Anyway, back to the story of how Bismarck saved my life.
I was acting as a safari guide working in the South Luangwa valley in Zambia. This function entailed leading small groups of 6 to 8 people on a walk into the game park. As guides leading tourists, we would always work in tandem. I regularly worked with a local Zambian guy by the name of Moses. During a walk we would both lead at point with the visitors strung out behind us in single file. It was our job to get the tourists as close as safely possible to all game species and at the same time we would tell them about the respective animal’s habits and give out other interesting tidbits which were generally not common knowledge. We also stopped to point out other interesting bush phenomenon such as tracks or spoor, scat and territorial markings left by larger games such as elephant, buffalo and rhino. We also pointed out interesting insect and plant life to keep everyone entertained along the way when the game was not in view. These walks covered a distance of at least 8 to 10 kilometers and we usually set off just before sunrise each day at the time when the African bush starts its wakeup call.
Prior to the start of each walk we gave the visitors a briefing where we laid down the rules and advised them of what the drills were in the case of a potentially hazardous encounter with big game. The rules were simple:
Silence or talk in whispers at all times. Never run! All the game we would encounter would easily outrun a human. If things got hairy, the folk were reminded to follow our explicit instructions and to always position themselves behind our rifles and to allow us to ct as the final line of defence. We were trained as heavy caliber rifle marksmen but the firing of a “shot to kill” was considered a last resort. Instead we mostly relied on our understanding of the specific animal. Essentially, all game is territorial and they have their own personal space. The art is to never antagonize the animal and never to invade this personal space. Sometimes this is not possible because in thick bush, one could easily find yourself within feet of big game and a confrontation would be on the cards. In most cases, we would only resort to a warning shot if there was no chance of a subtle withdrawal. If we found ourselves close to big five game but in a downwind position, we almost always guaranteed a quiet withdrawal without the animal even being aware of our presence.
Now, prior to taking tourist out on walks, one or both of us would walk a new route and plan the walk to take us close to heavily populated areas such as water holes, thick wooded areas for cover and patches of open savanna. This was designed to place the tourist amidst the full spectrum of wildlife and hopefully get close to the big 5, namely, lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard. On one such “mapping” walk, I went alone armed with a .375 Holland & Holland and I took Bismarck along for company. He was very good at locating game and then just standing still with his head cocked in the direction of the sighting. Moses had informed of black rhinoceros sightings in a wooded area close to the banks of the Luangwa River and I wanted to see if the rumors were true.
Although there is no difference in their actual skin coloring, black rhino are very different to their kin, the white rhino. They both have light grey skin. The black rhino are smaller in stature, meaner in temper and there are browsers, preferring thicker bush. They have a triangular shaped upper lip allowing them to pinch off tasty bits of shrub. White rhino are grazers and they have a wide, flat lower lip. Originally they were named “wyd” rhino. The word “wyd” is Anglo-Dutch meaning wide and referring to the lip shape and not the color. Over the years, the word ”wyd” simply became bastardized into “white. White rhino also have a kinder temperament and are not as half as volatile as their cousins are. Another interesting difference is the way the females act when they have young calves. Besides both being murderously protective, the black rhino will lead a charge with the calf following in the mothers wake. It is believed that because they are mainly found in thick bush, the mother ploughs a path through the tough thorn and bush and baby follows mom along the fresh track. Because white rhino are found in more open grassland, the calves always lead the charge and mom comes trundling on behind baby. One therefore has better injury free survival odds with white rhino. You can get out of the way from baby before mom appears on the scene seconds later. They are fast animals with a VNE of at least 50 mph. Both animals have very weak eyesight but are blessed with extremely strong senses of smell and acute hearing. Staying downwind when approaching these animals is therefore crucial.
Anyway, I was cruising the river bank looking for rhino tracks, found fresh spoor and followed them into thicker bush and about 5 minutes later, the shit hit the fan. Out of nowhere, I heard and then saw a large black rhino appear out of a thicket. The rhino hit me on the right hip with its shoulder and knocked me into the base of a tree where I sat stunned. My rifle was flung away to my left and lying about 10 feet away. As I started my recovery, I once again heard a sound like a steam train coming from the same direction and baby made its dramatic appearance. I slid around the base of the tree to avoid being flattened and everything went quiet. I looked for Bismarck and saw him facing the direction the rhino had taken. He remained very alert and his attention was riveted on what seemed to me like a wall of bush. It was then that I realized that mom was on her way back. I tried to scramble up the tree but my right leg was lame and felt like pins and needles. Every time I tried to climb, I lost my footing and slid down. I could hear the rhino thundering through the bush towards me and I knew that I was going to be history if she got a good bead on my scent. I always used to pass on sound advice to clients when they encountered a rhino that was prepared to charge. Firstly, look for a tree to climb, second, if they is not one big enough to climb, find one to hide behind. Lastly, if there are no trees nearby, stand still and pretend you are a tree! Well, at least I had a tree and could hobble around the base and hope to avoid contact with 3 tonnes of pissed off mommy rhino. Even avoiding the 1200 lb baby would be a bargain. As she came closer, Bismarck stood his ground and started to bark madly. As she got nearer, I tried climbing again to no avail. Mommy then thundered into view, Bismarck leaped at her hind quarters and latched himself onto her tail…probably by accident more than his intention. She came flying into the base of the tree that I was cowered behind and I felt the impact in my back as the tree shook. She drew back and started moving in circles as she tried to dislodge a 65 lb mutt from her tail. Her widening circles of panic took her away from the base of the tree and I slowly retrieved my rifle as Bismarck kept her busy. I chambered a round and fired into the ground at her feet. She went absolutely ballistic and charged off into the bush again with a Staffie firmly attached for the ride. As the feeling returned to my leg and as I discovered to my relief that it was not broken, I followed at a slow pace. Unbelievably, this entire encounter had only occupied a mere 90 seconds of my life.
I found old Bismarck about 800 feet down the track where he sat panting in the shade. The rhino were nowhere to be seen. I returned to base camp, took some Voltaren anti-inflammatory tablets and sucked on a cold beer for both Bismarck and I. A toast to his heroism was in order. Needless to say, Moses and I revised the route to avoid this area. It would have been absolute chaos had something like that happened with 8 tourists on tow.