Magic in the sands of Desert Rhino Camp

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Between two rivers, the Orange in the south and the Kunene in the north, is a land of gravel plains, red and white desert dunes and arid bushveld. It is quiet here, being one of the least densely populated countries in the world, and seemingly barren. Prolonged periods of drought have ravaged the already dry country, but instead of stealing beauty from it, this has enhanced the mesmerising landscape. The diversity is captivating – how can a desert have so many landscapes? But more than this, how can anything survive here…

A lone tree survives the seemingly barren landscape

The dry cracked earth of a long gone river

We had had an extraordinary two days at the camp.

Tracking black rhino is the main event at Desert Rhino Camp and it did not disappoint. Prepped by our guides we set out across the stone covered hills until we came upon “Don’t Worry”, a rather uncharacteristically relaxed black rhino who allowed us to examine him from a nerve-wrackingly close viewpoint. Our guides and trackers then spoilt us with a beautiful picnic lunch afterwards where they explained the rhino tracking operation and shared thrilling stories of their time protecting Namibia’s rhinos.

Getting up close and personal with “Don’t Worry”

That afternoon we snuck quietly up a rocky outcrop, our guide assuring us there would be something special below. Sure enough – a small family of desert-adapted elephants was drinking at a spring, a surprising source of life in the sparse surrounds. The water slowly seeping out of the rocks had created a small but beautiful green oasis. While we had constantly been delighted at the beautiful sightings and scenery, it was clear that this was not a place where Kenya’s ‘Mara’ numbers would ever occur, making each magical moment all the more deeply felt.

Elephants at the spring

The last morning was cool for January, and so early, long before the sun began to rise we grabbed a quick breakfast and bundled ourselves into some ponchos to get ready for the almost two-hour drive from Desert Rhino Camp to the Twee Palm pick-up point where our 4x4 was waiting. I was tired after two action-packed days and was lulled to sleep by the slow rolling of the vehicle over the rocks.

We awoke to a sudden stop. A clan of spotted hyaena was loping ahead of us in the road. Our excitement was tangible! Predators of any kind in this stony setting seemed an incredible luck – and my partner and I are both avid hyaena fans! The sun had not yet peeked above the hills but it was light enough to see the distinctive red on their faces, showing that they had enjoyed an early breakfast. Their stomachs were round and full. Not only did wildlife survive here, they appeared to positive thrive. Every member of the clan was fat and healthy. Looking around we found the source of their interest, a beautiful set of horns was all that was left of the clan’s kudu meal. Some jackals were making the most of the hyaenas’ departure, when a younger hyaena decided to share in the scraps; neither predator seemed put off by the other and we watched in wonder as they fed side by side.

Hyaena and jackal feed in harmony

Urged by our guide to move on so as not to reach our next destination too late, we begged to watch just a little longer. Just until the sun broke over the horizon. It could not be more than two minutes more…

And then it came, the light streaming down onto the jackal and hyaena, framing the moment in a perfect ray of sunshine. Then a crow flew up suddenly, squawking frantically into the air – had the sun alarmed him? Jackal and hyaena scattered, red dust flew into the air and in a split moment a leopard jumped from a nearby bush, paws over the carcass, snarling!

Too awed by the moment, too entranced by its beauty, none of us had moved to grab a camera. The leopard noted its foolish attempt to steal bones from a clan of hyaena and began to retreat up the nearby mountain. The magic ended all too quickly.

It is a rule in the wilderness that patience is key. Sometimes sitting and waiting allows you to be there for that split-second moment that will be etched into your memory for a lifetime. The picture would have been worthy of a National Geographic award I am sure. The red dust, the perfect sunlight, the gorgeous cat standing guard over his potential meal. But the moment was worth so much more. We left knowing that we had taken with us a small piece of the magic that hides in the sands of Desert Rhino Camp.

Luckily, we did manage a small “proof” picture of the leopard retreating, just so you know it really happened…

Magic in the sand – can you spot him?

Photographed and Written by Cayley Christos

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