In a Rush to Slow Down: What I Learned by Coming Face-to-Face with a Rhino
A horseback safari in South Africa is the perfect cure for life running at full throttle. | Photo: Sophie Baker

In a Rush to Slow Down: What I Learned by Coming Face-to-Face with a Rhino

Always eager to keep herself busy, storyteller Sophie Baker struggled to slow down on a horseback safari. But as the days passed by, she realised nature had a humbling lesson to teach.

“Good things come to those who wait.” 

“Patience is a virtue.” 

I heard those phrases repeated throughout most of my life, as I raced from one task to the next. I was always looking for the next thing, always expecting immediate results. 

You see, I’m one of those people who knows how to work hard but doesn’t know how to relax. I’m often overwhelmed with guilt for not constantly “doing stuff.” Lying at home on a Sunday watching TV? I’ll spend the whole time thinking how I could be more productive. 

It’s probably no surprise that I took the fast lane to burnout. And when I did take my therapist’s advice to book a week away from work somewhere in nature, she probably didn’t envision eight hours a day in saddle with only my mount Castello between me and a trumpeting elephant, late night fireside chats with our German hosts, camping out under the stars with a pride of lions roaring us to sleep, and me climbing into bed each night exhausted from the day’s activities.

A horseback safari wouldn’t feel lazy or unproductive, I reasoned. I’d be keeping fit, chalking up new experiences, and ticking items off my bucket list. 

And so it happened that I convinced myself that a horseback safari would be the ideal way to spend a sweltering hot week in March. Named Wait a Little because of the wag-n-bietjie trees scattered across 30,000 hectares, the lodge within South Africa’s Karongwe Private Game Reserve — where the scene was set for my Big Five horseback adventure — couldn’t have proven more apt.

Initially, I was on edge, partly due to excitement, partly due to anxiety. Despite being a competitive dressage rider, the biggest hazard I usually face is my horse being scared of a plastic bag. Nobody needed to remind me that the stakes here were far higher. 

But the real reason for the slight feeling of unease had nothing to do with that. Truly, it was the knowledge that I can be a holiday spoiler. Why are we in bed when we could be seeing things? Should I check my emails just once more before we grab lunch in Hoi An? Take a nap or watch TV when we’re in the Alps? Absolutely not. 

Admittedly, there was little chance of the trip being boring. But the idea of spending eight hours a day on horseback and not seeing any of the Big Five stressed me out. I can ride horses at home; what if Wait a Little didn’t live up to my expectations?  

During the first ride, I was constantly thinking about where we’d go next and what we’d see. Would a giraffe be waiting around the corner? Would we be experiencing those up-close-and-personal interactions with elephants and buffalo? Could we at least canter along the bank of the Makhutswe River instead of walking along it as we tracked down wildlife?

As the days went by, I quickly realised that I had to slow down and just go with the flow. Sometimes we’d gallop along dusty roads as the African sun slowly sank, turning the surrounding bushveld purple and orange. Other times, we’d dawdle, quietly listening to the sounds of the bush. 

As we rode, I learned to appreciate the small things: a termite mound, a colony of ants marching along in single file, a lone porcupine scuttling across the undergrowth, or an in-depth discussion about solutions to rhino poaching with head guide Phillip, a horseman of note and a fountain of bushveld knowledge.

Of course, we did have plenty of those magical sightings. We were privileged enough to stand in an entire herd of elephants, who wound their trunks into the trees overhead, chewing thoughtfully as they looked down on us. A pride of sleeping lions lazily flicked their tails at us as we observed them from mere metres away — a young male even padding quietly right behind us once we turned and left. “Don’t worry, he’s just seeing what we’ll do,” Phillip said. “It’s fine. Just stay in a single file and don’t trot.” Sure enough, the youngster gave up on following us once he realised the horses weren’t acting like typical prey animals. 

There was one sighting that really stood out, though. After three hours of quietly picking our way through thorny thickets, battling stifling heat and dust, and traversing steep riverbanks, we knew we were close to some rhino. Slowly but surely, we ventured deeper into the bush, silently listening for signs of munching or moving until we found two rhino bulls standing in a clearing. 

Between the ears of my lanky Warmblood, Castello, I watched as one heaved a big sigh and flopped down to take a nap, totally comfortable in our presence. The remaining bull slowly sauntered up to us, wanting to take a closer look. Castello stretched out his nose in greeting. The rhino gracefully extended his own neck, and his wide lips touched against the muzzle of my horse. For a few seconds they stood, nose to nose in greeting. No game trucks, no cameras clicking, nothing. 

It’s impossible, when seeing the individual eyelashes of your horse up against the deep-set wrinkles of a rhino’s mouth, not to feel humbled. I sat stock still, almost breathless, as I mused over the fragility and strength of these two animals and the interconnectedness of all living creatures.

My trip to Wait a Little was the perfect reminder that, sometimes, slow and connected is better. I left with the realisation that you can have lofty goals and ambitions, but that on your way to the top of the mountain, it’s refreshing to take a break and savour the view of where you already are. 

I learned to accept that some journeys shouldn’t be rushed but rather drawn-out, deliberate, and purposeful as you take the time to, well … wait a little. 

Sophie Baker

Storyteller

Sophie Baker is a freelance travel, content, and equestrian writer with a decade of experience. She lives in South Africa and has been published both locally and internationally. When she’s not telling stories about the people, places, and cultures she’s encountered, she can usually be found cooking, tasting new foods and wines, or riding her horse. To find out more about her work or read more articles, visit her online or on LinkedIn.

Time to Read:  5 Minutes
Storyteller: Sophie Baker
18 December 2022
Category:
Local Stories - Nature

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