DAILY MAIL The walkie-talkie spluttered into life: “Darts in – top of the rump – a mother and subby, COME DOWN HERE NOW!” As we scrambled to obey our orders, I guessed that this meant that a mother and calf rhino had been spotted, and that we were giving chase.
I was on holiday with Wildlife Translocation Services, two hours outside Kimberley in the heart of the South African wilderness. Shaun and Emma Rambert, stars of BBC1’s new series, Vet Safari, are the brains behind an extraordinary venture that captures animals and either treats them or relocates them to another part of the bush. Remarkably, they allow up to four paying volunteers to join them on a hands-on working holiday.
We were on Wintershoek game farm, a colossal ranch that stretches over 50,000 acres. It had just been bought up by the South African National Parks agency and the previous owner was keen to relocate his wildlife stock to pastures new.
Unable to move them himself, he had called in the removals men. Us. The capture and removal of wild animals is no ordinary occupation. As any pet owner will tell you, it’s hard enough getting Tiddles the cat into a box for a trip to the vet. Shifting a ton-and-a-half of rhino is a whole new ball game.
First up, you can forget about lie-ins. When you’re with Shaun and Emma, a 5.30am knock at the door heralds the beginning of a wildlife experience that most of us only get to see on TV.
Over a hearty breakfast, I was briefed on what to expect over the coming day. Five white rhino needed to be caught: a helicopter would go up with Shaun to spot and dart a creature and the rest of us would career after them in four-wheel drives. My adrenaline was already starting to surge.
All that’s required in order to take part is that you’re able-bodied, level-headed and prepared to take orders (it’s not suitable for young children, but teenagers are welcome).
In three vehicles, we piled across the plains, dodging trees and furrows, and bounced through the undergrowth in the blazing sun. Then it all kicked off. The chopper landed, we pulled up alongside and then an animal about the size of a Mini thundered past us at top speed – this was a ‘subby’ (or sub-adult) and he’d not been darted yet. Meanwhile, the mother, who had been hit, was starting to look unsteady. By the time we reached her, she was out. Emma (a vet) was monitoring her vital functions and Shaun seemed eager to get back in the air and chase down her baby.
A blindfold was stretched across the rhino’s enormous head and her huge leathery ears were plugged with a pair of Shaun’s football socks to keep out the noise of the chaos around her. In this business, some of the equipment is distinctly low-tech. But it’s not every day that you get the opportunity to scratch a rhinoceros behind the ears – or give her horn a tentative rub – and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.
She trembled from the effects of the tranquilliser and her deep breaths sounded like they were escaping from a steam engine rather than a living entity. Her thick hide was caked in mud. Being that close to something so powerful is unforgettable. Emma administered a small amount of a reversal drug to help the animal back on to its feet. Meanwhile, some of her helpers had built a ramp for her to stagger up into a steel-walled truck.
The commotion around us might have belonged to a circus or a military manoeuvre. It’s quite something to watch a score of men take a stoned rhino for a walk with nothing but ropes and a cattle-prod for protection. By the time we had her inside, the others had caught her baby, too. An hour later, we’d caught another mother and calf – this time the baby was only a year old, but already the size of a piano.
It was placed carefully in the back of a pick-up, and I got the chance to sit alongside, patting its head and rubbing the underside of its chin and throat, which was as soft as a puppy’s. We’d got our quota of five rhino by lunchtime and then headed off across the veld to see the animals get used to their new home.
It was a very long day and I was happy to collapse into bed at the end of it. Wintershoek is a game lodge aimed primarily at hunters and the accommodation was surprisingly comfortable. The company travels all over southern Africa and so the animals, the locations visited and accommodation options vary greatly. Luckily for guests, Shaun is keen to have creature-comforts because the work is so intense. Time away from the bush is spent eating and drinking well – and listening to eye-popping stories of the team’s adventures.
Next morning, I was at the boma, a green fabric corral used for containing the animals. I couldn’t believe that such a flimsy construction could safely contain anything livelier than a passing family of meerkats, but Shaun explained that wild animals – irrespective of their size – perceive the fabric walls as solid. Once they are inside, huge curtains are drawn across the mouth of the boma and the quarry is caught.
Like a scene from Apocalypse Now, the helicopter came buzzing in low over the trees. All that was missing were the strains of Wagner. What a sight. A small herd of buffalo – about 15 in all – came thundering into the mouth of the boma, kicking up red dust. Buffalo have the most fearsome reputation of all the wild animals in Africa, and are responsible for more human deaths than any other – lions and crocodiles included. Incredible strength, intelligence and a foul temper are a lethal combination.
As the herd moved into the boma, curtains were drawn behind them, pushing them further and further into the corral. Finally, they had been driven right through the boma, into a smaller area called ‘the crush’, and from there on to the waiting truck. It was ingenious. From holes in the roof, Shaun and Emma jabbed them with sedatives attached to long poles and waited for the drugs to take effect.
Gradually, the snorting, stomping, heaving beasts went down, and the process of blindfolding, ear-plugging and blood sample-taking began. Clambering into trucks loaded with buffalo is best left to the experts, and I remained safely on the roof with a grandstand view. It was a day I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
Each of the seven days I spent with Shaun and Emma brought me into contact with different animals. We herded oryx in the morning and went out looking for nyala to relocate at night. These antelopes are wary and escape easily during the day, so the only way we had any chance of catching one was to dazzle it with a search lamp and dart it with a drugged transponder.
When the darted nyala belted off into the darkness, Shaun followed his location using a radio receiver. Not that this high-tech gizmo did him any good. In the end, the animal was found by Tyler, Shaun and Emma’s feisty Jack Russell.
Even meeting Kudu bulls, a kind of antelope with barley-sugar horns and huge glassy eyes, Tyler was fearless. Almost. She eagerly stuck her head under the boma’s fabric wall. But when she saw how big they were she quickly ran back to safety. Privileged access to wild animals was what made this trip special. I’d recommend a combination of viewing wildlife on safari one week and then getting close to it the next – it’s unbeatable.
What an utterly extraordinary way to spend a week. If I put my mind to it now, I can still hear the buffalo thrashing around in the trucks. It was, quite simply, a journey into the heart of Africa.