In Search of the Big 5: Rhino Tracking in Botswana and Zimbabwe

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I’m back from Africa and so excited to tell you all about my trip! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (well, hopefully not) and one I’ll never forget. Brace yourselves for more pictures of animals and perfect sunsets than you ever hoped to see in your entire life. It might take me a while to try and put some of these experiences into words, but I’m doing my best. First up: tracking rhinos!

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When going on safari in Africa, everyone is in search of the “Big 5”: elephants, lions, cape buffalo, rhino, and leopards. As I learned on my tour, most people don’t know why the Big 5 are called the Big 5, or what they even are (the majority of our group thought hippos were included). I personally thought the “Big 5” were the animals that were the most rare to see on safari, but in reality, the Big 5 are the animals that were considered the most dangerous to hunt back in the old colonial days. Now you know!

Our very first game drive (where you go out looking for animals) took place at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary near Serowe, Bostwana, where we had camped the night before. Because of the huge poaching problem in Africa (despite serious efforts from the government to stop it), many rhinos are being moved from the huge national parks to sanctuaries that can be better protected, in order to keep the animals safe. Interesting fact: Botswana’s army does not fight any foreign wars. The entire force is deployed to stop poachers! Anyway, the sanctuary was absolutely beautiful and it was crazy to think that rhinos were free to walk through our campsite at any time! And they did, too – we found footprints! I guess that’s why our guides were so serious about us never walking around by ourselves at night.

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All set up at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana

Game drives typically start either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the animals are the most active. We had a 5 am wake up call for our first one so that we could be on the road by 6 – before sunrise! It is winter in the southern hemisphere right now, so it was freezing cold. Safari vehicles are open air, 4×4 trucks, so this time of year, tons of layers (and blankets) are required.

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Two jackets, winter hat, long sleeves, and two blankets, and I was still freezing – wind blowing nonstop in your face in winter will do that to you! However, the Flight Jacket (the maroon one) is AMAZING, as is the Firefly Hoody you’ve seen me wear a thousand times. I lived in these!

It was unbelievable to watch the sun coming up as we headed off on our drive. Since we had seen very few animals at this point (on the second day of the trip), even animals that would eventually become common sightings were very exciting! I think we all took about a thousand pictures of the first impalas we came across, which eventually would not even turn our heads. You get spoiled quickly in Africa.

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Beautiful male impala!

But of course, the real purpose of our drive was to find rhinos! There are two types: white and black. The white rhinos prefer open spaces and are larger, while black rhinos typically hide in the bush and are smaller. We headed out towards a large field and immediately found 5 white rhinos, farther in the distance!

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First rhino sighting! My heart was racing!

I can’t really explain what it’s like to see these animals in person and in the wild. I was more overwhelmed than I expected. I mean, imagine just walking into your backyard and seeing a rhino or an elephant the same way you see a squirrel or a rabbit! It’s nuts.

That sunrise tho

We kept driving further on, and came across a mother rhino and her baby just a few feet from the road! If I thought it was crazy seeing rhinos far away, try seeing them from 20 feet.

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These are real and I saw them.

I could have stayed and watched them all day, but we had more safari-ing to do. That’s a verb, right? We ended up seeing quite a few animals at the sanctuary, including a wildebeest that was also very close to the road. By the way, I use the term “road” loosely – it’s just a dirt track that the safari vehicles often drive on.

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They are kind of ugly but also kind of majestic at the same time?

The hours flew by and we also saw warthogs (Pumba!), a bunch of different kinds of antelope, and some birds. I immediately decided I’m a safari junkie and my new favorite animal is the rhino. Maybe I bought a shirt from the rhino sanctuary because I want to work there and live there and follow rhinos around all day. Maybe I didn’t. You decide.

If I was less of a psycho when I travel, our game drive at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary would have been the last time I got to see rhinos on my trip. Lucky for me and you, I had to do ALL THE THINGS while on this trip and could not stand to pass up a single optional activity. So, the day before the last day of my trip, I opted to head out on another game drive. This time, my friend Jon and I headed to the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in search of the elusive black rhino. With just 3,500 left in the world and only about 500 in the wild (the rest are in captivity), seeing one is a REALLY big deal. Stanley and Livingstone has 11 on their 6,000 acre property (this is considered the wild since they are in their natural habitat and able to roam), so we hoped that we would be able to see at least one.

I’m not going to lie – the morning was rough. Our group had a late night out and although I tried to head to bed early in advance of the 5:30 am wake up call, I was woken up a lot by people coming back to camp. So yeah…it hurt a little to hop in another open-air vehicle and face the cold! Fortunately, we were rewarded when we immediately came upon a sleeping giraffe – the closest one we had been to one at that point!

Sleeping giraffe

When we were asked on the first night of the trip what animal we were most excited about seeing, I said a giraffe. I mean, how can you not love them? In reality, my favorite animal ended up basically changing to whatever one we had just seen. They’re all captivating and beautiful. But giraffes are pretty damn cute.

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Please note the bird just chilling on the top of her head. Giraffes and I clearly have nothing in common.

And then there was…nothing. For basically the next two hours, we drove around with not even an impala in sight. That’s rare for game drives – every other time I headed out, we saw animals constantly! Between the cold and my exhaustion, I was struggling to stay awake and overall not feeling terribly thrilled that I had paid a considerable amount of money to wake up at the crack of dawn and see nothing. Of course, that’s no one’s fault – it’s the luck of the draw – but that doesn’t mean I was very happy about it. Then, all of a sudden, our driver got a call on the radio and took off!

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First black rhino sighting!

Two black rhinos had been spotted! We raced over to where they were and were absolutely stunned by how beautiful they are. I know beautiful might seem like a weird word to describe rhinos, but that’s how they appeared to me. They had come over to a large holding area where the dominant male rhino of the herd was being kept before transferring to a new park. Essentially, in order to keep the gene pool diverse, the sanctuaries work together to swap the dominant males out and limit inbreeding. It’s particularly important since there are just a few rhinos in each group. So these two had come over to visit the male – saying goodbye, perhaps?

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Hello, gorgeous!

We got to stay and watch for a few minutes before they ambled off into the bushes. At that point, I knew the whole thing had been worth it. I mean, we saw two of the rarest animals in the world! Incredible! Little did I know that a family of three was waiting just down the road. We started off and hadn’t been on the road five minutes when we pulled up right next to a mother, baby, and father rhino. Literally, right next to. We were not five feet away from them!

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Mama and baby
BRB, dying over the pictures of baby rhinos from @thetrexrunner. Safari soon, anyone? Click To Tweet

Although we had heard that black rhinos can be aggressive, these were not. They didn’t seem to notice that we were all sitting in a truck right next to them! The mother and baby were using their horns to dig into the clay in search of salt and minerals, while dad was hanging out nearby. We couldn’t believe our eyes as the mother got up, crossed right in front of our truck and then tapped it with her horn.

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Mama right in front of our truck! I guess we’re not going anywhere.

She headed off into the bushes, leaving the baby on the other side with the father. The baby became impatient and eventually ran across the road after her, leaving dad alone! He eventually decided to get up, too, and wow – he was absolutely massive!

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What a babe.

He finally headed off and we could not believe our luck. We had seen 5 of the 11 rhinos at the sanctuary in the span of about five minutes! Safari really is just the luck of the draw, and we happened to be very lucky that day. We headed off to enjoy a delicious bush breakfast and got lucky again. We pulled up to a herd of zebra right next to where we would be eating breakfast. They didn’t budge when we parked the truck! Although we had seen zebra, they were never this close before.

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They’re even more beautiful in person

On our way out after breakfast, we came across more giraffes! We got to watch as they ate out of impossibly tall trees. It was the perfect way to finish out our safari. I mean, you can literally never see too many giraffes.

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Seriously, they are stunning animals

Rhinos are definitely one of the harder animals to see while you’re on safari! In addition to their rarity, they can be reclusive, so if you have the ability to do a game drive at a rhino sanctuary that specializes in knowledge of these animals, I definitely recommend it! Those game drives were once in a lifetime experiences I will never forget, and rhinos quickly took the top spot on my list of favorite animals. Well, until I saw elephants…and hippos…and lions…more on that soon!

 

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18 thoughts on “In Search of the Big 5: Rhino Tracking in Botswana and Zimbabwe

  1. This is what I have been waiting for!!! So amazing and I’m sure the pictures do not do the beauty of the animals any justice. I agree with never seeing too many giraffes – they are just so elegant…if that makes sense? And the rhinos – just wow.
    Looking forward to ALL the stories and pictures!
    Welcome home…

    1. Thanks so much! There are so many more animal pictures to come. They definitely don’t do the animals justice. When I was there, I struggled between wanting to take photos and also wanting to just be in the moment. I tried to do a bit of both 🙂

  2. FINALLLLYYYYYYYYY
    So, so amazing that you got to see black rhinos, and a giraffe!!! I heart them. I was surprised by how cold it was there! I would have died, most likely. We all know this.
    Welcome home!

    1. HAHAHA girl I just got back Monday night! I am not a blogging machine 🙂 Funnily enough, although it was freezing in the morning, it would be quite hot in the afternoon. Big temperature swings for sure! I don’t know how you survive Chicago in the winter.

  3. What an amazing trip. I have never been on safari but I have a funny Rhino story from the zoo. In Miami they had just opened a Rhino encounter. I was with my young kids. My son was about 5 or maybe 7. Like many young boys obsessed with peeing and pooping. Boys are bizarre. Anyway, the encounter was supposed to be that you feed the Rhino but the attendant said that they are not too interested in that so he told me if the Rhino didn’t want to be fed he’d refund our fee. There were huge gates protecting the guest and also signs to alert that sometimes the Rhinos will “spray” you in a defensive maneuver. As it turns out that’s what happened. The Rhino came over and had no interest in being fed but did turn around and “spray” us. We shuffled out of the way and weren’t hit. My son was thrilled beyond anything that could have happened. Screaming with delight. And then the attendant refunded the money because we didn’t get to feed the Rhino which was kind of funny since I felt like we’d gotten a better show.

    1. OH MY GOSH, that is hilarious. I’m just envisioning your boys screaming with joy at being sprayed. Also, the Metro Zoo is THE BEST and I feel like no other zoos compare to it!

    1. Let me know if you decide to go and I will give you way more information than you ever wanted to know about it! I’m going to do a post about what the actual overlanding experience itself was like coming soon 🙂

    1. Sounds like you need to head a little further south, then! Tanzania is still on my list for sure!

  4. This is why I save the emails of all your posts – they are always worth reading when I finally get the time! Love all of this – and as always I get the full sense of just how amazing your trip on safari was!

    I did have to laugh about the bird on the giraffe … I love birds quite a bit , and we just put in more feeders :). Yet at the same time, at this time of year I tend to have birds buzz me most morning because they are nesting and protecting territory. They are generally pretty chill – just letting me know, but a couple of years on was pretty aggressive and I almost swatted him/her once.

    I totally think rhinos are beautiful and majestic – and am totally thrilled you got such a great chance to really see them up close. That is what I hear from people – how different it is from expectations in terms of the animals not really caring about you very much (unless you make bad choices).

    Thanks again for sharing and looking forward to reading more!

    1. I would stop running forever if a bird attacked me while I was running. NIGHTMARE!!

      I definitely can see how accidents happen and how people get hurt by the animals, especially at night. With rhinos and elephants and who knows what else wandering through your campsite, it would be super easy to sneak up on one. But with common sense, it’s really not too bad during the day — at least in my experience.

  5. I’ve been WAITING to read this post until I could THOROUGHLY and SUFFICIENTLY enjoy it and I am so happy I did.
    I am BLOWN AWAY. Wow wow wow wow. What an amazing trip! I don’t know if I’d literally have my breath taken away…or be squealing in glee at seeing such majestic beauty (both the animals AND the landscape!)

    Thank you for sharing this experience. This destination has now been bumped up on my bucket list!!!! When I do seriously plan this…expect to hear from me!! I cannot wait for the next posts!!!

    1. I would LOVE to hear from you, Caroline! I had some help and advice in planning my trip and I am not sure I would have done it without that help. Planning to go to Africa can be pretty overwhelming, but it is worth it! You’ll love it!

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