder that met my eyes – I have never seen so many stars so clearly in the sky, what a breathtakingly beautiful sight!
Even in that brief time that I had to experience how the rangers live, I was astounded at my own adaptability, how my sixth sense kicked in, my sense of smell sharpened and how I could feel rather than hear the thuds made by the elephant.
It felt good to be alive out there, I’d sign 100 indemnity forms for the chance to experience that again, but for the anti-poaching rangers of the Timbavati Nature Reserve, this is it – this is real life they are the ones who have answered their calling and put their lives on the line daily, these are the true heroes and I hope their story carries across for the world to see.
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