On the trail of the black rhino...

THE LAST TIME I came eye to eye with the endangered black rhino was in Nepal. We had woken at dawn to paddle low-slung boats that barely crested the surface of the croc-infested river. And as we trekked through the dewy grass, the guide gave us the low-down on rhino-watching etiquette.

“If the rhino hears us, or smells us, you must not run -- unless I tell you. If I do give the signal, run in a zigzag: rhinos cannot easily turn. Head for the trees: if the rhino follows, go round the tree and whack him on the nose with a stick. After three times he will give up.”

Excuse me -- hit it with a stick? That’s seriously the plan? These things weigh 3,000lbs. And what’s the strategy, I asked him, if we come across a tiger along the way?

The guide smiled, shrugged philosophically, and said simply, “Ah! Then you lay down your life.”

We did find black rhino that morning. Very close, ears swivelling nervously like little satellite dishes. Suddenly they started towards us. Their tiny eyes bored into mine. I turned to the guide for further instruction as agreed, but he was already 30 yards away, running for the trees...

That was 20 years ago. So when I heard of a huge expanse of wilderness in Namibia with the world’s largest concentration of free-roaming black rhino, I jumped at the chance of a rematch – as long as I could get a more trustworthy guide.

In the event, there is no one to whom I would rather entrust my life than Christiaan Bakkes, the area manager of the remote Desert Rhino Camp and its even remoter sister, Serra Cafema. A giant Afrikaaner with a lion’s mane of blond hair, Chris looked like he could stop a rhino charge with his head. True, he has only one arm, having donated the other to a crocodile in 1994, but it didn’t slow him down.

“Once more we venture forth into the grrrreat uncharted wilderness,” he would roar, shifting gear with the stump of his arm and gunning the converted Land Rover over the rocky hills. But rhino tracking here, it soon turns out, is a more serious business. The population in this million-acre expanse of scrubland (that’s about 1,500 square miles) has doubled since the ‘80s, thanks to the joint efforts of Wilderness Safaris and the Save the Rhino Trust, but there are still only 150. Tourists are allowed along for the ride, but the primary purpose of an expedition is for the Save the Rhino Trust trackers to catalogue these skittish creatures’ health, habits and movements.

The first feeding ground we look in is a failure – but a spectacular one. Instead of rhino, Chris tracks some gigantic dung droppings to a whole herd of elephants, more than a dozen in all, promenading along the dry river bed. It’s an awesome sight: they pass slowly, serenely, magnificently unconcerned about the insignificant creatures on the hill pointing their shiny lenses at them.

The problem is, says Chris, elephants will have driven the rhino away. Now we might not find any. We drive to a different valley, while Chris explains survival tips. His advice is no more reassuring than the Nepali’s was. “If you’re charged by a rhino, the best place you can be is lying on the ground. You’ll get trampled, and that will hurt,” he says, in what couldn’t be a better contender for Understatement of the Year if you taught it limbo dancing, “but he won’t be able to get his horn into you at that angle.”

Suddenly, Chris is interrupted by a low whistle from a tracker. Rhino! We proceed on foot – any engine noise will spook them. Sometimes you have to trek like this for hours, Chris warned us, but we are lucky again: after just 15 minutes we are crouching near a mature 20-year-old rhino and his five-year-old son. We watch them placidly chow down on some bushes. We see the father emit a jet of liquid – “marking his territory”, whispers Chris. And after a long while, they trudge off into the hills, and we’re left with our Jurassic Park memories, and a dozen photos.

We take a picnic lunch in the bush. The plants here are weird, as befits a place that gets just two inches of rain a year. The welwitschia looks like a wilted Triffid and can live for more than a thousand years. Its huge taproot makes a good stool. The Euphorbia Tirucalli, known locally as a Milk Bush, is a green plant taller than a man whose milky sap is delicious to a rhino, but highly toxic to people.

Over the course of the day, we see a host of animals, all specially adapted to the harsh desert conditions: the Hartmann’s mountain zebra, whose hearts are twice the size of a normal zebra’s to facilitate rapid escape up the hills; the long-horned Oryx, which passes blood through its nasal passages to cool it down before it reaches and potentially cooks the brain; the Springbok, which leaps high in the air to warn any predator of the futility of chasing it. “That’s called ‘pronking’,” says Chris. “Or showing off.” A useful insult to file away and use back in London.

We close with a “Sundowner” – a G&T to toast the sun setting over the infinite plains – and share a communal, convivial dinner back at Desert Rhino Camp with the other guests. To preserve the delicate balance between man and nature, eight guest huts are all the camp allows. Round the campfire, Chris recites poetry (he also writes books) and we sing a song or two. It’s been an unforgettable day.

“We were lucky,” says Chris. “The eldest rhino we saw is named Don’t Worry because he’s so calm, and he made his son be calm too. They sensed we were near, but they weren’t scared, so we could watch them in peace.”

Safari can seem like nothing more than a giant game of “What’s the Time, Mr Wolf” – or Mr Zebra, or Mr Lion. You sneak up on an animal, then run away giggling. But Wilderness Safaris are different. For nearly three decades they have worked with charitable organisations (including its own, the Wilderness Trust) and local communities in seven countries across South Africa, working out how to protect wild animals through tourist dollars, while not threatening those animals through over-exposure.

As a result, they have been granted unique concessions in a staggering 11,000 square miles of land otherwise inaccessible to travellers, creating oases of relative luxury under the vast African skies and their alien constellations. Wilderness Safaris leave a customer survey in every room, but unlike in a hotel the options range beyond “good” to “extraordinary” and right up to “life-changing”. In common with two thirds of guests, I ticked the latter box.

A stay at Wilderness Safaris’ Desert Rhino Camp costs from £340 per person per night inclusive with The Zambezi Safari and Travel Company (www.zambezi.co.uk; 01548 830059). Wilderness Safaris have also just reopened their refurbished Kulala Desert Lodge, and launched their Great Namibian Journey package: 11 nights’ accommodation, food, drink and guided travel in Sossusvlei, Etosha and Damaraland.