By Ron ‘Mahohboh’ Thompson

In 1964 in the then Southern Rhodesia I had several ‘dangerous’ encounters with black rhinos. This happened while Rupert Fothergill and I were engaged in the first year of the Sizemba black rhino capture operations in that country.

My first really close shave happened about an hour after sunrise one morning. The sun was bright and we were basking in the warmth of its early rays as we canvassed the ground along the edge of a dense jesse (thicket) looking for fresh spoor.
My Bushman tracker, Ben, our Batonka guide, Siamweri, and a casual josak (water bag) carrier and I had been out since before the dawn listening for feeding rhinos. Black rhinos are solitary and nocturnal animals, wandering about feeding alone all night long. We had discovered, however, that they remained for an hour or two out in the open, feeding, after the dawn. You could hear them a long way off in the silence of the still, cool, air … crrrrump … crrrump … crrrump-ing as they crunched the finger-thick sticks they ate. They went into the jesse between 7 and 8 o’clock, where they slept, doggo, until late afternoon. That gave us a window of opportunity – from dawn until about 7 o’clock – to find them out in the open.

We had heard no feeding rhinos that morning so we started to look for their fresh spoor instead. We were walking along, with our noses to the ground, 50 yards out from the edge of a jesse that was growing on the crest of a shallow slope to our left. Unexpectedly, a large pregnant rhino cow emerged from the thicket and made its way out into the open woodland. It began walking towards the dry streambed behind us, moving diagonally away from the jesse. That meant it would cut across our very fresh spoor within the next 100 yards.
I checked the air currents with my ash bag. The rhino was moving with its nose directly into breeze. That meant, if I tagged along behind it, it would not detect me.
I left my team and hurried off after the rhino, loading the tranquillizer dart into the chamber of the Cap Chur gun as I moved along. I felt sure she would stop to sniff at the ground the moment she came upon our tracks. When that happened I wanted to be within darting range behind her (less than 15 yards).
With the wind in my favour, I felt confident that I could get ‘in’ a good dart. I was totally preoccupied with the idea that I must get myself within darting range before the rhino stopped to sniff at our scent, and I was absolutely certain she would stop. Very soon I was loping along behind the rhino on the elephant path that she had chosen to follow. I was catching up quickly – when the unexpected happened.
They say you should always be prepared for the unexpected. But I wasn’t prepared for this surprise! Moreover, I was just 20 yards behind my target.
The rhino had been walking steadily along the clean elephant path so my tracks were directly on top of its spoor. My progress had been very quiet. And she was so close – almost within darting range. Within seconds I would have closed the gap and placed my dart into her buttocks.
The path in front me flowed gently down the slope towards a small, dry streambed. My team and I had been following that stream so I knew the rhino was about to come across our scent. I was moments away from the rhino’s anticipated stop. So, as I turned a sharp corner in the path, I prepared to increase the tempo of my hurried stalk. At that stage, both the rhino and I were in open mopani woodland. There were trees and saplings everywhere – nothing big or thick – but also nothing that was easy to climb.
Very slightly behind me, on the outside of the bend in the path, there was a clump of very dense and multi-stemmed dark green shrubbery. It was about 10 m across and one metre high. The plant was of the species Boscia matabelensis – a common plant in the mopani woodlands of the Zambesi valley.

Just as I turned the bend in the path, the rhino came across our recent scent. It was still outside darting range, so I stopped dead and I watched the rhino carefully. If I had carried on walking, the rhino – now standing still and alarmed – would have heard my footsteps! I still felt I had a good chance to catch up with her, however, if it carried on along the elephant path … but it didn’t. Not hesitating for one moment, it spun round and ran hell-for-leather back up the elephant path straight towards me!
I turned to run back along the path behind me and immediately saw the Boscia bush, now directly to my right front. I dived onto the ground next to it and scrambled round behind its edge. I still had the Cap Chur gun in my hands.
I believed the thick green leaves of the Boscia would hide me completely from the rhino’s view when it reached the bend in the path. The big cow was closing the gap quickly and was now well within darting range. However, the only target I had was its advancing head and horns. I waited and watched, fully expecting the rhino to turn the corner and to run back up the path it had so recently come walking down.

I was excited. I had a feeling in my bones that I was going to dart this rhino! All I had to do was to let it turn the corner and run away from me up the path. It would then be ‘easy meat’ – a simple exercise to place a dart into its buttocks from behind. It would be well within darting range for several long moments, and I had every expectation that it would turn the corner.
It didn’t turn the corner!
When it reached the bend in the path, the rhino picked up the scent of my very fresh spoor on the ground and it flew into an immediate panic. Erupting into a bolting gallop, the rhino dropped its head and, with its front horn sweeping the ground, raced directly towards me.
With lots of pfusss … pfusss … pfusss … blustering it ploughed right through the Boscia and, before I knew it, the rhino was looming right over me. I am quite sure that when it first hit the Boscia, it had not seen me! I am convinced it was just running away from my fresh human scent – racing away in a dead straight line as fast as its legs could carry it. I just happened to be located right in its path.
On one knee, I ‘stood my ground’. Raising my body, getting ready to fire my dart, I lifted my shoulders above the greenery. At that point the rhino did see me. For a brief instant its movement stalled. It flung its head high in alarm and surprise, and glared down at me with both eyes bracketing its long front horn. In that moment my world stood still.
The tip of my Cap Chur gun barrel was just in front of and directly under the rhino’s chin. I pulled the trigger and the dart ploughed instantly into the animal’s chest. The rhino dropped its head and came at me full tilt. We were now within touching distance.
I dropped the gun, and kicked my body backwards and to my left. This took me away from that long front horn. As I fell, I twisted by body round so that I would land on my hands and knees. It was my intention to then roll-off further to the right, the instant I hit the ground.
The rhino was now directly behind me and I couldn’t see it. I was sure I had evaded the main thrust of the animal’s horns but I didn’t know what to expect next.
However, even before my hands touched the ground, the rhino hit me with a sideways swipe of its huge head. I thought the sky had fallen down on me.

The heavy bones of its face slammed into my outer thigh between my left knee and hip. The smack further connected with the side of my left buttock and raked into the small of my back. Finally, the front horn delivered a sideways, glancing blow that ran up my left dorsal muscle and the back of my left ribcage.
I felt my body arching backwards, involuntarily, like an archer bends his longbow across his knee. Except that my body was bent across the side of the rhino’s head and its horns!
The enormous power of the strike threw my body fiercely to one side. I hit the ground heavily and rolled onto my back. There I lay, still and stunned, trying to catch my breath. The wind had been knocked right out of my lungs. My mind was awhirl, without a conscious thought or plan of action. The seriousness of my predicament was just too great for me to absorb. I was, for several long moments, so detached from reality that I did not fully comprehend what was actually happening.
For a brief moment I was conscious of the rhino’s back legs passing close by my face. Then it was gone.
I heard the heavy beat of pounding hooves … and lots of pfusss-pfusss … pfusssing sounds as the rhino galloped off. My breath suddenly came back – with sharp pains biting deep in my chest. I was beginning to realise that I was not going to be gored to death. The rhino had run away. I was not going to die … not that day anyway.
Ben and Siamweri appeared out of nowhere. They were kneeling by my side, asking solicitous questions. They were helping me to sit up. I had the josak thrust into my face, and it appeared that I was obliged to have a drink. The poor trackers didn’t know what the hell to do!
In fact, I needed that drink – long and deep. Immediately my head began to clear, and the aches of many deeply bruised muscles and bones started to make their presence felt.
I had no idea what it would be like to suffer such a blow from a black rhino. I hadn’t really thought very much about it. Mostly I was fearful of being gored – of having that long front horn rammed into my gut. The possibility of that happening lurked in my mind every day when I was tracking, at night when sitting around the campfire chatting with Rupert and when I went to bed.
Although the possibility of being gored by a rhino was often at the forefront of my mind, I was also in constant denial. It would never happen to me! So why worry about it? However, when it did happen – and I survived – the experience was somewhat of an anticlimax.
That one smack was, however, nothing like I had ever imagined. It was like being held by a giant, by both ankles, and being thrown by him, with all his might, against a heavy tree trunk. Except that it was the tree trunk that had hit me, not the other way round! The strike was a solid dead weight. I had been totally helpless within its power.
Now it had happened. Now I knew!
I was not a heavy person. I weighed at that time no more than 80 kg. I was tall, lean and athletically built, and I burnt off whatever fat my body accumulated with my very active hunting lifestyle. Had I been heavier, like many less active men of my age and height, there would have been more body mass for the rhino to move and I would probably have had bones broken as a consequence. So I was very lucky to get away with just bruises. But what bruises!

Ben and Siamweri got me to my feet. I was shaken to the core. My body was quivering all over and I was moving about insecurely like a tattered flag in a stiff breeze. I was ice cold, yet I was sweating like a pig. I could feel my eyes stretched wide open. I tested my legs – no bones broken. I walked a few paces. My muscles were responsive. I could walk – and as I walked about the movement got easier.
“Have a look at my back,” I instructed Ben, and I gingerly pulled my shirt loose from my short trousers. The tracker had a good look. Running his hands over my back and ribs, and following the fresh red stain of the new bruise, down over my buttocks below the waist-band of my trousers.
“Hah!” he exclaimed in amazement. “You are OK. No holes. No blood!”
I didn’t feel OK. I felt I had been worked over by a bulldozer. But the more I walked about, the easier my body functioned, and the quicker I started to return to something approaching normality.
But, my God, was I bruised! I could feel it, particularly, penetrating deep into the muscles of my left thigh – right down to the bone, up my back and over the back of my left ribs. I was limping very badly and I had a splitting headache.
“Did you get a dart in?” Ben asked me matter-of-factly.
My tracker knew me too well! I looked at him and nodded – pointing towards my chest. He smiled and shook his head.
“We going to follow it?”
“Of course …”
“Are you up to it?”
I nodded again. “I think so,” I said hesitantly, believing that the more I walked, the quicker my already stiffening muscles would loosen up.
“OK,” he said. And without further ado the tracker turned, and nose to the ground, he set off on the new set of galloping tracks left by the fleeing rhino.
“Just take it easy,” I warned him. Our eyes met and he nodded. We knew each other too well – he would not mollycoddle me. Nor would he overtax me. We would thus both retain our personal dignities – and we would find our rhino.
All the way along the rhino’s tracks, Ben was solicitous but unyielding. I had missed being gored by half-a-hair’s breadth. I was seriously bruised and sore – but not as sore as I was going to be over the next several days. However, the order of the day had still to be fulfilled. We had to find this rhino and get it back safely into the pens just as soon as we could.
It took us nearly two hours to find her, not because the tracking was difficult but because my pace was, of necessity, very slow. As I had thought, however, my body slowly loosened up as I walked along and I was able to count my blessings. What could have happened had not, and I was still functional. I had been lucky!
Later, when the rhino was on its feet in the offloading pen and breathing easily, Rupert inspected my injuries thoroughly. He got me to strip down and to lie on my tummy on my camp bed. He then applied a liberal dose of a strong-smelling liniment to my bruised muscles. The stench of what he called “his special muti” was dominated by the smell of turpentine.

“You were lucky,” Rupert spoke slowly as he rubbed the embrocation into my battered flesh. “Huh!’ he then exclaimed with an intonation of mirth. He ran a finger in a long arching line up my back, from low down up to the scapula on my left shoulder. “You’ve got the perfect side-on mark of the rhino’s curved front horn right up your back … but no broken bones … no broken skin.” He poured on more of the muti and rubbed it into the horn-mark bruise.
“You were lucky,” he said again, as if to convince himself this time. Again I did not reply. I lay flat on my belly with my forehead resting on my forearms, and I let the pungent muti soak into my bruised and aching body. It began to work wonders. Soon I felt the smouldering flush of ‘deep heat’ seeping into my flesh.
“The first time I got mugged by a rhino, on the Kariba islands, I suffered three cracked ribs,” Rupert said quietly, letting that information soak in. He did not elaborate – didn’t say a word about how it had happened. I hadn’t known that Rupert had had a previous run in with a rhino. He never spoke about such things to me. “Not … funny …” he said after a while, in a measured tone, as he rubbed the solution in hard. “Second time I was very lucky … got away scot-free.”
Rupert hadn’t mentioned any of this to me before! Not talking about himself was part of his intriguing, taciturn persona. I was beginning to understand why nobody ever claimed to really ‘know’ Rupert Fothergill.
Rupert been knocked down by a rhino twice – which is probably why he had hardly turned a hair at my recital of that day’s events. It seemed he had come to accept that getting knocked down by a rhino every now and again came with the territory. If you were catching rhinos the way we were catching rhinos in those days, the odd knock down was inevitable.
“What’s that muti you used on me?” I asked Rupert, as I was buttoning up my shirt. “Smelled like an embrocation.”

“It is …” Rupert intoned, gesturing at the bottle standing on the camp table. “It is a very special embrocation! I use it all the time. Have done for years. My bush medical kit wouldn’t be complete without a bottle. It’s much better than anything a doctor would prescribe.”
I picked up the bottle and read its label: Ellimans Royal Embrocation. There was a large CAUTION inscription in red which said: “Turpentine Oil … 31,9% m/m; Acetic acid B.P … 11.3% m/m”. And underneath that was a list of recommended applications: “For the treatment of Rheumatism, Bruises, Sprains, Curb, Splints, Capped Hocks and Elbows in Horses, Cattle and Dogs.” There was a black-and-white sketch of a horse’s head, complete with bridle, on the bottom. There was one other cautionary warning: “For external animal use only”.
It was veterinary embrocation and it had been in use for an awful long time. Its registration number was G36/1947. I have never been without a bottle in my medical kit ever since.
Later that evening I received a routine radio call from John Tebbit, my Provincial Game Warden and immediate superior, in Bulawayo.
“Don’t mention to him your run in with the rhino,” Rupert cautioned me quickly. “Just tell him that you caught a lovely big pregnant cow today, and that it is now well and safe in the pens. That will keep him happy. If he knows you got smacked around he will insist that you go see a medical doctor, or worse, he will replace you with some useless young ranger, without any hunting experience, from one of the tourist parks.”
That warning was enough to keep my mouth shut forever. ASM