Darting Black Rhino in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

Black Rhino at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve.

We were chased by a Black Rhino for about two kilometers. Or for four extraordinarily long minutes at a furious 30km an hour. The other rhino we darted never really went to sleep, so we didn't drill into his horn to implant the chip we were supposed to implant. Are those my most vivid memories of Tswalu?

Probably not. They should be, as that was where excitement erupted on our trip. But Tswalu Kalahari Reserve has more to offer than mere excitement. There's the little hut I stayed in for one thing. Not your standard mud hut exactly, rather a thatched palace-for-one (or two) containing much of what your heart, stomach, kidneys, spleen and other body parts desire. We were a clutch of journalists, guests of SABMiller, flown there to dart two rhinos and insert tracing chips into their horns.

Of course we were treated like kings or chiefs, the way public relations people tend to treat people with the power of the pen. Drinks, biltong, fruit, wine - all in your hut (you can't really talk about a "chalet" in the middle of the Kalahari, the word is redolent of snow); gifts of shirts and hats and beautiful books and body massages and breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, constant constant constant eating and drinking and more drinking. Responsibly, of course. Like it warns on the bottle. Yep, it was real hardship. The absolute toughness of Africa.

There was also beer, in case I forget to mention it, from Grolsch to Castle, Black Label, Miller's and - well, you can imagine. You know the SABMiller brands. And one breakfast was never enough: rusks and coffee before the game drive; rusks, biscuits, cereal, fruit, dried fruit, coffee, tea or hot chocolate on the drive served in a great setting in the bush; then finally a full breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato, fruits, jams by the dozen and everything else awaiting our return at the lodge.

No, we were never hungry. Let me not begin on lunches or delight-filled dinners in the boma, sounds and smells of desert Africa wafting over the longreed fence, vying for nasal recognition with thorntrees and braaismoke.

So darting an aggressive Black Rhino or two is not my most vivid memory
On the final of three days we - I use the pronoun broadly -- tracked some lion. A mother, two sub-adult rather large lions and four cubs, to be exact.

We watched the magnificent seven walk in front of us, raced our open gameview Landrover through the bush to confront their path ("better pictures with the sun behind you," explained our ranger) to watch the pride walk just two meters from us, between the vehicle and the mountain, before watching them lie down, have a perfunctory flat-eared fight as the mother exerted protective authority over the others, before she then nodded off to sleep while the cubs peered at us with curiosity and amusement. Ag shame. So cute.

Nah, but that was not the most vivid memory

Now the massage at the spa, that was really something special. Stripped to my underpants, face down on a bed with a hole at its head, I was pummelled and elbowed, the knots in my muscles eliminated, crushed, destroyed as if they were counter-revolutionaries getting in the way of a presidency.

All this done by a seemingly innocent and certainly beautiful woman, slim of shape but cruel of hand, elbow and thumb. Yet so relaxing I fell asleep in the middle of it, to be woken gently as a hot towel wiped oils from my back. The lodge we stayed at has a spa, secreted away from the lodge and the splendid pool and deck, which both overlook a water hole where buck come to drink at dawn, dusk and anytime inbetween. Birds flock to the water, notably sandgrouse.

Tswalu is owned by the Oppenheimers who allow grouse shoots twice a year. I find hunting abhorrent. Won't shoot 'em, but will eat 'em. Sorry can't really justify that, just the way I am. So it must be said these grouse shoots are sustainable stuff as grouse are plentiful here and breed well.

We spotted 55 bird species in the two-and-a-half days we were there, and, rather strangely, about half as many mammals. Buck abound, as tourist brochures often proclaim.

Springbok, Eland, Bushbuck, Waterbuck (imported and not native to the area, they are being weaned away), Duiker, Impala, Red Hartebees, Roan antelope and Sable and the desert Oryx recognizable with their twin straight horns in a sharp V. Buffalo, lion, giraffe, polecat, mole, meerkat, ground squirrel, warthog, anteater, aardvark. And two kinds of Zebra, Burchell's and Cape Mountain.

They were great to see. Despite the vastness of the almost-desert and the huge size of the reserve, herds of buck appear every few minutes as you drive. No time to get bored.

Tswalu breeds buck for selling and does so successfully. But nobody will list seeing buck as the highlight of the trip. As mentioned before, the real object of our trip was to dart the aggressive and short-tempered Black Rhino. Once one of the particular rhinos the reserve wanted darted had been tracked, a vet and conservationist went up in the chopper, one of those egg-beater varieties. They darted him from the air, we raced to get there before he dropped.

We've done this before in other places with other creatures, notably White Rhinos, so know you have to get to the beast quickly to stop it suffocating if it falls wrongly and to do the drilling and ear-cut marking, to measure horns, temperature, heart rate, breathing etc.

It should take seven minutes until he drops. After 15 minutes ours was still running. The vet gave him a second dart and he then dropped. We did the business - but he woke twice, scattering the humans around. Given the antidote, he struggled to his feet - then charged us! For a long time! I'm tempted to use three exclamation marks like an amateur writer just so you understand it was quite something!

We raced away like an off-road Schumacher through bush, over dongas, across thorny acacias and over anthills. He kept coming! Foreigners would have been frightened. I was stupid enough to just get excited. That should have been the most memorable. Or the second Rhino, who just would not go to sleep. The vet blamed the drugs for being a bad batch. Ja well no fine, I have friends who can sympathise with that.

Let me now confess to being a bit of a birder. Getting a new species for my life list, a list of all the birds you have personally identified, is a struggle. Cracking one new species will generally make my weekend, let alone my day.

From arrival at the airstrip on Friday afternoon, we climbed onto the game drive vehicle. Two minutes later I had my first 'lifer' - a bird you have personally never identified before. Burchell's Sandgrouse. Five minutes later my second. Fawn-coloured Lark. Within seven minutes my third: Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler. My guide was amused by my obvious joy, and promised he would try to get five 'lifers' before we left. When we left on Sunday he had handed me six. Marvellous.

Yes, that was my most memorable experience at Tswalu.

The six are in my treasured bird book and will be remembered by me forever. If you go to Tswalu you will have your own memorable experiences. Whatever they are, you will have so many it will be difficult to choose only one (you notice I cheated and chose six).

Game viewing, food, spa, drinks, atmosphere, desert, Kalahari, swim, waterhole, birds, sunset, a walk at dawn, a coffee at sunrise, a special lion sighting or bird identification. Perhaps darting a rhino or two.

Enjoy. Tswalu will make all your memories memorable.

Review by Peter Sullivan

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