Article Words : Pete Oxford | 12 December

Roaming with rhinos in South Africa

South Africa's Marataba Reserve is practically unknown, despite its dramatic landscapes, Big Five wildlife and mega-population of endangered rhino

I was only a few metres from my front door when I spotted them. Two burning-red eyes reflected in the headlights. Leopard!

I quickly scanned the area with a spotlight: she had brought cat company. They had just killed an impala in the yard and, unconcerned by my presence, went back to busy feeding.

This is a sight I’ve seen before, living as I do in Marataba – 16,000 hectares of private reserve in the African bush connected to Marakele National Park. But still I was mesmerised. I knew immediately that one of the leopards was Lightning, so named because of the blaze of spots that shoot across her forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt. I stood transfixed and watched them well into the night.

Lying in the Waterberg Mountain Range, within the Waterberg UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the park I call home is only three hours by car from Pretoria in the Limpopo Province. However, if you ask any South African, let alone an international tour operator, if they know of Marataba or the Marakele National Park, the answer will probably be no. It may be surprising to hear then that, despite being so little known, the reserve is one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. Once smitten by the Marataba bug, it quickly gets under the skin.

Myself and my wife and photographic partner, Reneé Bish, fell in love with it a couple of years ago and are living here as ‘photographers in residence’ to tell the story of the conservation effort within the reserve. For us – with our passion for Africa, mammals and wild places – being in Marataba is a dream come true.

Animal house

A typical work-day begins at dawn, when I climb into my vehicle and set out with camera at the ready to explore the reserve. My aim is to document its wildlife – everything from dragonflies to elephants – which exists in habitats of immense diversity, from Okavangoesque bodies of water to prime bushveld studded with classic camel-thorn acacias. No two days are ever the same – anything can happen.

The day after Lightning’s night-time visit was no exception. I awoke to see that she was still outside; her male companion had disappeared, but she had dragged their kill into a tree and stashed it in such a way that – conveniently for me – the best viewing point was now from my bed.

I watched her for a while, then moved into another room and opened wide the French windows to survey the scene. A few metres from our veranda is a patch of water where animals often gather; beyond that sit the magnificent Waterberg Mountains. Anything could be out there. The reserve is home to the ‘Big Five’ – the old hunting term referring to the five most dangerous animals to stalk: elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino. At one point or another we have seen them all from our house.

Lions regularly walk through our yard and elephants are frequent visitors to our water hole – most often Bob, a large bull, and three of his mates. As part of the reserve’s conservation work, a few of the elephants have been fitted with satellite collars so we can see where they roam; Bob got his name as he now sports one of these, which seems to ‘bob’ around on his neck as he walks. It is quite a spectacle, watching the elephants frolic in the water, climbing onto each other’s backs, pushing and shoving in play.

If Bob and his friends are not there, then there is always Hippy the hippo. In true South African bush tradition we frequently braai (barbecue) in the garden which, in turn, often attracts the resident hippos – particularly Hippy. He is an exiled young bull, who displays a real sense of curiosity. Invariably he will approach to within 20m of us, to watch our comings and goings with a close eye.

Safe from harm

Aside from Lightning, Bob and Hippy, our yard receives regular visits from 25 different kinds of mammal and over 100 bird species. But of all the wildlife that comes here, it’s the white rhinos with which I have a particular affinity.

Marataba is home to an important mega-population of this species, and I have seen up to 20 of them in a day in the reserve. Over time, these prehistoric behemoths have captured my heart.

Before I knew rhinos as I know them now, I likened them – in my ignorance – to large prehistoric-looking cow-like animals that simply lumbered over the plains eating grass. Today, after watching them virtually every day for the past nine months, I see them as incredible creatures: animals with character, understanding and intelligence. Marataba and Marakele combined offer some of the very best white rhino viewing anywhere in the world.

But not everyone feels this sense of respect and awe. Poaching is a serious threat. Rhinos are still being killed for the value of the keratin horns on their heads. Easily sawn off and transported, the horns (averaging 4-5kg on an adult female rhino, 7-10kg on an adult male) are worth almost as much on the black market, weight for weight, as gold; once sold, they are used in the traditional medicines of some Far Eastern countries.

Back in the 1960s these great creatures were on the brink of extinction but, thanks to a handful of dedicated conservationists, they recovered. Now we are having to work hard to protect them once more.

It’s not easy. The cost of having rhinos (black or white) on your property is astronomical: it can easily exceed $10,000 per animal per year. This is due to the heavy-duty 21-strand electric fences that need to be erected to contain these powerful animals within protected areas, as well as the full-time teams of armed anti-poaching units necessary to protect them.

These costs, plus the personal security risk posed by the presence of poachers and the fact that supporting the rhino requires large areas of potentially money-generating bush to be kept clear of development, means many South African landowners are now de-stocking or removing all rhinos from their properties. The net result: areas with rhinos are diminishing. As a consequence the rhino population as a whole is suffering.

Held in trust

Heading out into the reserve after my ‘breakfast’ with Lightning, I spotted one of the most recognisable rhinos we have: ‘Half-ear’, an admittedly unoriginal name based on the fact that half his left ear is missing. Unlike some of our white rhino, which can be quite skittish, this big bull has come to terms with my presence. His summer weight can be as much as 2,500kg, but despite his awesome power he is unassuming, placid and curious.

Our first encounters were normal. I made a slow, smooth approach in my game viewer; he continued grazing but always kept a wary eye on my movements, ears pricked forward, nostrils flaring. We observed each other from our mutual comfort zones and eventually he would wander off into the bush.

Mid-morning in the dry and dusty depression of Lengau Dam a few weeks later, I was parked close to the water’s edge, surrounded by African bush. I was watching terrapins inching their way up emergent rocks to bask when I gradually became aware of a large grey shape the size of a Volkswagen Beetle ambling towards me.

I stood my ground and, within a few minutes, Half-ear was standing next to me. His tail – which, on previous occasions, had been curled tightly over his back – was now relaxed and dangled behind him. His thick, wide, muscular lips puckered and he let out a couple of deep snorts, employing all of his senses to try to fathom the exact nature of this large green ‘animal’ that smelt of diesel.

As I watched, perfectly still and completely humbled, the planet’s second-largest land mammal seemed to have come to a conclusion. We had accepted each other’s closeness and were content that each would do the other no harm. From that moment, we have never looked back.

As I saw Half-ear now, he was lying down at rest. I approached, and he stood. Then, realising I could be trusted, he soon started wobbling on his back legs before easing his bulk back down to the prone position. It seemed we were friends.

A leading light

Marataba Reserve, created by Dutch billionaire Paul Fentener van Vlissingen in 1997 and taken over by new owners after his untimely death in 2006, is still a work in progress. Over the past 15 years, 7,000km of barbed wire, 80km of high-voltage power lines and 100km of telephone cables have been removed. Cattle farms adjacent to the park have been bought to expand the reserve, 150km of game fencing has been erected, a small village has been built for the local community and much more. Game has been reintroduced and the encroaching sickle-bush tree cleared.

And still the work goes on. The road network continues to be expanded and upgraded, and a few animal introductions are still in the pipeline. The plan is to make this reserve a blueprint for other parts of Africa where national parks and private reserves can work to further conservation.

As I drive back to my house, stopping every so often to look for species such as brown hyena, bat-eared fox, bush pig, white-tailed mongoose, aardvark, aardwolf and pangolin, I spy Half-ear in the distance and know I will never tire of this place.

Photographer Pete Oxford and his wife and photographic partner, Reneé Bish, are based in The Marataba Reserve, Limpopo, South Africa working as ‘photographers in residence’ to document both the treasures and the rebuilding of the national park. Check out www.peteoxford.com for details of photographic safaris that he is running.

Marakele National Park is located in the Waterberg Mountain Range in Limpopo Province, near the town of Thabazimbi, around 250km north of Johannesburg. It is in a malaria-free area.

South African Airways flies London Heathrow to Johannesburg from £804 return; journey time is around 11 hours.