Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New kids on the block in Zululand Rhino Reserve

Written by Hillary Gaertner

Good things come in threes. From fairytales to Hollywood blockbusters or, in this case, animal babies in the bush, the “rule of three” seems to always apply.

Zululand Rhino Reserve has recently been blessed with three different species of young. The reserve welcomed elephant calves, cheetah cubs and a rhino calf, which make a grand total of six new kids on the block.

Love has clearly been in the air and Rhino River Lodge rangers and guests have been soaking up the cute factor whenever the little ones decide to show their faces.


Ranger Frances Hannah tells us about her encounters with the youth of today as they so comically settle into life in the bush.

Elephant calves

“The two new elephant calves were born only one week apart, and I had a sighting of the elephant herd welcoming the little one into the clan. It was a lot of trunk hugging and flapping ears. A birth sac was found just up the river so it was definitely a newborn baby!”


White rhino calf

“We had a baby white rhino using the ‘speed humps’ as a ramp. He would speed up and almost lift off the ground as he sped over them as fast as he could. He would halt in a cloud of dust, turn around and start again. All the while his mom chomped grass in the field next to the road.”


Cheetah cubs

“We have two female cheetahs with cubs that we know of; one has two and the other has three. We spotted the mom and her two cubs on a red duiker kill, and the cubs resembled honey badgers with their lightening white fluffy backs. Only spotted legs and black tear marks gave them away as cheetah. Though they were less than three months old, they were tucking into their dinner with extreme gusto.”


There’s been a baby boom over the past couple of months but Ranger Frances hints that it isn’t going to stop anytime soon. “Not to let the cat out of the bag (pun intended), but we are led to believe that more lion cubs might be on the way.”

Hopefully there will be three new sets of cubs causing havoc in the private reserve soon, and the lodge’s “rule of three” will continue complete with great stories to be told.

Previously published on Africa Geographic.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Interview with a ranger: Frances Hannah

Frances Hannah is our head ranger here at Rhino River Lodge. We love Frances for her sharp sense of humour and calm presence. Frances may be a ranger by trade but she is one of the best writers we know and writes some of the best bush stories in the business. Frances shared a little bit about herself with us in the following interview:
Frances off duty; simply enjoying spending time in the bush

1.       What led you to your position at Rhino River Lodge?
I did a nature training course at a training provider in the area, I wanted to stay in the region as it was the bush I was familiar with. An opening came up in Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR) and I was in the right place at the right time. I graduated on the Friday, came for an interview on the Saturday and moved in on the Sunday, and the rest is history!

2.       What is your favourite part of being a game ranger?
My office always holds a new challenge and you can never really know what’s around the next corner. I am constantly surprised by my surrounds and its movements. 

Frances with guests on coffee break in the Msunduze River
3.       Any sighting on ZRR that stands out as your favourite?
It was cold and misty morning, we were on wide open plains and there were a few ostriches milling about in the open. I stopped, turned the engine off and was just taking in the setting, when like a domino effect all the ostriches started twirling in consecutive order. It was the most beautiful display I have ever seen and I’m not exactly sure why they did it. But the misty morning made it incredibly mysterious.

4.       You are a really talented writer, what do you find most inspiring as a subject?
When animals react to situations with a comical solution. I was once watching two lions laze about in the grass doing what lions do best: sleep. And all of a sudden a disgruntled black rhino appeared onto the scene and shook up the whole scenario by charging after a fully grown lion, the lion ran, tail between legs like a naughty school boy. I couldn’t wait to get paper to pen to describe the animals’ antics. 

5.       Do you have a favourite animal to view on game drives? If so, why?
Black rhino, they are one of the only animals in the bush that are interested to see you. Most other animals will turn an eye, whereas the black rhino is all ears and coming straight for you at the slightest whiff or sound. Its exhilarating, keeps you on your toes. 

6.       What do you love best about living in the bush?
Seeing the sunrise and sunset every day, the smell of potato bush in the evenings, the fact that when I call my family all they can hear is bird chatter. It’s an amazing lifestyle. 
On a cheetah sighting in the Zululand Rhino Reserve

7.       Any books on Africa, nature, conservation that you found inspiring?
I have read a few books by game rangers, it’s amazing how many stories one accumulates by living in the bush, never a dull moment! A simple act of driving to work or changing a tyre can turn into a story retold by the fire for years to come. Man with the Black Dog and A Game Ranger Remembers are a few off the top of my head. But I appreciate any story that has me glued by the first page.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Instagram Photo Competition Results

To celebrate the launch of our new Instagram account we ran a photo competition for all of our previous clients and the results were pretty spectacular.
Congratulations to Ashleigh Behrens @ashstormbehrens whose beautiful image of two lions won her a one night stay for two people.

Making our decision wasn't easy and we wanted to share with you some of our other favorite images.

Photographer Heidi Watson @heidzzn5 captured these two stunning images of cheetah.

Philip Morrison @pmorrison711 entered on of our favorite photos; this stunning lion.

Birds are one of the more difficult wildlife subjects to photograph. Ania Qazi @aniaqazi captured this gorgeous photo of a bee-eater.

Our winner Ashleigh Behrens submitted a few other outstanding photos as well.

Our favorite photo submitted of people enjoying safari comes from Daryn Kay @daryn09kay of this special moment of him proposing to his fiance at a private boma dinner at Rhino River Lodge. So sweet and we wish them a lifetime of happiness together as their wedding is approaching shortly.

Thanks to all who entered our competition. What a pleasure it was sharing all of your safari memories with you. Make sure to follow us on Instagram and on your future visits make sure to tag your photos with the hashtag #rhinoriverlodge.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Meet a guide at Rhino River Lodge

The life of a safari lodge ranger is one ruled by adventure, excitement and that little dose of danger that comes with the bush-life package. It sounds exhilarating to any of us with a love for the African wilderness and a hint of khaki-fever.

Rhino River Lodge’s ranger, Kyle Naude, shares a little taste of what it’s like to be a game ranger in KwaZulu Natal’s wild backyard. His love for the bush is contagious and his wildlife photography passion goes hand in hand with the job he loves.

We asked him a few questions about being a game ranger in a Zululand, Big 5 game reserve.

Q1. What led you to your Rhino River Lodge position?

The Zululand Rhino Reserve is a beautiful 23 000ha reserve with a huge amount of diversity within the park. What better place to do what I love doing? I think what drew me to the ranger position at Rhino River Lodge was, the outstanding opportunity for me to further my career in a very special part of South Africa.


Q2. What is a typical day like as a ranger at a Big 5 safari lodge?
A typical day for me usually starts off with a lot of excitement, especially not knowing what is going to happen on a game drive.

However being a ranger is not always a piece of cake and not always about going on game drives. Everyday tends to be a busy day. A lodge always has maintenance that needs to be done, roads that need to be fixed and bush that needs to be cleared; especially when the elephants decide to do some renovations of their own.

Q3. In your position, when are you at your happiest?

I would say I am at my happiest, when on a game drive and I look back and see the smiles of the guests, knowing that they are enjoying an experience of a lifetime.


Q4. Can you tell us about a funny, off the wall, crazy bush moment you’ve experienced?

We were out on an afternoon drive, driving along the river where out of the blue a female cheetah and her five cubs popped out of the bush.

We sat with them for 10 minutes before they moved into the bush, out of site. We drove on to see if we could find some lions, when suddenly we regained a visual of the six cheetahs. We had stopped pretty close to impala which were about three hundred metres away from the cheetah. We could see that the female cheetah was particularly interested in the impala and we sat to wait and see what would happen.

The cheetahs were edging closer and closer and the impala were unaware of what was happening. Eventually after about forty-five minutes the cheetahs were about 30 metres away from the impala. One of the young cubs, with half a tail, proceeded to move around the back of our game viewer, across the road from the impala. Now we had five cheetahs to our left, a large herd of impala in the middle and one cub to our right. After about five minutes sitting in dead silence, everything sprung to life.

The cub to our right started chasing the impala towards the other five cheetahs. Impala were running everywhere, and to my amazement each and every cheetah was chasing their own impala. We did not know where to look because in each direction there was an impala running and a cheetah on its tail. This all lasted for maybe 40 seconds, but unfortunately the cheetahs went hungry this time.

For me it was one of the most amazing sightings, not only to see the chase but to see a female cheetah with five cubs, all in extremely good condition.

Q5. You’re quite the star photographer of the Rhino River Lodge Facebook page. Tell us about your love for wildlife photography?

My love for wildlife photography stems from all the time that I have been privileged enough to have spent in the bush. Simple as that.


Q6: What is your favourite creature or scene to capture in your photography?

To be honest I don’t have a favourite scene or creature. Every day is different. The animals are always doing something different and the bush will always have a different scene to show. For me that’s what makes the photography interesting.


Q7: If you were to be turned into an animal, which would you most like to be and why?

I would like to be changed into an oxpecker, because I would love to sit on a rhino all day and be its personal guard.


Question 8: Select one of the two options and tell us why you chose it: Birds or Beasts?


Birds are, for me, a pretty difficult subject to learn. With so many bird species in South Africa, to study, it’s going to take many years of experience out in the bush to get there, and I look forward to that. I cherish my time in nature.

Post originally published in Africa Geographic

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Date with Rhino River Lodge's Wilderness

“I’m on a date with the wilderness!” This is what I kept thinking to myself from each sunrise to sunset during my two night stay at Rhino River Lodge. I was cuddled by mountains that made for the most stunning photo backdrops and defrosted by sunrises and hot chocolates as I patiently watched Mother Nature begin her morning ritual.
Early morning safari with Rhino River Lodge

Yes, it was a weekend long romance that was dictated by the rising and setting of the sun and I adored every millisecond of it. The wildlife also seemed to be on cue with the sun’s rhythm, which made for dramatic and incredibly moving sightings that the universe must have been smiling down upon.
Sunrise over the Zululand Rhino Reserve

Sunrise over the Zululand Rhino Reserve

The morning sun inched its way above the mountains, and as we began to shed our blankets and winter layers the “Ferrari safari game vehicle” came across the first big prize of the day, the beautiful bull elephant that happened to be in musth.

At this point he was amongst the trees, but as he became aware of the game vehicle, he decided to make his presence a bit more known. We were in such awe of this big guy making his way to our cruiser that we didn’t notice his male friend coming from the other direction. Did I just say friend? I meant foe!
Elephant sighting with Rhino River Lodge in the Zululand Rhino Reserve

But before elephant #1 made headway to elephant #2, he decided to give our hearts a reason to skip a beat. He came shockingly close to the backend of our cruiser. So close only his face could be seen when looking back. Our poor photographer tried to snap a quick picture, but because of the close proximity, her camera’s autofocus didn’t manage to do its job.

Our ranger, Kyle, handled the situation with such style and ease and slowly moved the vehicle away to give the elephant bull his space. We then watched from a distance as the elephant in musth decided to battle with his foe for the day.

Two elephants face up on the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

Only a thorny tree stood between the two grey giants. But if you saw the catastrophe of the surroundings, smashed branches and trees uprooted, you could tell a battle had been fought. Heart palpitations aside, it was a wild and wonderful sighting we were lucky to witness.

Large bull elephant in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

Fast forward to the sunset and re-layering of jersey and blankets. A cheetah greeted our path as the sky transformed into a pretty blend of purple and orange. I was officially convinced Mother Nature and the reserve’s wildlife were on some sort of secret wavelength.

Cheetah sillouehtte at sunset

There he was winding in and out of the bush, as our heads simultaneously weaved with every slight movement the stealthy creature made. All that could be heard was the sniffling of our noses as the nippy weather and colourful skies set the moody scene for our cheetah sighting.

Cheeta sighting at night in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge
We couldn’t believe that this animal, unsurpassed by speed, was so gracefully still and posing for our photography pleasure. The moment was ours and we didn’t have to share it with anybody else, thanks to the exclusivity of the reserve. Fast, fearsome, strong, wild, and oh so private setting to observe the cheetah at dusk.
cheetah photographed on a night drive in the Zululand Rhino Reserve with Rhino River Lodge

My date with Rhino River Lodge’s wilderness and welcomed wildlife was a record breaking 10 out of 10. Not a moment would have been changed, and that’s when you know you’ve found a keeper, or in this case a winning spot in the African bush.

Written by guest, Hilary Gaertner.
Originally published by ThisIsKZN

Outnumbered cheetahs outsmart wild dogs

The scene was set for a three part performance, and the whole extravaganza unravelled like any drama should. The only difference was that this was a real life bushveld sighting, not a film – and popcorn wasn’t included.

On a morning game drive from Rhino River Lodge led by ranger Frances Hannah, the air was crisp against our skin, and the blankets crept up slowly as we sped off in pursuit of Zululand Rhino Reserve’s new addition – the wild dog. The valley was shrouded in a thick cloud of mist; the rising sun was straining through the fog to reach our cold noses and trees stood silhouetted against the light.

view on an early morning game drive
The dogs had been spotted running across the plains but had disappeared into the thick bushveld. By now they could be anywhere. We manoeuvred the cruiser along winding roads, hoping to catch a glimpse of white fur at the end of a tail; our beacon of hope.

Winding the cruiser along the road
On our way up from the river, we heard the warning call of the vervet monkeys. The dogs were new to the reserve, but these monkeys knew the lingo. They were alarm calling from the tops of the trees, singing out to anyone who would listen that danger was near. We swung the cruiser around, and as we neared the river, there they were – all six dogs were scaling down the steep rock face of the mountain, edging towards the dry riverbed.

six wild dogs edging towards dry riverbed
Soft padded paws kicked up sand as they sprinted towards us, excited by the fuss we were making over them. A flurry of patches and big black ears circled our cruiser momentarily and then they were off in all directions. We began reversing but by the time we were over the lip of the river, the dogs had vanished, and the hot pursuit began again!

We swung around and began to climb the mountain slope until we saw a big grey, lumbering roadblock hurtling towards us!

Big grey roadblock
You could smell him before you saw him. His frame blocked out the morning sun as he towered over us, urine gushing out between his back legs, temples shiny with oily secretion and his trunk snaking towards our vehicle, investigating what this foreigner wanted in his wilderness. Once the formalities were over, he continued his hefty walk down to the soft river sand where he started devouring the lush vegetation on the bank’s edge.

The road opened to a wide open plane, and there in the middle stood six wild dogs, circling four sub-adult cheetah. The dogs chattered excitedly amongst each other, their tails erect in the air, white tips saluting the morning sun. This was the classic dogs versus cats scenario, but in the wild.

The cats grouped together with their backs to each other while keeping the dogs at swiping length. Hair stood up on their spotted backs and their teeth glared sharply as the dogs closed in.

Guide Frances explained the reasons behind the intense behaviour, “The wild dog and cheetah interaction was as tense as it was because the wild dogs are still finding their paws and are essentially ‘house shopping’. So when they find themselves in another predator’s territory by chance, they will either turn in the opposite direction or stand strong and face up to them… it all depends on the predators they encounter. They would have run from lions if they were caught in their territory, for example, but they stood their ground when faced with cheetahs.”

Wild dogs close in on cheetahs
Wild dogs each have specific rank within their pack, and as one of the excited smaller dogs at the back rushed forward, the dogs piled onto it to reaffirm the hierarchy. As the dogs battled with their inner politics, the cheetahs seized their chance and retreated to a thorny bush, which they used as a barricade.

six wild dogs
The battle continued between the curtains of bush until the dogs admitted defeat and energetically moved along, bouncing off each other’s adrenalin. We all took a deep breath; the sun was warming our skin and we were elated to have found the dogs in such an eager state!

It was a morning full of action fit for the silver screen that guests were lucky enough to witness.

Blog post originally published on Africa Geographic

Sunday, May 11, 2014

King of the Jungle

Stereotypes are way too simple, you know: black rhino are shy and retiring, the lion is the king of the jungle ... ranger Frances Hannah explains that what you expect is not always what you get.

I was approaching a block of open plane grassland, the male lion and lioness were well hidden in the long grass but I could see the other vehicle on a sighting in the distance.  I was making my way towards the other vehicle when a young black rhino bull stepped out of the thicket to my right and gave us a fantastic sighting, head held high, curious yet timid.  Once he grew bored of our clicking cameras he moved back into the thicket of knob thorns and out of our view, or so we thought!

We carried on towards the lions; the male was sitting in eager anticipation; he clearly was waiting for something from the female that she was not willing to give him.  As we were enthralled in the lion sighting I saw a dark figure come stomping out across the plane.  Mr rhino was not putting up with coming second best and he was making a direct beeline for my vehicle.   I changed gears to reverse, ready to get out quickly if needed, the young bull sniffed the air, he was out of range of the female lioness, but was about to walk straight past the male lion!  My heart was beating as the ground between the rhino and my vehicle grew less and less.  As soon as the bull got whiff of the male it was like a trigger went loose!  The rhino bull turned suddenly to face the lion a mere 20 metres to his left and our majestic male lion became petrified and skulked low into the grass.  The rhino bull gave one grunt and went full charge towards the lion!  The male lion took off like a cat caught eating the pet budgie; the rhino was galloping behind him with no signs of giving up the chase!

The black rhino chased the male lion right out of the grassy planes, over the road and off into the next field where the rhino diverted off up the road.  The male lion gave a few roars and moans, obviously feeling very foolish for being chased by a young rhino bull!  When the male lion returned to his grassy rest spot, his ego bruised and reputation dented; he felt as if he needed to re establish his manhood, so he went up to the female with determination and all he got was a paw to the face and a very unwelcoming growl!   Who did we say was the king of the jungle again??