The thick morning mist gave the landscape a mysterious feel and when a water buffalo loomed out at us I wondered what else might take us by surprise in this kiplingesque jungle. Our guide, Binod, had brought three of us to the steaming Rapti River and once the sun had punched through the miasma we were able to enjoy some if its cheery warmth.
It wasn’t long before we saw several gharial – thin-snouted, small brained, fish-eating crocs – basking on a sandbank. Seeing them so close made it hard to believe this species is struggling to survive. There are said to be only about 300 left in the wild.
While I was admiring the gharials, Binod pointed across the river to a sandy-coloured boulder half hidden in the elephant grass which lifted its head and flicked its ears. But Binod didn’t want to linger. He kept looking over his shoulder, seemingly worried, and hurried us on along a steep jungly bank above the river. I couldn’t imagine what the hurry was but soon he was pointing down into what must have been a dried out waterhole. Slowly I made out a substantial sandy-grey form sitting in the underbrush. It too waggled its ears and from this much closer perspective I could see they were fringed with black hairs.
Binod suggested circling around to get a better view at which point the reason for Binod’s haste became apparent. First we heard them; then the herd appeared: unsupervised school children. The noisy adolescents were now up on the bank above the rhino and we were on the other side, less than 10 metres away from it. Binod cautioned us not to go close and to be really quiet then moved away a little and tried – unsuccessfully – to quieten the children. Then a Japanese tourist who had attached herself to us, gave her phone to A, moved clumsily towards the rhino to take up her thumbs-up pose in front of the beast. The rhino turned towards her as she edged closer still – until I gesticulated a warning, thinking this wasn’t a portrait to die for. The rhino’s attention went back to the children so I manoeuvred a little closer intending to take a photo myself. Binod was back with us, gesturing extreme caution and stealth.
Then one of the kids threw a stone at the rhino and hit it. The rhino stood. Only then did I really appreciate the awesome bulk of the beast. Binod grabbed me by the sleeve and stage-whispered “Run!”
And run we did – until we were clear of the route he’d likely take to the river, his refuge.
I guess that, being a pachyderm, the rock hadn’t hugely bothered the rhino and he looked undecided at what to do next.
By this time another herd of noisy Homo sapiens
had arrived on the bank and milled around while the guide with them tried to marshal them out of danger, saying things like “He’s in the charging position.” “No, no – come back!” “No – don’t go there!” The poor man looked really scared while the tourists seemed oblivious to the danger they were in. Later I discovered that big bull rhino can weigh as much as 4000kg and once they start to charge they do serious damage.
Finally as the other guide manged to cajole the tourists away from the rhino, he sauntered around the paparazzi, down and across the river and disappeared into the elephant grass.
And when I asked Binod if he had been scared, he said. “A little bit.”
For more photos have a look at wilson.howarth on Instagram