South Africa: 2016

By Darrell Sterling

Irwin Tam and his sons Stephen and Peter are avid conservationists and lifetime members of SCI, raising and donating tens of thousands of dollars to support wildlife conservation. Like hunting legends Jim Shockey, Scott Haugen, and Dallas Monroe, I booked my dangerous game adventure with the world-renowned Tam Safaris.

The Big Five has always fascinated me. Dangerous game and predator hunting is like adding hot sauce to the sport of hunting. It definitely gives you that extra kick. Now I wanted to do a green hunt and dart the mighty white rhino. Because it requires one to get within 30 yards of an animal that can – and has – thrown a Cape buffalo in the air like a rag doll, it is pretty dangerous. I saw it on a YouTube video and it’s worth the look, but maybe best to watch it after your trip! I was also warned that we would need to keep a sharp eye out for lion because we would be in lion country. I have always wanted to see a lion in the wild and was excited yet terrified about the possible opportunity. My son who is also a hunter laughed at me when I told him I might see a lion. He said lions stay so well hidden that I would probably never see them, but the lions would see me. I asked my guide Steven Tam if my son was right. Steven didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, that sounds right, but you never know.” The thought kept me awake many nights on that safari.

The first task was to get used to shooting the dart gun which is not as accurate as a gun, and has even less of an effective range than a crossbow, but Steven assured me we would get close enough for a shot. Then we headed out in the safari vehicles, covering plenty of ground. I was looking hard, but obviously not hard enough.

There are two rhinos to your right,” Steven casually remarked. “Where?” Steven directed me, and through my binoculars they came to life. At a distance they looked just like large gray rocks. As we got closer Steven decided they were not good bulls and weren’t what we were looking for, so on we went. We found a herd of eight rhinos with a couple of very nice bulls. The problem was they were out in the open, making stalking up to them nearly impossible. Steven really liked two of the bulls, but warned we would likely have little success because the terrain was not ideal. However, the trophy quality of the bulls made it was worth the effort.

We drove a way past them, stashed the vehicle, judged the wind and started our long walk back over to the rhinos. These animals are extremely smart. They lie down with their backsides to the wind so they can smell anything coming up from behind them, and see what’s in front of them. They also tend to lie in a semi-circle with one rhino standing as a forward scout.

The rhino seem to be like sheep – they know your effective range and will move off any time you start closing that gap. We had walked close enough using bushes, rocks, and anthills as cover, and were finally in position where we could no longer walk bent over low to the ground. It was time to low-crawl. We scooted, wormed, and crawled our way over the next hour, stopping and trying to get into position. I stayed directly behind Steven, our tracker close behind me filming the hunt. The rhinos were alert to our presence but hadn’t spooked. We could hear them breathing and rustling about. We were about 45 yards away from eight large rhinos.

“Ten more yards,” Steven whispered, gesturing to the prone rhino to my left. We didn’t even make it another five yards when they all bolted up and thundered away. The agility and speed was startling. The amount of ground they covered so quickly was frightening, especially considering we were only forty yards away.

The rhinos stayed out in the open, so we went back to the truck to see if we could find any closer to some rock outcrops or trees so that we could more easily stalk within range. We did find others, but none that Steven liked as much as the bulls in the small herd we had spooked earlier, so he decided to head back their way to see if maybe they had moved or broken off into two groups.

We found all eight rhinos. They had stayed together but had moved off into a small strip of trees with a ravine that snaked around, giving us a nice break in the terrain to conceal ourselves. When we went into the ravine, it became obvious it had been used as a lion’s den. The collection of bones, skulls, and horns was horrific. A couple of the kills couldn’t have been more than a few days old, judging by the rotting meat still left on the bones.

Steven marched ahead unfazed by the carnage we had just walked through. I looked backwards at our tracker who was still following me, and he looked unsettled! I intended to stay as close to Steven as possible. We finally got to the point where we able to sneak a peek over the ravine. The rhinos were close, but their advance scout spotted us and the group moved further away. I was starting to wonder if this was ever going to come together. The rhinos broke into two groups, and using trees as cover we left the ravine and circled downwind through the trees trying to get in front of them. The rhinos also bolted from cover, running at us as we were running toward them. It is one of the craziest moments of my life.

We stopped quickly behind a large thorn bush and the rhinos halted at the edge of their cover. Both animals and humans stopped and stared at each other through the cover. It was a Mexican standoff in the middle of the African bush. Both sides stayed frozen for what seemed like an hour but was probably only about ten to fifteen minutes until the rhinos lost interest in whatever was hidden behind the thorn bush. They began to relax and graze, but as usual one rhino stood as a scout while the others went about their business. Steven pulled me aside.

“We are only twenty yards away, hidden by the bush, easily within range,” he whispered.

I raised the dart gun, setting my sights on a nice rhino that I thought Steven wanted me to take, only to find out I was on the wrong one. The advance scout didn’t like the movement, and the rhinos started to slowly move away. I was still aiming at the first bull and was beginning to shake.

“Wait,” said Steven, “our target is the last in line, and he’s just emerging from a bush directly in front of us.” But as the rhino was starting to pick up speed to catch up with the others, Steven said, “Now, on the shoulder!”

I squeezed the trigger. It made a metallic click but the dart never left the chamber, and away the rhinos went. I was dumbfounded. Steven asked me what happened. I didn’t know. I had pulled the trigger. Steven checked the .22 round that ejected the dart, and it wasn’t pitted, so the firing pin never released. The only explanation we could come up with was the bolt of the dart gun must lifted during our low dash to the thorn bush. I was demoralized. We needed to have the darting done as the vet had been scheduled, and the sun was getting low. Steven, Mr Cool, was never rattled and didn’t hesitate.

“It was a mechanical problem. Let’s get back on them, they aren’t spooked too bad. Let’s go.”

I trailed Steven as usual, but my head was down and I was dragging. I was worn out from two very close encounters, excess adrenaline, and miles of chugging along in the hot African sun turning my tanned skin into a brilliant lobster-red color. The sun was beginning to set. Steven thought we could get one more try if we could hustle back to the truck, circle around and head back to the ravine. He thought with the group broken up, a couple of the rhinos might cross through the little ravine giving us our shot opportunity.

I thought it was a waste of time. All day they had outmaneuvered us, and at the one clean look we got, the round didn’t go off, which worried me. I also didn’t want to go through into a pile of bones left by lions that might have decided to return. I kept reminding myself of my policy to stay close to Steven, which I did. We had just started working our way around in the ravine when a big rhino bull ran into view. Steven motioned to get down and whispered, “When he crosses in front of us, hit him in the shoulder as he goes up the ravine.”

The massive bull was only twenty yards away. I pulled the trigger, and mercifully the round went off. The smell of gunpowder filled my nostrils and we heard the smack of the dart as it penetrated the rhino’s thick skin.

White rhinos rarely charge, so when the massive bull ran up the bank and turned to look at where the troublesome sting came from I figured he would just run away from the problem. Instead, he wheeled around, saw us standing there, and charged. He came at us like a freight train. A 2,000 pound monster with a spear on his head, barrelling toward us at about 35 miles an hour. Part of the charge was caught on video, the second half of the video being a blurry image of the ground as our tracker/cameraman sprinted out of the area!

I was frozen, waiting to see what direction the bull was going to go. Steven stepped in front of me, screaming at the enraged charging rhino, waving his .416 Rigby over his head. The rhino slowed a little, but keep coming. Steven yelled at me to move. I broke out of my trance side-stepping off to the left. Steven screamed even louder and waved his gun higher and wider. The rhino, agile as any athlete, turned on a dime away from the loud noise and bolted off to the right. Thankfully!

And that’s how I survived a charge from a white rhino at close range. If it weren’t for Steven I surely wouldn’t be writing about our adventure. The man has iced water in his veins. He calmly walked over to me, and reached out his hand.

“Well done, congratulations,” he said.

I believe to book a green rhino hunt with anyone other than Tam Safaris would be a bad decision – these two brothers are incredibly brave amazing hunters. I fulfilled my dream hunt and flew home with memories that will last me for the rest of my days.

BIO: Darrell is a successful big-game hunter who loves Africa and he has taken a variety of different species of big-game animals on multiple continents. He is also a free-lance writer who has been published many times by numerous outdoor magazines.