Searching for rhino in the shadow of Spioenkop

Below Spioenkop, a battlefield notorious for courage and defeat in equal measure, is a valley so peaceful, so timeless that despite it's backdrop it is hard not to think of other gardens, biblical ones, where grazing antelope lived harmoniously with raging lion.  A lake covers the valley floor, early morning sun makes diamonds of the dew on the ridiculously green grass. 

The crenellated Drakensbergs are purple in the distance. Ancient cattle kraals, built by the first Zulus in the area from rust coloured rocks, crumble among flat topped acacias.  Antelope do graze, not with raging lion - a relief for those of us walking - but with warthog, eland, giraffe, hundreds of birds and possibly the most prehistoric creature still clinging to earth.  The White Rhino.

There are an estimated 17,000 White Rhino left in the world. Their name comes from the Dutch wijd meaning wide, misinterpreted by the British in their Victorian hubris to mean white.  Twenty seven live in Spioenkop Game Reserve, last year there were thirty; this is a creature clinging on for dear life.  But cling they do, fenced into the reserve and monitored by guards who risk their own lives to protect them.

A hundred and fifteen years ago this area was rather different.  Not only were there thousands more rhino with no-one giving a thought to their preservation - except possibly in jars of formaldehyde in museums - there was also no lake, far fewer trees and the valley was filled with troops negotiating the Tugela, a river that became a dangerous torrent in the rains. 

The Second Boer War was being fought all around these low hills, the relief of Ladysmith proving a logistical impossibility for the British, and as we walk among zebras and reed buck that barely blink, let alone run, we scour the ground for buckles or bullet cases that might have been exposed by recent rain.

In the 1960's the Tugela was dammed in a scheme that was meant to provide water for the farms around Uppington, nearly 1000 kms away.  Among the tracts of requisitioned land was  a farm called Rhino Springs.  The engineering measurements were slightly off, the water didn't quite slip over the mountains as it should, so the action moved over towards two other dams at Woodstock and Sterkfontein.  From this happy accident came Spioenkop Lake and the surrounding reserve

On the way back to the lodge, we spot three boulders in varying sizes, that move slowly and quietly under and around the thorn bushes.  A male, female and a four month old calf. They're not white, but they've got horns, really wide  mouths and they look very prehistoric.

Posted by: Alex

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